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Pakistan signed the contract for its first nuclear power plant KANUPP in 1965. Since then, during the last nearly six decades, Pakistan’s civil nuclear power program, led by Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), has been progressing with highs and lows along the path. During this time, it has faced difficult situations because of the embargoes and obstacles, but the program has kept forging on with Chinese assistance. Looking back, we can divide the progress of nuclear power program in Pakistan into the following different phases.

Phase-I (KANUPP: The Old and Gold of Nuclear Power in Pakistan)

The first Phase of nuclear power program started with the 137 MW Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP) built with the Canadian assistance. The plant entered commercial operation in 1972. At that time, nuclear energy had just begun to take off around the globe, and in fact, Pakistan rubbed shoulders with the developed countries when it became only the 15th country in the world to have an operating nuclear power plant.

The goals and ambitions were high at that time, and there were plans to capitalize on this capability by building larger size plants. In fact, PAEC was planning to build 600-900 MW Light Water Reactors with the assistance of European vendors. Specialized long-term training programs for these types of power plants were also arranged in Spain and Belgium. However, because of the nuclear test carried out by our neighbors in May 1974, the geo-political factors intervened to restrict Pakistan’s access to the global nuclear power market. Pakistan had faced all kinds of embargoes and restrictions, as it chose not give up its right of self-defense.

Pakistan’s limited domestic industrial infrastructure made the establishment of a fully indigenous capability in this domain infeasible. The growth of nuclear power program could not take place. However, Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission did keep KANUPP operational despite the unilateral withdrawal of all vendor support for it, resulting in cutting off its fuel, heavy water, spare parts, and all kinds of technical support.

In hindsight, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise as various indigenous programs were launched to ensure that KANUPP could be kept functional while meeting all safety standards. These measures included production of indigenous fuel and heavy water, development of manufacturing facilities to produce the required spare parts, and establishment of analytical groups to carry out the required simulations and analyses. In the end, PAEC succeeded in setting an example of operating a nuclear power plant with no vendor support. What really made it a success story is that except for one occasion, no government subsidies were taken during the entire life of KANUPP.

To make its ends meet, KANUPP supplied its electricity to K-electric at the average cost of production of K-Electric electricity. Thus, KANUPP’s  electricity to the utility was on a no-loss no-gain basis to them, and it not only met the electricity demands of the citizens of Karachi, but it also helped K-Electric in balancing the load demand and supply, because KANUPP was close to the Site area where most industrial set ups were located.

The fact that KANUPP operated safely without any vendor support, and was still able to meet all its expenditure from its own earnings established the viability and economics of nuclear power in the country. KANUPP, which has now been shut down after operating for 50 years, which included 20 years beyond design life, was truly the pioneer of nuclear power in the country because of the access to technology it provided, and the manpower that was trained for the operation and maintenance of nuclear power plants.

While KANUPP operated successfully with indigenous effort, the international embargoes did stall the growth of Pakistan’s nuclear power program for almost two decades, as PAEC’s repeated efforts to acquire the next nuclear power plant drew no response from the vendor countries.

Phase-II (Commencement of Pak-China Cooperation in the Area of Nuclear Power)

Because of international embargoes, the growth of nuclear power program of Pakistan had come to a halt. However, life and times never stop. By the eighties, China had established its nuclear industry and had started building its own indigenous nuclear power plant (Qinshan-I). The second phase of Pakistan nuclear power program started with the willingness of China to be our partner in the development of nuclear power. Pakistan signed a contract for the construction of a 325 MWe plant C-1 at Chashma, Mianwali district, using Qinshan-I as the reference plant.

