KARACHI: An environmental impact assessment (EIA) study of the twin nuclear power plants to be built in the Paradise Point area had been conducted by the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) and was heard by an expert committee constituted by the Sindh Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) last year, sources told Dawn.
A public hearing, however, was not held on PAEC’s request, they said, adding that Sepa issued a no-objection certificate (NOC) to the PAEC four to five months ago.
Speaking to Dawn, Sepa’s Director-Technical Waqar Hussain Phulpoto confirmed that the agency had approved the project after its expert committee found it satisfactory. But, he refused to tell the names of the experts chosen for the hearing.
“They are neither our employees nor we pay them. They just came on a request. If we start giving media their personal details, they would decline to come next time and we can’t afford that risk,” Mr Phulpoto explained.
Experts were usually senior professors serving at universities, he added.
According to Sepa official, the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act, 1997, had the provision to skip the public hearing of an EIA if the case was of ‘national importance’.
The PAEC, he said, requested in writing that the project should not be discussed on a public platform since it was a sensitive and strategic matter. “We accepted the request since it is allowed under the law and held a hearing by an expert committee only.
“The performance of Sepa in holding public hearings of EIAs is much better if you compare it with other provinces where there are no hearings on national projects,” he argued.
When it was pointed out to him that the 1994 Act has provided provision of withholding information relating to matters of national interest during a public hearing that is mandatory under the law, he said that it would create a lot of hue and cry if some information was not shared during a hearing.
To questions regarding the site’s location that lies close to the city and lack of an emergency plan for the project, he said that the plants would be built near the old nuclear plant (Kanupp) that had successfully run for decades.
“We believe that all precautions would be followed. I haven’t gone through the EIA report myself so I don’t know whether an evacuation plan in case of a disaster exists. If there isn’t, we will ask them to do so. Another NOC would be required at the time of construction of main reactors’ building,” he said.
When asked why Sepa did not insist for exploring renewable energy options as the province has plenty of wind and sun the whole year, he replied that the agency supported natural solutions to energy crisis but it was not a practical approach.
“Electricity shortfall has increased from 2,500 to 6,000 megawatts in the country in two years. The agency believes that we can’t rely on just one source and needs to explore multiple options,” he remarked.
Best location for project
Replying through an email to concerns on the selection of the site located close to human population, Project Director K-2 and K3 Azfar Minhaj said: “Technically it is the best location with an exclusion area and LPZ (Low Population Zone) as per PNRA (Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority) regulations.”
The site selection process, he said, considered geology and hydrology of the area, the nearby population, risk of flooding, possible effects to nearby industry, availability of heat sink, transportation routes, metrological conditions and many other factors.
“We requested Sepa not to hold a public hearing because of international politics but all other formalities were met. There is a lot of support for the project since it is economical (electricity from the plants will cost less than Rs10 per unit in 2021 and for all years beyond).The PAEC respects concerns over nuclear safety,” he said in response to a question.
Regarding objections over the reactors’ design (ACP-1000) that has not been tested, Mr Minhaj contended that today China was the world leader in nuclear power technology and was currently building 29 plants of different types.
“The ACP1000 is also planned. Should we wait for 30 years till it is built and tested? Would you desist from placing order for a new car only because it is has a new airbag system that hasn’t been tested in an accident.
“The reactor system in the new design is based on the PWR (Pressurized Water Reactor) concept that has been the work-horse of the nuclear industry for the past five decades. The Chashma plants are examples closer to home of that basic concept. There are only some additional safety systems in the new design to make the plant safer.”
About an evacuation plan in case of an emergency, he said: “The emergency plan has been submitted to PNRA. At the site we have the advantage of having Kanupp that has been operating for the past 41 years for which an emergency plan, duly approved by local, provincial and national authorities, has been in place and regularly tested.”
To criticism to the site selection report that it underestimated vulnerability of the area to earthquakes, Mr Minhaj explained that the report in fact overestimated earthquake risk. Many studies had been carried out for the Karachi nuclear power plant site to ensure that the plant would survive the largest earthquake and tsunami that could be expected in the region.
“The maximum predicted earthquake could produce a ground acceleration of 0.2g, while the plant has been designed to withstand a ground acceleration of 0.3g, which provides an additional very large safety margin. Similarly, maximum predicted Tsunami is of around 2.8m, while the plant will be at 12m.”
The population data in the site evaluation report, he said, used the value from the last census of 1998 (as the starting point) and then projected it at the officially recommended rate to obtain the estimated population for 2008, the year in which the report was submitted to the PNRA.
“The PAEC surveyed area up to 16km for projected population as that area is mainly important for emergency planning. Therefore, population of Musharaf Colony has been catered for, which otherwise does not exist in the last census,” he said.