March Issue 2014

By | News & Politics | Published 10 years ago

It’s no secret that Pakistan is faced with an energy crunch of unprecedented proportions. The present energy sources are not keeping up with the growing demands of a burgeoning population, and this gap between demand and supply is widening by the day. The crisis is so intense that it has become an overarching issue that impacts development, as well as politics. The 2013 elections were, in fact, contested on a two-point agenda: combating militancy, and overcoming the energy crisis.

In a country with as large and varied a geographical area as Pakistan, there can be no silver bullet solution to any of its problems, least of all energy generation, transmission and distribution. However, inefficient planning means that with gas reserves depleting rapidly, because of its indiscriminate use in the domestic and vehicular sector, and imported oil prices getting out of reach, other means simply have to be developed.

Hydroelectricity, by far the cheapest solution, fell prey to political wrangling, and fuel-powered plants have become too expensive and inefficient to make business sense. Meanwhile, the increased use of coal has been a case of ‘one step forward, two steps back.’

Other alternative energy sources have not yet been developed at the pace that they should have been. However, nuclear energy, which has always played a miniscule part in the energy mix, has recently moved centre-stage with the announcement of the K2 and K3 power plant projects, to be constructed right next to the (soon to be decommissioned) Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP) on the shores of Karachi.

The KANUPP has existed since the 1960s. Its contribution to the total energy output, along with the Chashma 1 and 2 plants, barely amounts to three per cent.

So, why then has the announcement of the K2 and K3 project got the citizenry and the experts hyperventilating about a project that is likely to add about 2,200 megawatts (MW) to an energy-starved country?

The anti-nuclear lobby in Pakistan has always had its voices drowned out, despite the fact that the institutions responsible for bringing in and developing nuclear technology have never put on a public face and have gone about their business. The benefits derived from this in the field of agriculture and medicine are also known to the concerned fraternities.

So, what’s all the fuss about? Is it because of the warnings articulated by nuclear experts like Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy and Dr A H Nayyar?

Both experts have posed questions that have resonated with the citizens of Karachi, who have amplified them by forming lobbies asking for greater transparency in the decision-making process of projects that are likely to have a significant impact on their lives.

In Karachi, a city of almost 20 million people, a nucleus of a citizens’ group took shape under the aegis of the award- winning documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, architect Arif Belgaumi and businessman Amin Hashwani. They were able to elicit the support of environmental activists, representatives of coastal communities, lawyers, media persons, and more importantly, people’s representatives from the National and provincial assemblies, belonging to the MQM and PTI, the two parties claiments to the majority vote-bank in the city.

In a related development, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Pakistan, which has a membership of some of the leading environmental organisations, and the Government of Pakistan, also met and decided to call a meeting of its executive committee and gather information before aligning for, or against, the project.

On another level, Subh-e-Nau, an environmental organisation based in Islamabad, also decided to take the issue to the people and broadened the discourse, as the audience there saw the nuclear power plants more in the context of an energy solution rather than a perceived threat, as was the case in Karachi.

To its credit, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) shed its introverted approach, and decided to address the reservations, fears and outright objections in an upfront manner by sending its project management team to allay their concerns. It went a step further by opening itself up to media scrutiny by arranging media trips to the existing plant and briefed them about the proposed project.

So what exactly are the fears?

First and foremost, Karachi is a coastal city with one of the highest population densities per square kilometre. At the same time, it is located atop an active fault zone thus posing a danger in case of any seismic activity. Adding to the fear are scenes of the recent disaster witnessed at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, which remains etched in the memory of many people.

kanupp03-14The citizens question if a similar disaster could occur in the event of an earthquake or a tsunami. The PAEC scientists present past trends and say it is unlikely. However, nowhere in the world has seismology developed to an extent where predictions about the timings, or the severity, can be made. The PAEC says the structural strength will be enough to withstand ground acceleration of 0.03g. The site is 12 meters above sea level, while the expected tsumani height for Karachi is 2.8 metres.

However, scientists agree that seismic data for Karachi does not go far enough into history. Karachi lies approximately 150 km east of the triple junction between the Arabian, Indian and Asian plates. A report titled Seismic Hazard in Karachi, Pakistan: Uncertain Past, Uncertain Future states that “a review of the known historical data on earthquakes within 500 km of the city shows that the historical record prior to 1800 is limited and unreliable.”

While this may sound comforting, this comfort evaporates the minute you throw climate change into the mix. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report highlights the risks for coastal areas of Asia.

“In Asia, erosion is the main process that will occur to land as sea levels continue to rise. As a consequence, coast-protection structures built by humans will usually be destroyed by the sea while the shoreline retreats,” the report explains. “In some coastal areas of Asia, a 30 cm rise in sea level can result in 45 m of landward erosion. Climate change and sea-level rise will tend to worsen the currently eroding coasts. In Boreal Asia, coastal erosion will be enhanced as rising sea level and declining sea ice allow higher wave and storm surge to hit the shore. The coastal recession can add up to 500 to 600 m in 100 years, with a rate of four to six metres per year.”

The report continues, stating that, “the coastal recession by thermal abrasion is expected to accelerate by 1.4 to 1.5 times in the second half of the 21st century, as compared to the current rate. In monsoonal Asia, decreasing sediment flux is generally a main cause of coastal erosion.”

The two-pronged effect of coastal erosion and rising sea levels is something that can nullify the difference in sea level stated earlier. Add to this the lethal mix of the increasing occurrence of storms and cyclones, of which there have been three within the last five years, two of them wreaking havoc on life, livestock and property.

