July 22, 2022
ISLAMABAD – PAKISTAN is among eight countries of the world that possess nuclear weapons. This puts our country in the category of nuclear elites like the US, Russia, UK, China, France, India and North Korea. While our atoms for deterrence have made us secure from external aggression, our energy security continues to be at risk because of the country’s high dependency on fossil fuels. This hardly bodes well for a nuclear power.
Our country also produces nuclear power for peaceful purposes, along with 31 other nations that use nuclear reactors to generate electricity. The current geopolitical environment, with the Russia-Ukraine conflict, points to the need for increasing use of nuclear energy for peaceful uses and reducing reliance on fossil fuels.
‘Atoms for peace’ refers to a speech by Eisenhower to the UN in 1953 that subsequently resulted in the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1956.
The white man’s burden manifests itself strangely. The guilt of bombing Nagasaki, if not necessarily Hiroshima, drove Gen Eisenhower to ‘civilise’ the rest of the world with the splitting of atoms. He proposed “… to devise methods whereby this fissionable material would be allocated to serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind. Experts would be mobilised to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities. A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world”.
The IAEA incorporated Eisenhower’s proposal in its statute with the objective “to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health, and prosperity throughout the world. It shall ensure, as far as it is able, that assistance provided by it or at its request or under its supervision or control is not used in such a way as to further any military purpose”.
Under the Atoms For Peace programme, the US supplied a 5MW swimming pool-type research reactor which was later upgraded to 10MW. This and another 27MW research reactors are used by Pinstech under the auspices of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission for R&D, teaching and training, according to the PAEC website.
Whenever we think of nuclear power, images of mushroom clouds and the tragic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki come to mind. Images of nuclear testing over the coral reef of Bikini Atoll in Marshall Islands may also appear.
The US forcibly relocated the atoll’s inhabitants and detonated 23 nuclear weapons from 1946 to 1958, making the atoll inhabitable. Radiation levels are still extremely high and unsafe for living there.
French ingenuity took the name ‘bikini’ and introduced a two-piece swimsuit. This was initially banned both in France and Germany but gained popularity when great actors embraced it, so much so that France later became intolerant of the burkini and burqa. Is this the French version of the white man’s burden? Swimming pool-type research reactors, nuclear detonations, bikinis and burkinis are strangely connected!
Pakistan produces nuclear power for peaceful purposes along with 31 other nations.
Coming back to atoms for peace, which country produces most of its electricity from nuclear reactors? It is France which seems the least afraid of radiation but the most afraid of the burqa and its variants. It produces 69 per cent of its total electricity through nuclear reactors, supplying 363 GW of electricity.
While the US produces the highest amount of nuclear electricity at 772GW, the share of the latter in the country’s total electricity generation is only 20pc, according to the IAEA in 2021.
Pakistan generated 15.8GW of electricity from its reactors in 2021, which amounts to 10.6pc of its total electricity. Other sources like water and coal and other fossil fuels contributed 89.4pc. Among 32 countries, Pakistan ranks 18th in terms of nuclear electricity generated in 2021 and 22nd in terms of the share of total electricity produced.
Pakistan is unique in terms of nuclear testing. It did not explode its device in the open air or under the sea. It detonated it under the base of a mountain in Chaghi. Many of us would have seen the proud moment when the mountain turned a flammable orange. The video clip which shows the test ends quickly. Viewers like me keep wondering whether the mountain was crushed or still stands. What are the current radiation levels in the region? Although the answer is not relevant to the topic, but curiosity demands comparison with testing at Pokhran and Bikini Atoll. I am sure our able nuclear scientists have done useful research in this area. We must have a unique data set related to our successful test in 1998.
If we have achieved such a big feat, it should not be too difficult to rely more on nuclear reactors to provide abundant electrical energy for the country’s power-starved areas.
Nuclear electricity is environment-friendly, and the EU has recently declared it as green. The low carbon nature of nuclear energy is well recognised, and it can help mitigate climate change. It is also cost-competitive in the long run. Its average tariff is only Rs9.25 per unit compared to Rs14.80 for oil, according to the PAEC. This cost is the second lowest after hydroelectricity.
Since we cannot purchase uranium from world markets due to sanctions, we must rely more on our relations with China, which has already supplied not only civilian nuclear reactors (operating in Chashma and Karachi), but guaranteed fuel supply for their entire lifespan of 60 years. We also must search for indigenous uranium for extraction.
What made us capable of detonating a nuclear device through a home-grown research programme? First, political commitment and support. Second, putting the most competent person in charge. Third, giving that person and the institution full operational independence. Fourth, promoting a culture of merit and appointing the most competent persons, without regard to ethnicity, etc. Fifth, monitoring progress continuously, while ensuring continuity in the first four steps.
Bhutto saw to the first, second and third. Later political leaders and key military personnel provided support. And our hero Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan and his team did the rest. Why cannot we replicate this approach of merit and competency in every sphere of government and other institutions to run our country?
The writer is a former deputy governor of the State Bank of Pakistan.