The successful completion of the C-1 project (China’s first nuclear power plant export), and the safe indigenous operation and maintenance of the plant by PAEC led to the signing of the C-2 contract. By the time, work on C-2 started, nuclear energy was included in the Mid-term Energy Security plan of the Government of Pakistan, and a target of 8800 MW by 2030 was assigned to nuclear. This encouraged the signing of another two nuclear power plants, the 340 MW C-3 and C-4. All Chashma plants were completed within cost, according to schedule, and are now operating safely, yielding high capacity factors. Having four similar nuclear power plants operating safely and productively at the same site is something that any country can be proud of.

Major component (around 70%) of the cost of all the Chinese plants is financed by Chinese non-commercial loans. The loan repayment starts after the construction of the plant is complete, and the loan has to be paid back in 12 years. PAEC has been paying back the loans from the revenues generated by the completed plants.

Phase-III (Extending the Pak-China Cooperation to Large and State-of-the-Art Nuclear Power Plants)

While C-3/C-4 were still under construction, China had developed their 1100 MW advanced Generation-III nuclear power plant, and offered it to Pakistan. Pakistan gladly took advantage of the opportunity. The contract for 2X1100 MW plants (K-2, and K-3) was signed, and the groundbreaking of these plants took place in 2013. Consequently, there was a time when four nuclear power plants were under construction in Pakistan.

Until K-2/K-3, the financing model provided that the local cost component be met by the PSDP program. It was provided for all the four Chashma plants, but this model could not sustain itself for K-2/K-3 as the PSDP was not able to meet its commitment in entirety, and PAEC had to chip in by taking commercial loans to meet its financial commitments with the Chinese supplier. PAEC plans to pay these loans back from the revenues of K-2/K-3.

Performance of Nuclear Power Plants in Pakistan

With the completion of the K-2/K-3 plants, Pakistan now has six operating nuclear power plants, four at Chashma, and two near Karachi making a total installed capacity of 3620 Mwe. It is appropriate at this stage to give an overview of the performance of these six plants, make a  comparison of their performance with the other electricity generation mechanisms in the country, and the potential impact of the nuclear energy generation on the reliability of the energy system and the  economy of the country. PAEC’s nuclear power plants are operating exceedingly well, whether one considers their lifetime performance or their performance in any particular period of time. Lifetime production data and the data for the last five-year of the six nuclear power plants of PAEC are given in Table-I below.

A comparison of the performance of nuclear power plants with other electricity generating mechanisms of the country of the country is made in Fig. 1.

Cost-wise also, nuclear is an economical option. This can be seen from Fig. 2, which shows the cost of electricity based on the amount billed in a particular year, and the units exported for the last three years. These figures are drawn based on the data provided in NEPRA annual reports. Nuclear power plants are generating electricity at capacity factors in the range of 80%. If other power plants of the country could operate at the same capacity factor and cost, there could possibly be no energy crisis in Pakistan.

In general, the tariff of operating NPPs in Pakistan ranges from Rs. 6.61/kWh to Rs. 17.08/kWh. After repayment of loans in 12 years’ time using plants’ own revenues, the higher prices would also decrease to around Rs. 8 per kWh. This may be compared with the minimum tariff of thermal plants of RLNG (Rs. 21.86/kWh),

Thar coal (Rs.22.00/kWh) and imported coal (Rs. 27.63/kWh). Further, while Thar coal is indigenous, Pakistan imports a large part of its energy requirement. This not only makes our energy supplies vulnerable to international fuel price fluctuation, but also eats-up our foreign exchange earnings. The Prime Minister has recently stated that the energy import bill of Pakistan is in the neighborhood of USD 29 billion.

Nuclear does help save foreign exchange. During the year 2022, nuclear electricity generation saved USD 3,035 million in fuel cost if we assume it substituted oil imports, USD 2,027 million if it substituted RLNG, and USD 1,560, if it substituted imported coal. The nuclear fuel cost (USD 112 million) is adjusted in these numbers.  The loan repayment installments of these nuclear power plants do not exceed USD 1000 million. Thus nuclear is far ahead even without counting the capacity factor charges of the conventional thermal power plants. A lot of difference could have been made to the national economy, if another 2000-4000 MW of nuclear existed at this time.

