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Nuclear power is a zero carbon source of energy, meaning that during its operations, no carbon is produced or released. In order to achieve climate goal of limiting the environment temperature to 1.5 C, energy system has to be made carbon neutral. Hence the efforts of reducing fossil fuel based energy production and substituting it by renewable energy and now recently by nuclear energy.

There seems to be some controversy in the initial propositions of the COP28 conference; a group of countries wanted to triple nuclear power capacity and the other wanted tripling the renewable energy by 2050. The two approaches may not necessarily be contradicting each other. The total demand may be large enough to accommodate both; tripling nuclear power and renewable energy both.

Nuclear power has been under tremendous controversy due to a variety of reasons; nuclear waste, safety, and proliferation and even nuclear war. There were nuclear accidents such as Three Mile Island in the US, Fukushima in Japan and Chernobyl in the then Soviet Union.

In the last two or three decades, no nuclear power plant has been installed in the US due to a variety of controversies. It is amazing to see the US now supporting nuclear power tripling its capacity by 2050. Things are not certain really in these initial days.

Only today, there have been talks in the US Senate regarding the continuing risk of nuclear power such as nuclear proliferation.

Why is NPP (nuclear power plant) emerging again? Earlier, it was understood that NPP has gone forever due to the reasons and episodes mentioned earlier. The problem lies with renewable energy. Many people believe that renewable energy may not be able to provide enough energy in terms of quality and quantity.

In simple terms, sun shines in the day, wind blows seasonally; hydro is also seasonal. High storages are required for balancing renewable supply with energy demand. Fossil fuel can supply stable power but creates climate issues. Also, Fossil fuel runs out eventually.

Pakistan has been installing NPPs rather continuously. Total installed NPP capacity today stands at: two large nuclear power plants of 1014MW each have been installed and commissioned recently. PAEC has applied for the generation license of another large NPP Chashma Unit C-5 of a capacity of 1200MW.

CAPEX of this plant is 3.48 billion USD. Planned completion is by 2029. Nuclear power plants have played a very useful role in recent years when fossil fuel prices increased tremendously. NPPs have high CAPEX and low fuel cost. Their economics largely depend on the financing terms. Usually, such capital- intensive plants are financed at interest rates of 1-2% with grace periods of 5-10 years and repayment period of 20-25 years.

Among many resolutions in the proceedings on COP 28 held in the UAE recently, one important resolution proposed by some 20 countries was regarding nuclear power. Triple nuclear power by 2050. The proponents included the following: the US, France, the Netherlands, Japan, Canada, Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, Republic of Korea, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Ukraine and the UK. Among developing countries are Mongolia, Morocco and Ghana and the UAE.

It is strange to find major European countries such as Germany, China, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, absent from the list. The latter are the countries which have major nuclear installation and have planned a number of nuclear power plants for the future. However, these were initial parts of the proceedings.

By 2022, there were 440 nuclear power plants in some two countries with a total capacity of 390 GWe, providing 10% of world’s electricity supply. Tripling the existing capacity would mean adding 780 GWe additional capacities to total 1170 GWe. In 2020, NPP provided 2545TWh units of electricity— a 10% of the total electricity supplies. It means that the total electricity supply in 2020 was 25450 TWh. There may be some variations across various databases.

There are two main NPP characteristics that have made NPP attractive: 1. Gen-IV NPPs; and 2. Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). Most existing NPPs are Gen-II or GEN-III. Gen-IV reactors have the following characteristics:

  • Nuclear waste as remains radioactive for a few centuries instead of millennia

  • 100-300x more energy yield per unit fuel

  • a broader range of nuclear fuel can be used

  • potential to burn existing nuclear waste(closed fuel cycle)

  • improved safety such as automatic passive shutdown, double shield, alternate coolants

It is not known if the proponents of 10% NPP have included in this aspect to ward off opposition to NPPs. It would be difficult to get acceptance from anti-nuclear lobbies if such provisions as Gen-IV are not adopted. Certainly, European countries and Japan would insist on Gen-IV.

China has already developed and installed Gen-IV reactors in its own territory. This would revive the US dormant nuclear industry .COP28 appears to be a big success for the nuclear industry of the US. It may be noted that the US had led the coalition of 20 countries, which proposed 10% share of NPPs in world energy supplies.

Advent of Small Modular Reactors (SMR)

In earlier times, the technical wisdom was that larger the reactor, better its economics. Normally, 1000MW or more of NPPs were popular and perhaps may still remain for a variety of other reasons. Large capacity NPPs have a disadvantage: they require larger grid for safety purposes.

SMRs have been developed with capacity of 10-300MW. SMRs would be manufactured on factory shop floor with standard design and approval processes taking much lesser time unlike large NPPs, which take years in the pre-processes. SMRs may be installed even at factory level or on grid stations as a storage device.

Pakistan should also make a beginning in the area of SMRs in the form of JV with China. Some parts can be manufactured in China and some in Pakistan. It is wondered whether planning and regulatory bodies in the country are considering these aspects. In the case of large NPPs, Pakistan has acquired quite some local capability with the building of the last two NPPs. In making large NPPs, there is probably no option but to do many things on-site.

Nuclear market is expected to expand with COP 28 resolution. Already, the UAE is building 4x 1400 MW APR-1400 NPPs, three of which are reportedly operational. Saudi Arabia also plans to install a significant nuclear power capacity as well. It is time to recoup the technology investment back in commercial terms.

There can be many areas like training, testing and fabrications where beginning can be made. Nobody offers things on the platter. One may have to follow up with China to be slightly more generous with us in this respect. We need foreign exchange badly. A target of 100 billion USD exports can be only achieved if all eligible sectors take active interest in this pursuit.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2023

Syed Akhtar Ali

The writer is former Member Energy, Planning Commission and author of several books on the energy sector

Comments

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Cool boy Dec 18, 2023 09:16am
Due to not signing npt Pakistan can't just import reactors from any other country only China has sold few to Pakistan , As no other country has even tried to sell it to Pakistan, even Russia avoided. Pakistan can't even reuse the nuclear waste fuel as new fuel. The author needs to know these facts.
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