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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Pakistan’s less talked about peaceful uses of nuclear technology

Given the focus on bombs and missiles in South Asia, Pakistan's breakthroughs in peaceful uses of nuclear technology are often ignored. Tooba Ghaffar, a young scholar at an Islamabad think tank outlines country's achievement in energy, agriculture and health areas!

Atomic energy is not just about bombs that are dropped over cities and people, but it also has a potential for something positive for the mankind. There is a general lack of awareness when it comes to the massive potential of atomic energy in solving many of the mankind’s problems. Atom can be utilized in a whole range of ways for achieving myriad peaceful goals, like producing electricity, purifying water, treating cancer and producing high yield crops.

Pakistan’s achievements

Pakistan has a remarkable record of exploring nuclear technology for peaceful uses. It has made considerable progress in the fields of energy, agriculture and medicine, utilizing nuclear technology. It has also employed nuclear energy for industrial uses, biotechnology and disease control. These achievements are often overlooked in the context of sensitive security environment of South Asia, which keeps local and international analysts preoccupied with the military component of the nuclear program.

Nuclear power is also a clean source of energy, the CO2 emissions are zero, which can be a great step towards combatting climate change

As early as the 1950s, Pakistan sent scientists and engineers abroad for training in the peaceful application of nuclear technology. The civilian nuclear program officially commenced in the 1970s, with the construction and operationalization of 137 MW Nuclear Power Plant in Karachi (KANUPP).

Read more: Pakistan Economy: History and Required Reforms 

In the following decades, despite many difficulties, Pakistan did not give up on its mission to have multiple plants and now has five fully functional nuclear power plants, operating at high capacity, one in Karachi and four in Chashma. KANUPP and four power plants in Chashma provide 1430 MWe to the national grid.

Two more nuclear power plants, K-2 and K-3 are under construction in Karachi, while three are planned for future – one in Chashma and two in Muzaffargarh. The plan is to produce at least 40,000 MWe electricity from nuclear energy by 2050. Pakistan is one of the 30 countries that have fully operational nuclear power plants. It has mastered complete nuclear fuel cycle and is amongst the 10 countries in the world to have done so.

Nuclear power is a cheaper alternative

Nuclear power provides a comparatively cheaper source of energy, one kg Uranium can produce thousand times more energy than its fossil fuel counterparts. Nuclear power is also a clean source of energy, the CO2 emissions are zero, which can be a great step towards combatting climate change. Also, the plants are base load, meaning that they can run uninterrupted, unlike the other clean sources of energy like wind or solar. In this way, nuclear power is the most reliable, economical and environment friendly source of power.

Read more: Nuclear power: clean, cheap, and sustainable source of energy for Pakistan

Pakistan is aware of the myriad benefits that come from exploring nuclear technology for power generation and has demonstrated a commitment to gradually diversify its energy production from fossil to nuclear sources.

Nuclear technology’s role in agriculture 

Nuclear technology has facilitated major developments in the field of agriculture. Through collaboration with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), multiple facilities have been developed for advancements in the fields of food and agriculture.

Atomic energy is a dual use source and can bring many benefits to humanity

Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) is engaged in research and development to advance agricultural sector and improve programs on nutritional value of staple foods, in order to achieve United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of eliminating hunger and malnutrition. Irradiation techniques are being exploited to enhance food quality and safety, and augment shelf life of farm products.

Read more: Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission’s quest for civil nuclear energy

To fight hunger and malnutrition, PAEC is working on food fortification initiatives to enhance mineral and vitamin content of food. Hence, more than 89 new high-yielding stress-tolerant crop varieties have been created through use of nuclear technology. Moreover, in order to enhance food safety, PAEC is also exploring nuclear techniques to improve water availability and quality. PAEC has been collaborating with IAEA for several decades, to use nuclear and isotopic techniques to detect and analyze pollutants in water and reduce them. Furthermore, PAEC, together with IAEA, has built laboratories for mass breeding of insects valuable for combatting pests that attack crops, and, thus, decrease the use of pesticides.

Achievements in the field of medicine

Pakistan has also made major achievements in the field of medicine using nuclear technology. Nuclear energy has been a critical source in research and development of new techniques for treating cancer.

Read more: Pakistan’s K2 nuclear reactor using Chinese technology completes thermal testing

PAEC has established 18 cancer treatment hospitals where yearly more than 0.7 million patients are treated, which is almost 80% of total cancer patients in Pakistan. The atomic energy hospitals are state of art facilities for diagnosing and treating cancer, through radiation and other nuclear techniques. The hospitals are also engaged in awareness raising campaigns regarding cancer, which is reportedly highly curable if diagnosed in the early stages.

Improvements in the employment sector

The nuclear energy sector, involving activities in the fields of medicine, agriculture and power, has been a source of employment generation, leading to the socio-economic progress in the country. Pakistan has been able to maintain an outstanding record in terms of safety and security of all its nuclear related activities. It was one of the founding members of the IAEA in 1957, and, since then, has collaborated with IAEA over development and safety of multiple projects.

Read more: Pakistan ‘most improved’ country for nuclear security: NTI Index

Pakistan consistently engages with European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and was the first country in the region to gain its associate membership.  Pakistan can achieve many more milestones while assisting other countries in the quest for exploring peaceful uses of nuclear technology – if it is given open access to the global nuclear commerce through membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

Misconceptions about nuclear energy 

The perception of atom as a source of destruction for the mankind is incorrect. Atomic energy is a dual use source and can bring many benefits to humanity. Pakistan has demonstrated its commitment to using nuclear technology for socio-economic development and progress, something for which it has not been given enough credit.

In most nuclear discourses, Pakistan’s nuclear weapon program is highlighted, which often shows Pakistan’s nuclear activities in a negative light. Pakistan is a responsible nuclear state, it is running its military and civilian nuclear program very responsibly. Pakistan can benefit greatly from the global nuclear commerce and should be given open access to it based on its remarkable achievements in exploring nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, while ensuring safety and security of its nuclear infrastructure.

Tooba Ghaffar is working as a Research Associate at the Center for International Strategic Studies, Islamabad. The author can be accessed at toobaghaffar@gmail.com. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.