The level of comfort declines further, knowing that the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) will be the responsible agency tasked to evacuate in case of an accident. Going by its performance during the 2010 floods, and the unlearned lessons of the 2011 disaster in Badin and the adjoining areas, one would be apprehensive.

Other than these external factors, the fact that China is building these power plants also raises some red flags. While the Chashma plant, which was built by the Chinese, has been running smoothly, the naysayers caution that the ACP1000 system being proposed for the K2 and K3 plants is untested technology. So are we to be the proverbial guinea pigs?

These plants are not even operational in China, a country which is aggressively trying to capture the nuclear power plant market of the world.

The soft loan of $6.5 billion to assist Pakistan in setting up this project, which will be built with Chinese assistance, is to open a window into this lucrative market.

PAEC experts deny that it is an untested technology. They say it is an upgrade of the existing technology. However, Dr Nayyer points out that certain parts of these plants were not being manufactured by China. While China imports these parts from Europe, a western embargo restricts Pakistan from importing them. Thus, China will be manufacturing the parts themselves, a project that they had outsourced for their own country. How does that work in Pakistan’s favour?

Since the Fukushima disaster, many countries have begun to rethink the use of nuclear power. Germany, for example, has taken a policy decision to phase it out and replace it with alternatives, such as solar power. The United States, too, has not built any new plants. The only glaring exception is France, which has always been a maverick as far as nuclear technology is concerned.

Japan had the strongest reason to roll it back. However, the trade deficit because of a fuel import bill to the tune of $12.9 billion at the end of 2013 had forced it to go back to the nuclear option as it was, after all, the source of clean, safe and uninterrupted energy supply.

It is this example that has been cited by the PAEC. The clean and uninterrupted element takes on a whole new meaning when beset with load-shedding and environmental concerns because of emissions from sources of thermal power plants run on fossil fuel. But how clean is it really?

Pakistan’s environmental laws make it mandatory for any infrastructure project to undergo an Environmental Impact Assessment, of which a public hearing is an integral part. One of the first, and insistent, questions when the debate on K2 and K3 began was whether the project had gone through this process. And if so, as the management insisted it had, where was the report, because no public hearing had ever been conducted.

It was then revealed that a hearing had indeed taken place, but ‘in camera’ taking advantage of a clause in the Environment Protection Act, which allowed such a hearing from experts for projects of ‘national importance.’ This lack of transparency was explained by the chairman of the PAEC as a necessary step because of the sanctions in the wake of the nuclear proliferation scandal. According to him, they didn’t want agencies to come sniffing after them. The approval by the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency has indeed been confirmed by it, though the secrecy shrouding it hardly fosters confidence.

In a seminar which included the Chairman PAEC, other nuclear experts and public representatives such as Senator Mushahid Hussain and former minister Javed Jabbar, architect and environmentalist Shahid Sayeed Khan said: “I have become less apprehensive about this programme. But environmental issues have still not been answered. Is the plant leaking radiation into the sea? They say no. But any facility can only take so much. They say that the plant can withstand a direct missile attack or an airplane crashing into it. But nature is a hundred times more powerful.”

There does exist a study conducted by IUCN Pakistan’s coastal ecosystem, expert, Tahir Qureshi. However, that had recorded the effects of KANUPP’s warm water discharge on the marine life, and there is a concern that this ecosystem that is rich in marine biodiversity, will be adversely affected by the two plants.

Having said that, Mahmood Akhtar Cheema, country representative of IUCN Pakistan, appreciated the openness of the discourse by the PAEC, calling for further interaction with the technical and environmental experts, as well as greater transparency in the process of the approval of projects that are being undertaken, especially near a densely populated city such as Karachi.

As far as technical competence and the past track record is concerned, the PAEC as an institution does inspire confidence. The safeguards of double containment in the new technology are said to make it safer than the one at KANUPP. Its compliance record has met the standards of international safeguards as well as of watchdogs such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

However, whether Pakistan needs to invest in nuclear energy instead of the cheaper hydropower projects which, in the words of former ambassador Shafqat Kakakhel, “have ancillary benefits and are huge generators of employment,” is a question requiring further debate.

But the time for debate is over, as the die has been cast. Work on a link road to keep the area accessible to beachgoers and communities living in the surrounding area is almost complete, as is the boundary wall cordoning off the almost 12 acre piece of land selected as the site for its construction.

It does not seem likely, despite public pressure, that the project will be relocated. Even though, Dr Pervaiz Amir, an environmental expert who is all for nuclear power plants, questions the proximity.

“By situating it further down the coast, the risk to Karachi’s population could be minimised, but that is not usually how PC1s are approved in the bureaucratic circles,” he says. “They would probably have settled for this option just because of the cost of laying transmission lines further away than this site.”

It is good to see people like Dr Farooq Sattar and Raza Ali Abidi of MQM, Samar Ali Khan of PTI and Senator Mushahid Hussain of PML-Q actively taking part in the discourse. More public representatives need to realise the fears and concerns of the residents of Pakistan’s largest city and demand adequate safeguards and transparency. So often in the past, we have had to accept processes as fait accompli as they had gone too far to be rolled back.

This practice must be stopped and there must be a thorough and open debate about all projects, even if the fears are unfounded in the opinion of the experts.

The openness and forthright manner being displayed by the rank and file of the PAEC is refreshing, but this should have happened at the conception of the project. In a democratic country, this amounts to subversion of the citizens’ rights.

This article was published in Newsline’s March 2014 issue with the headline “No Clear Answers.”

A freelance journalist, with an experience of print, electronic and web media. She writes, and trains media on climate change, gender and labour issues, as well as media ethics.