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Let’s go nuclear — safely

Updated Mar 14, 2015 08:34am
The writer holds a doctorate in nuclear physics.
The writer holds a doctorate in nuclear physics.

My house in Islamabad has been running mostly on nuclear energy for about two years now. Nearly eight light minutes away a highly efficient nuclear fusion reactor, using Einstein’s famous mass-energy formula, beams radiant energy towards it. A tiny part of this is captured by a photovoltaic array (German) on my rooftop and produces electricity for lights and various appliances. Heavy-duty batteries (Korean) are charged during daytime, ensuring that no one notices when the neighbourhood’s electricity fails. A vacuum tube solar collector (Chinese) provides abundant hot water. The gas connection from Sui Northern, unavailable without bribes, has scarcely been missed.

Frankly, I had been doubtful. The price (Rs700,000 then, Rs500,000 now) was substantial, and there are always cloudy days. But zero-maintenance with a lifelong guarantee, and sharply decreased dependence upon unreliable grid electricity, has ended those reservations. So far my neighbours have shown little interest — solar equipment is rarely seen on roofs in Pakistan. But during my recent visit to Shanghai, I saw few roofs without solar geysers or photovoltaic assemblies. Although Shanghai receives much less sun than Islamabad, I was told that house owners there rent out spare roof space for a hefty sum.

Solar energy, powering both windmills and photovoltaics, is now seeing a spectacular rise worldwide. This quiet revolution owes to improvements in manufacturing technology. The 11-country International Energy Agency reports that the cost of solar panels is down by a factor of five in the past six years and the cost of full photovoltaic systems, inclusive of electronics and wiring, by three. The ‘levelised cost’ (the total cost of installing a renewable-energy system divided by its expected energy output over its lifetime) of rooftop systems is now close to that of retail electricity prices in some countries.

Tokyo escaped because the wind blew away the radioactive clouds. But will Karachi be as lucky?

In the US, electricity from solar panels and wind turbines is expected to become as cheap as standard grid electricity by next year. In India, according to a report released this month by Deutsche Bank, solar will provide 25pc of India’s power capacity by 2022. China added a world record of 23 GW of new wind power capacity in 2014, of which 84pc has already been connected to the grid. In 2013 Denmark’s wind turbines provided a third of the country’s energy supply and Spain’s a fifth. Solar is expected to be the dominant source of energy worldwide within the next 15 years and generate $5 trillion in revenue. Although its intermittent nature necessitates supplements, new energy storage mechanisms have made much progress.

On the other hand, nuclear fission — which powers reactors — has a dismal future. Its global share dwindled from 17pc in 1995 to 10pc in 2013, and global investment in new reactors is about five times less than in renewables. China, which aggressively seeks to export reactors, now has six times more installed capacity in renewables than in nuclear.

Why the change? There are two reasons. First, the world now recognises that fission power makes less and less economic sense. The complexity of reactors, together with enhanced safety features, has sharply increased capital and running costs. Second, and more importantly, majorities in the US, Europe, and Japan think reactors are unsafe even with additional safety features. The Fukushima nuclear disaster, more than the Chernobyl one, has left people deeply wary of official promises.

Today, March 14, is three days after Fukushima’s fourth anniversary. Japan’s 48 reactors remain shut, and about 120,000 people are homeless. These nuclear refugees fear high radiation levels and worry about cancers, together with other radiation-induced problems. Three of the six reactors at the site had suffered a fuel meltdown and are still in a precarious condition. Using specially developed robots, removal of nuclear fuel debris is expected to continue until 2020 or 2022. Full decommissioning of damaged reactors will take another 30-40 years.

Japan was lucky. Although the nation’s leaders had spoken soothing words to the public, actually they had panicked badly. A 200-page report on the disaster quotes the chief cabinet secretary at the time, Yukio Edano, as warning that a “demonic chain reaction” of plant meltdowns could result in the evacuation of Tokyo, 240 kilometres away.

Tokyo escaped because the wind blew away the radioactive clouds. But will Karachi be as lucky? In 2011, even as explosions were still tearing through the Fukushima complex, the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority nonchalantly declared that a similar disaster could never happen here. It issued the following vanilla guarantee: “Due to geographical differences between Pakistan and Japan, the likelihood that similar extreme natural events may occur in the vicinity of the country’s nuclear plants is quite small.”

This is technically correct. Two extreme natural events are unlikely to be similar. But, how would Pakistan deal with massive radioactive release after deliberate sabotage, a terrorist attack, equipment failure, or operator error? The 120,000 of Fukushima could flee, the 20 million of Karachi cannot.

Fukushima did not open our eyes.

Along Karachi’s coast, the construction of two additional 1,100 MW nuclear power plants is under way. Of untested design, they are China’s first export of reactors to another country. A loan offer of $6.8 billion — larger than Pakistan’s annual defence budget — was an important enticement. PAEC, which will operate the plants, and thus hugely increase its size and influence, has recently orchestrated a public relations blitzkrieg. The nuclear plants are slyly linked with national security although, in fact, there is no such connection. A legal challenge by some of Karachi’s worried citizens has been effectively bypassed. Instead, the petitioners have been accused in court as unpatriotic.

Also read: Karachi's citizens fear 'nuclear nightmare'

Pakistan must indeed look towards nuclear energy, but only of the fusion kind. Cheaper by the day, small decentralised solar and wind units offer the best option for households. This will greatly decrease the pressure on gas, oil, and hydro generation and release energy for industry. Instead of chasing outmoded and dangerous 20th-century technology, it is time for us to follow the world into a cleaner, safer 21st century.

The writer holds a doctorate in nuclear physics.

Published in Dawn, March 14th, 2015

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