Nuclear decommissioning in South Asia

The nuclear decommissioning is coming to South Asia as their old nuclear reactors are reaching its overextended operational limit. The South Asian nuclear powers need to adopt the international best practices in the decommissioning process, and instead of relying on their homegrown technologies, should utilize international technologies to make the decommissioning process safe and hazard-free. In nuclear weapons development, command and control of these weapons, their delivery means, and doctrinal posturing in which this region is now on par with other established nuclear powers, but nuclear decommissioning seems to be a challenge for the South Asian nuclear powers. The nuclearization of South Asia began in the early 50s when India began developing its nuclear know-how, utilizing its clean record back then and a tag of a vibrant democracy, Indian policymakers deliberately sought to divert a technology which was destined to be used for peaceful purposes instead they used it for building a nuclear weapon. In nuclear history, incidents like these have great significance, as these historical blunders gave rise to some of the new regimes and norms which can clearly indicate to other potential newbies in the nuclear world to steer clear from such pathways to nuclearization. Following Indian nuclear ambitions and the state of affairs between the two arch-rivals, Pakistan was compelled to follow the nuclear path of its own.

 The nuclearization of the South Asian region is thus complete and evolving at an alarming rate, as the current nuclear balance suggests that Pakistan that wants to deter India and strictly adhered to its stated policy of credible minimum deterrence, while India where its current policy is centered around recognition as a global power, sought to match China and thus have no limit where we can clearly gauge its nuclear modernization ambitions. The nuclearization of the South Asian region enabled both India and Pakistan to pursue their own nuclear power production programs and as of now the peaceful part of the nuclear program has also expanded considerably. The oldest Indian reactor is Apsara is also the first nuclear reactor in Asia, which first achieved criticality on 4 August 1956, while Pakistan’s first reactor Pakistan Atomic Research Reactor (PARR-I) went critical in 1965. The years 1956 and 1965 clearly show that it’s more than half a century as of today, but both India and Pakistan fail to completely decommission any of their nuclear facilities. Before explaining the underlying factors that why South Asia is still not in the decommissioning phase it will be pertinent to mention the nuclear decommissioning record of Europe, the United Kingdom United States, Russia, and China.

The nuclearization of the world started in the early 1930s but was achieved in 1942, thus we can clearly see that there is no much gap in the nuclearization of West and South Asia. But still, the West is a dominant power in nuclear technology, including nuclear power production, weapons technology, and decommissioning technology. Any machine, gadget, or equipment is destined to be decommissioned at some stage and nuclear reactors are no exception, they must also go through a decommissioning phase, but there’s a huge difference between the decommissioning of any ordinary machine and the nuclear reactor. The outdated nuclear reactor is not just a threat to humans but to the environment as well, and if located near the international boundary of another country, it can cause a transboundary radioactive hazard as well. The timeline of decommissioning is of vital importance, and nuclear-decommissioning timelines are mostly spanned a couple of years or even several decades, to adhere to the timeline goals it needs a solid legislative and institutional footprints so that successive governments and their priorities never meddle in the decommissioning process. To date over 90 nuclear reactors are being shut down in the EU alone, while most of the reactors are in the decommissioning process. While in the United States a total of 10 nuclear power plants are decommissioned as of 2017 and 10 nuclear power plants are in different stages of decommissioning. On the contrary in South Asia, not a single nuclear reactor is in the process of decommissioning. In the case of India 

The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) is tasked with the decommissioning of nuclear facilities, while in the case of Pakistan, Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority is tasked with phasing out nuclear facilities. There are dedicated provisions and codes in the AERB and PNRA which exclusively layout the decommissioning process, But instead of relying on paper laws in the nuclear decommissioning process, South Asian nuclear powers need to rely on the technologies already available in the market, as the nuclear decommissioning is now an evolved market with a lot of international players offering their best services in the realm. The international atomic energy agency IAEA is instrumental in devising decommissioning strategies, both India and Pakistan can get benefit from the IAEA insights and strategies related to nuclear decommissioning, the two separate decommissioning strategies of IAEA the first version of which was effective since 1975 and the latest one since the 1990s is followed by many countries, but the emergence of new technologies allowed nuclear powers to pursue diverse strategies in the nuclear decommissioning process.

Both India and Pakistan are aiming to pursue ambitious climate and environmental policies, without having a robust and efficient institutional structure related to nuclear decommissioning, like the ones we see in weapons development and their security and delivery systems, and lethargy in the decommissioning process may end up the nuclear success story in the sub-continent. The nuclear decommissioning in South Asia requires due importance as matters related to building nuclear weapons or producing nuclear power.

Waqas Jan
Waqas Jan
The writer is a graduate of National Defence University Pakistan. His research interests include Arms Control Verification, Compliance and Enforcement, Humanitarian Arms Control, Export Controls and Disarmament Machinery.