Pakistan’s Oldest Nuclear Reactor KANUPP-1 Closed
WNISR, 21 October 2021
Thirty years after first warnings that the reactor was unsafe to continue operating, Pakistan’s first power reactor, KANUPP-1, was closed on 1 August 2021. The 125 MW CANDU heavy water reactor, located in Sind Province and less than 30 km from the city of Karachi on the Arabian Sea, was first connected to the grid on 18 October 1971 and was one of the oldest operating reactors in the world.
At an event in Islamabad to mark 50 years of the Pakistan nuclear program, Dr Ansar Parvez, a former chairman of PAEC, stated Pakistan’s nuclear power generation and peaceful application of nuclear technology in the country was helping pursue the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
The Karachi Nuclear Power Plant 1 (KANUPP-1) — Photo PAEC
The KANUPP-1 project was approved by the government in January 1964. On 24 May 1965, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) signed a turnkey project contract with Canadian General Electric (CGE) where CGE agreed to design, supply, construct, and commission a 137 MW CANDU type nuclear power plant close to the city of Karachi. This became known as the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant, or KANUPP. The reported US$63 million cost of the plant was financed by Canada, half as external aid at 0.75 percent interest over 40 years with a 10-year grace period, the other half at 6 percent over 15 years with a five-year grace period. In effect, KANUPP was financed through a US$23 million soft loan and a US$24 million credit from Canada, and US$3.6 million from Japan.
Canada’s nuclear supplies to Kanupp-1 were significantly impacted by the Indian nuclear weapons test in 1974, which used plutonium produced in a reactor supplied by Canada. This dramatically increased concerns over proliferation implications of supplying nuclear technology, in particular by the administrations of U.S. Presidents Ford and Carter. As a consequence, Canadian vendor support for the supply of spare parts and fuel for KANUPP-1 was withdrawn from Pakistan in 1976. Then as now, Pakistan was not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and not covered by full-scope International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. As a consequence, PAEC started manufacturing the required spare parts and nuclear fuel on an emergency basis and, from 1980 onwards, KANUPP was operated using domestically manufactured fuel.
In 1991, the trade journal Nuclear Engineering Internationa wrote “Pakistan’s KANUPP CANDU reactor became obsolete almost immediately after it was built, according to plant director J. A. Hashmi... The plant is now reaching the limits of maintainability… Despite preventive maintenance and testing, many of KANUPP’s ageing problems have been detected through catastrophic failure.”
Despite on-going restrictions on nuclear transfers to Pakistan, and despite the recommendation given by the President of the Canadian Atomic Energy Control Board that continued operation of the reactor would be imprudent, during the 1990’s the PAEC received support from Canada under the "Safe Operation of KANUPP” program. The decision to provide assistance followed reports of major ageing related safety issues that PAEC were not able to resolve by themselves. As Princeton-based nuclear analyst Zia Mian observed in 2000, Canada, “could not risk a potential accident at KANUPP that would then reflect badly on CANDU reactors in Canada and elsewhere, and damage a multi-billion dollar industry.”
There is little public information on the safety record at KANUPP, but an indication of the multiple problems that forced repeated shutdowns can be inferred from its very poor record of electricity generation. It’s cumulative load factor of 29.5 percent, compared with the global nuclear power plant average of 82.5 percent in 2019, makes KANUPP one of the worst performing reactors in global nuclear history.
Adjacent to Kanupp-1 is the Karachi nuclear plant site which hosts, KANUPP-2 or Karachi-2, which was connected to the grid on 18 March 2021, and KANUPP-3, which remains under construction. Both reactors are supplied by the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC). Recent seismic analysis from the National Oceanography Centre Southampton (NOCS), and the Pacific Geoscience Centre, Natural Resources Canada suggested that the region is at risk from major earthquakes, specifically the Makran subduction zone, and with a potential to up to a magnitude of 9.2, comparable to the Fukushima 3/11 earthquake.