Pakistan's first nuclear power plant (using Canadian technology) was set up in Karachi in 1971, with the capacity to produce 137 MW. It was, for three decades, the only nuclear power plant in the country. Although efforts were made in the seventies and eighties to import more and improved nuclear technology-based power plants, they did not bear fruit. Weapon grade nuclear fuels and those used in power generation can be used interchangeably, hence the West's reluctance to provide the technology to countries outside their own sphere. The nineties were a time when China was gaining expertise in making nuclear-based power plants and the prospects increased for Pakistan to benefit from Chinese technology.
The first Chinese plant with an installed capacity of 325 MW was completed in 2000 in Chashma, Mianwali District, and ever since, China has been Pakistan's only source for nuclear power plants. By 2017, four units of 325 MW each were in operation in Chashma, with a total capacity of 1,430 MW. (For nuclear power plants to be built economically and based on technical considerations, a 325 MW plant was no longer considered to be an optimum size.)
In 2021 and 2022, two new plants with a capacity of 1,140 MW each were commissioned near Karachi, taking the total nuclear-generating capacity to 3,430 MW. According to the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), three more plants will be commissioned by 2026, increasing the total nuclear power capacity to 6,830 MW. According to the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority (NEPRA), the total share of nuclear power has increased from 10.9% (February 2021) to 12.5% (February 2022).
Nuclear-based power plants are expensive to build - in fact, the capital expenditure needed is an order of magnitude higher than required by other technologies. Roughly speaking, a typical nuclear plant needs five million dollars per megawatt to build, whereas gas-based combined cycle plants require one million dollars per megawatt and coal-based plants require two million dollars per megawatt (hydropower plants involve lesser capital costs relative to nuclear, they are still expensive to build).
Although not a typical case, the Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Plant (HPP) was built at a cost in excess of five million dollars per megawatt. The advantage of building HPPs compared to nuclear plants is that a large portion of the former's cost is incurred in local currency. Nevertheless, nuclear plants are extremely reliable as they can typically operate at more than a 90% capacity factor - tens of percentage points more than any other technology.
Apart from their reliability, the cost of operating nuclear plants is very low as nuclear fuel has a long life and can be processed for reuse. On the other hand, fossil fuel-based plants have lower capacity factors and higher operational costs and rely on imported fuels that are subject to price fluctuations.
The question then is, if nuclear plants are so attractive, both technically and financially, why are we not building more? Firstly, because of their high capital cost (mainly in foreign currency) - and recent reports suggest that the PAEC is facing difficulties in repaying loans. Secondly, they take a long time to build (six to eight years.)
Thirdly, Pakistan's national power considerations require a mix of technologies and face several constraints in terms of where the power generation centres are located. Fourthly, developed countries are haunted by safety fears, especially in the aftermath of the Fukushima tragedy in 2011.
Added to these factors is the fact that renewable-based energy solutions, mainly solar and wind, have become more financially attractive. It is pertinent to mention here that the massive increase in LNG and imported coal in the last two years has seriously jeopardised the operation of thermal plants, whereas nuclear plants have continued to operate without interruption.
In fact, one dreads the horrible scenario of power shortages, were it not for the 3,400 MW of sustained power output that is added to the system by the nuclear plants in Chashma and Karachi. Furthermore, nuclear plants have no greenhouse gas emissions, which makes them the cleanest form of power generation. Moving forward, while developing renewable energy is important, when it comes to thermal plants, more attention should be paid to nuclear rather than imported coal or LNG as it will ensure the security of supply.
Farrukh Mahmood Mian is former Group Director, Energy, Islamic Development Bank, and currently works as a consultant on sustainable energy-related matters.