Nuclear Energy to Counter Climate Change and Meet Pakistan’s Energy Demands

Pakistan is still struggling to deal with the aftermath of massive floods in the summer of 2022. The year has been devastating for Pakistan, given the floods due to excessive monsoon rains and melting glaciers in the north.

The floods affected more than 33 million people, and more than 1,700 people lost their lives. It also damaged or destroyed more than 2.2 million houses and caused more than $30 billion in damages and economic losses. People are facing a range of humanitarian challenges, from the destruction of crops, food shortages, and malnutrition to the risks of permanent school dropouts and poverty. According to a United Nations report, around 10 million people are still lacking access to safe drinking water, relying mostly on contaminated water which is resulting in a number of diseases.

The situation was largely complicated by factors including poor readiness to mitigate the effects of floods and ineffective handling of the situation due to resource constraints. Pakistan’s response and tackling of the humanitarian crisis was further hit by the country’s already weak economy and an unsatisfactory international response and aid. At the International Conference on Climate Resilient Pakistan in Geneva to review the recovery, reconstruction, and rehabilitation of affected people, the international community pledged more than $9 billion in financial support. But after almost three months, little has materialised for the affected people.

Currently, Pakistan has a lower share of renewable and clean sources in its energy mix, at 3% from renewable and 12% from nuclear power.

Two of the biggest contributing factors behind the severity of floods are climate change and increasing reliance on fossil fuels to generate electricity. Climate change has also been termed a national security emergency. Pakistan is among the 10 most vulnerable countries on the Climate Risk Index despite being the least responsible for carbon emissions in the atmosphere.

The country is facing a dual challenge of failing to produce enough electricity from clean sources and increasing the risk of climate change from thermal sources. Pakistan is a developing country which a growing middle class and increasing demand for energy. If more power is not produced, the country will continue to rely on expensive and environmentally unfriendly energy sources. The average consumer is also facing regular hikes in electricity prices due to increasing costs of oil and gas in the global market and the reduction in the value of the local currency, further increasing the risk of poverty. This has also led to frequent power shutdowns in the country, especially in the hot summers when the demand for energy peaks.

Nuclear energy is also essential to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Expensive and imported energy sources in Pakistan are not only failing to meet energy demands but also putting speed bumps in its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth and posing challenges to climate with floods and severe heat waves causing damage to the economy.

Currently, Pakistan has a lower share of renewable and clean sources in its energy mix, at 3% from renewable and 12% from nuclear power. This is significantly lower as compared to the 61% share of thermal sources, according to Ministry of Energy documents. Pakistan plans to add 44,000 MW of electricity generation capacity from 32 nuclear power plants by 2050. To mitigate the effects of climate change and take a positive trajectory, sustainable investment in new power plants is essential. Pakistan shares a common agenda with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of achieving the Net-Zero challenge and achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2023. However, these goals remain elusive without a timely investment in nuclear power plants in the country.

Pakistan operates six nuclear power plants, including the recently completed K-3 in Karachi. After the completion of K-3, no other nuclear power plant is under construction in Pakistan. The construction of K-2 and K-3 nuclear power plants took six years on average. For example, the work started in 2015 and 2016 and was completed in 2021 and 2022, respectively. The contract for these plants was signed in 2013, which makes the whole process spanning over a decade. Pakistan plans to build Chasma-5-unit, K-4, and K-5 units in Karachi and M-1 and M-2 units in Muzaffargarh. If it starts the work on them tomorrow, they are going to connect with the national grid, not before 2030, only if the work on these starts immediately.

While Pakistan’s limited capacity to develop more nuclear power plants is mainly linked to financial constraints and a lack of foreign investment in the sector, the country has maintained an excellent record of operating nuclear power plants. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General, Rafael Grossi, has expressed confidence in the technical capacity and safety record of nuclear plants in Pakistan, including the Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), which are less expensive and quicker to build than the traditional plants.

To achieve its vision of producing 40,000 MW of electricity from nuclear power, Pakistan needs a timely start to the construction of the next nuclear power plants. The developed world should have a moral responsibility to invest in this sector as they have been primarily responsible for climate change, for which developing countries are paying the price.

A year after, Pakistan is already struggling to tackle the damages from the floods, and with predicted heatwaves and likely floods, the new summer season will soon arrive. If the last year repeats itself, it can complicate climate mitigation and post-disaster management challenges.

Samran Ali

Samran Ali is a Research Officer at the Center for International Strategic Studies, Islamabad. He focuses on nuclear proliferation, deterrence, and emerging technologies. He tweets at @samranali6.

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