Economic development in modern countries is strongly reliant on reliable and affordable electricity. Pakistan generated 153,874.20 GWh of electricity last year, with more than 60% (93,087.79 GWh) of it produced using expensive imported fuels such as furnace oil, gas, and coal. These imported fuels are the main culprit behind the overpriced electricity in the country. In addition,
Imported fuels increase the country’s reliance on foreign resources, affecting its energy security and making it vulnerable to supply disruptions and price volatility.
Imported fossil fuels also have a substantial impact on the environment, with the electricity and industrial sectors, particularly the cement industry, accounting for approximately 60% of Pakistan’s energy-related emissions. To address these concerns and improve its energy and economic security, Pakistan must move away from costly imported fuels in search of greener options. Nuclear energy, especially the Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), can be a promising option for Pakistan.
The main advantage of nuclear energy over imported fossil fuels is the utilization of local fuel sources, which decreases reliance on foreign supplies and improves energy and economic security. Furthermore, the electricity produced by nuclear is one of the cheapest in the country, second only to the hydropower.
As per NEPRA’s State of Industry report of 2021, a unit of electricity from nuclear cost about PKR 9.3, while that from coal and oil was at PKR 14.8 and PKR 14.6, respectively. Other than that, the cost of fuel of nuclear was just PKR 1.1/kWh, compared to gas, coal, and oil, which stood at PKR 7.7/KWh, PKR 13.3/kWh, and PKR 22.2/kWh, respectively.
These numbers are from 2021, and given the significant depreciation of the rupee against the US dollar and the rise in petroleum prices since then, it is easy to conclude that the price differential between nuclear power and imported fuels has widened even further. Other than that, the carbon footprint of the nuclear energy is almost negligible when compared to the fossil fuels. This exhibits the relative reliability, affordability, and environment-friendliness of nuclear power and its potential to contribute to energy security and sustainable development in the country.
Currently, Pakistan has six operational nuclear power plants (NPPs) with a combined installed capacity of about 3530 MW, which makes up about 8% of the total installed capacity of the country.
The overall contribution of nuclear energy to the electricity mix of Pakistan grew significantly with the induction of K2 and K3 plants installed by China.
Compared to 3.8% in 2015, 12% (18,293.54 GWh) of the electricity in the country was supplied by nuclear power in 2022 (as shown in Figure 1). A seventh NPP (CHASNUPP-5) with a capacity of 1200 MW is under construction at Chashma, Punjab, which is expected to be operational by 2030. Pakistan has set a target of increasing the installed capacity of nuclear power to 8800 MW by 2030, with the number going up to 40,000 MW under its vision 2050.
However, in the context of Pakistan, there exist some limitations, including one, the gigantic cost of installation of an NPP, which is currently estimated to be around 3.5 billion dollars for a 1200 MW reactor. Second, the average construction time of an NPP in Pakistan is around a decade, which is highly vulnerable to construction delays and cost overruns.
This, combined with other reasons, such as the lack of research and the proper regulatory mechanisms in place for the commercial uses of the technology, serves as the major hurdle in Pakistan’s journey to its nuclear vision of 2050. However, with the advancement of technology, there are now several alternatives available, and Small modular reactors (SMRs) top the list.
The Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) refer to nuclear reactors with a capacity below 300 MWe, while a typical NPP starts at a minimum of 700 MWe. Being a relatively new technology, SMRs are still in their infancy. The world’s first floating NPP, Russia’s Akademik Lomonosov, uses two 35 MW (e) SMRs, and other countries like China, the US, and Canada are also working on SMR projects. There are various advantages of SMRs that make them a perfect choice for Pakistan. For instance, the installation cost of an SMR can be as low as 300 million dollars, which is 11 times lower than a conventional NPP in Pakistan.
Secondly, the construction time of an SMR can be ten times smaller than the normal NPP, mitigating the risk of cost overruns. Thirdly, the internationally calculated average levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) for an SMR is $36/KWh compared to that of a normal NPP which is $92/KWh. This emphasizes the ability of SMRs to deliver electricity at significantly lower costs, which will benefit both consumers and the economy.
Among all, one of the key features of SMRs is that they can supply heat for industries like cement, which otherwise uses massive amounts of imported coal for this purpose. This was previously not possible with conventional NPPs. Moreover,
The SMRs could also play a vital role in the recently started Thar coal liquefaction project in many ways.
They can supply the heat required for the liquefaction process and the hydrogen gas needed, which is otherwise imported at an expensive rate. All these industrial uses of SMRs have the potential to revolutionize the energy sector of Pakistan. They cannot only provide cheaper electricity but also have the potential to completely or partially substitute various imported fuels like coal and petroleum. Not only that, but the production of hydrogen gas, especially for export purposes, can provide a significant boost to the country’s economy, considering the rising demand for green hydrogen in the global clean energy market.
One may say that Pakistan’s energy sector is on the verge of a game-changing opportunity, with SMRs emerging as a critical component of energy security and cheap electricity supply. To realize this potential, the government must prioritize strategic investments in SMR technology while building collaborations with global leaders and streamlining regulatory processes to accelerate the technology’s adoption.
Keeping in view all these factors, it is deduced that embracing SMRs is not an option; it is a requirement for Pakistan’s journey towards energy resilience and sustainable economic growth, where innovation and strategic planning will be critical to realizing the full potential of this promising energy source.
The author is a policy writer at the Student Think Tank for Europe-Asia Relations (STEAR). He is actively engaged in research related to climate change and sustainable development policies.