Besides being economical, nuclear power plants are able to perform undeterred by water level in the dams or status of gas supply or fluctuations in oil and gas prices. While the total capacity of nuclear is 8% of the country’s total installed capacity, there were days when nuclear provided nearly one third of the country total electricity generation. This speaks volumes of the performance of nuclear as compared to its competitors. Nuclear power is also a clean source of energy, as it does not emit harmful pollutants and greenhouse gases (GHGs) responsible for climate change. By end 2022, cumulative avoidance of CO2 by operating nuclear power plants is more than 80 million tonnes.

PAEC also maintains an enviable safety record. Radiation monitoring of the land and waters surrounding our nuclear plants, as well as edibles from these area is part of the normal routine. There are well-documented emergency plans drawn up in collaboration with national and provincial bodies to deal with any eventuality for all these power plants. Pakistan also continues to abide by international norms and standards in this arena. All our civil nuclear power plants are under IAEA safeguards. Pakistan is a signatory to many international conventions including those on safety and physical protection.

Phase-IV (Financial Self-Reliance in the Promotion of Nuclear Power: Vision 2050)

The availability of large size nuclear power plants and the safe and economic operation of the already built plants led to NCA Vision-2050, jointly developed by SPD and PAEC. Vision 2050 extended the Mid-term Energy Security Plan of 8,800 MW to 42,000 MW of nuclear by 2050. In fact, with the completion of K-2/K-3, PAEC has now entered the fourth phase of its civil nuclear energy program. Up until K-2/K-3, nuclear power projects were funded by PSDP and Chinese loans. With the revenues generated by Chashma plants and the K-2/K-3 plants, PAEC can now build large size nuclear power plants on a self-finance basis by substituting the PSDP support with its own resources. Chinese loans would still be required. However, Vision-2050 does not require any financial support from the PSDP program.

This financial independence was the cornerstone of Vision-2050, where after K-2/K-3, all nuclear power plants were to be self-financed by PAEC with the assistance of Chinese loans, which were to be paid back from the plant revenues. All these data and performance show a lot of promise for nuclear in Pakistan. However, no nuclear power plant groundbreaking has taken place since 2013, and Pakistan is yet to enter the fourth phase of construction of nuclear power plants. In fact, nuclear is not included in the Indicative Generation Capacity Expansion IGCEP 2022-31 because of certain assumptions used in capital cost calculations, which disfavor nuclear.

In the IGCEP, there is great reliance on wind and solar, which is good. However, there are issues with these renewables as well, and it is too early to draw conclusions. The cost of solar cells has recently doubled. Electricity storage is still expensive. The operators of wind plants already built in Pakistan are worried because their power is not being evacuated because the system cannot handle their power fluctuations. Regardless of all of this, there is always the requirement of base-load electricity provider if the country has to make any industrial growth.

Thar coal provides an indigenous base-load option but it is located in the South. Coal transportation would be expensive and cumbersome. Hydro is feasible only in the North, and it is also seasonal. Nuclear can provide reliable, economical, and safe base-load electricity in central part of the country and elsewhere. Here one must also keep in mind that emphasis should be laid on diversity, and not all eggs should be put in the same basket.

There are, therefore, many reasons why nuclear power plants must continually be added as safe, clean, reliable, and economical base-load electricity providers. There should be at least one or two nuclear powers plants under construction at any point in time. This would only ensure reliable supply to meet the increasing energy demand, but would also ensure that PAEC remains abreast with latest technology in the area of nuclear power plants and is not left behind. This can easily happen, as has been the case with the developed countries, which discontinued their nuclear power program, and are facing difficulties these days in reviving their nuclear power program.

While PAEC has been able to overcome the continuing inequitable and discriminatory policies in the international arena with the help of China, it would be unfortunate if nuclear power program were stalled because of internal financial and planning issues.

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