The Karachi Nuclear Power Plant is situated in Pakistan's most populous city
In the wake of the nuclear incident at Fukushima in Japan, triggered by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami, questions have been raised about the safety of nuclear reactors both in Pakistan and India. In a recent article, renowned Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy argued that the Pakistani nuclear plants do not meet their stated goals of generating electricity and they only meet a fraction of Pakistan's energy needs.
Assessing security risks to the Karachi nuclear power plant resulting from natural causes as well as terror attacks, Hoodbhoy argued that Pakistani officials and society at large are not prepared to meet the challenges of a nuclear incident in a populous city like Karachi. He noted: "Unlike the orderly and disciplined evacuation of post-tsunami Fukushima, all hell would break loose as millions would try to flee. Looters would strip everything bare, roads would be clogged, and vital services would collapse."
Hoodbhoy added: "Contrary to popular public perception, Pakistan's power reactors also make no contribution to Pakistan's bomb-making capacity – the fissile material for these is produced elsewhere. Therefore, there are multiple reasons why the search for more fission power must be shelved."
Following are excerpts from the article:
"Japan's Near Tragedy has Reminded the World that Situating Reactors Close to a City can Be Exceedingly Dangerous"
"Four hydrogen explosions reduced three buildings in the 6-reactor Fukushima nuclear complex to smoking ruins. Radioactive plumes triggered a level-5 emergency, and evacuations were ordered up to a 20-kilometre radius. A heroic effort finally prevented a melt-down of spent-fuel rods and averted catastrophic consequences but reactor fires are still burning. If nothing else works, plans call for pouring thousands of tons of concrete and turning the reactors into permanent nuclear tombs.
"On the positive side: the disaster management was excellent. Stoic and disciplined, the Japanese behaved wonderfully well. No looting, no panic, and no anti-government demonstrations followed the explosions. People helped each other, relief teams operated unobstructed, and rescuers had full radiation protection gear. Plant operators risked their lives by working in super-high radiation environments, and engineers showed their grasp of emergency reactor dynamics.
"On the negative side: even elaborate earthquake-protection and tsunami-protection measures failed badly. Power sources for emergency cooling pumps were destroyed by the 30-foot high wall of water. In retrospect, storing thousands of spent-fuel rods on the reactor site turned out to be a terrible mistake.
"Japan's near tragedy has reminded the world that situating reactors close to a city can be exceedingly dangerous – even more than storing nuclear bombs within it. While a nuclear reactor cannot explode like a bomb, after one year of operation even a rather small 200MW reactor contains more radioactive cesium, strontium, and iodine than the amounts produced in all the nuclear weapons tests ever conducted.
"These devastatingly deadly materials could be released if the containment vessel of a reactor is somehow breached."
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"The Karachi Nuclear Power Plant… Puts Karachi's Population at Risk; Sabotage, Terrorist Attack, Equipment Failure, Earthquake, or a Tsunami could Result in Large-Scale Radioactive Release"
"As the Japanese continue their struggle to bring Fukushima's reactors under control, they know they had falsely gambled that nuclear reactors could be safe against earthquakes. Still, there was some logic to this risk-taking: Japan's energy hungry economy gets about 30 percent of its electricity from its 55 nuclear reactors.
"Pakistan has much less reason to risk Karachi, its largest city. The Karachi Nuclear Power Plant, (KANUPP) located by the seashore, produces little electricity. This Canadian-supplied reactor has been in operation since December 1972, but according to IAEA statistics, has been unavailable for power production 70.4 percent of the time.
"Even if it had operated as per design (120MW of electrical power), it could supply only 6-7% of Karachi's total electrical power needs – barely enough for Golimar and Lyari [two areas of Karachi].
"Nevertheless KANUPP puts Karachi's population at risk. Sabotage, terrorist attack, equipment failure, earthquake, or a tsunami could result in large-scale radioactive release. As in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the instinctive reaction of the authorities would be to cover up the facts.
"But with the breeze mostly directed towards Karachi, the population would surely have to be evacuated. The rich and the fortunate would succeed; the rest would not. Unlike the orderly and disciplined evacuation of post-tsunami Fukushima, all hell would break loose as millions would try to flee. Looters would strip everything bare, roads would be clogged, and vital services would collapse."
"Whether Driving Cars or Running Nuclear Plants, Pakistanis are Risk-Takers Looking for Shortcuts, Choosing to Put their Faith in God Rather than Precautions"
"Japan's nuclear disaster should open our eyes. Japan is an advanced industrialized country with superior engineering knowledge and practices. It has a safety culture; Pakistan does not. Whether driving cars or running nuclear plants, Pakistanis are risk-takers looking for shortcuts, choosing to put their faith in God rather than precautions.
"It would not be surprising if our nuclear plant operators overlook critical safety procedures. Little is known about operating procedures because everything nuclear is kept under wraps, ostensibly for reasons of national security. This also covers up for bad practices.
"The shoulder-shrugging nonchalance of Pakistani authorities during the Japan disaster is particularly disturbing. Even as explosions tore through the nuclear complex, the 'experts' flatly declared that a Fukushima could never happen in Pakistan. This outlandish claim cost them nothing, of course, because officials and other high-ups in Pakistan have never paid the price for false statements.
"A real nuclear disaster in Pakistan would see PAEC [Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission], PNRA [Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority], and our 'great scientists' – who provide endless vanilla-flavored reassurances – running around like chickens with their heads cut off. They would be clueless in dealing with a situation that threatens the lives of millions. The only thing they would know is how to run away fast."
"While Remaining a Perpetual Danger, Nuclear Technology has not Met Any Reasonable Fraction of Pakistan's Energy Needs"
"It is time to down-size Pakistan's nuclear fission power production.
"While remaining a perpetual danger, nuclear technology has not met any reasonable fraction of Pakistan's energy needs. After nearly half a century of investing in the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission – and the billions of dollars spent upon creating its infrastructure – only two percent of Pakistan's installed nuclear capacity is nuclear. The actual production is less than even this.
"India has not done well either. Only six percent of Indian electricity is nuclear. Clearly, nuclear electricity is not cheap or easy.
"Contrary to popular public perception, Pakistan's power reactors also make no contribution to Pakistan's bomb-making capacity – the fissile material for these is produced elsewhere. Therefore, there are multiple reasons why the search for more fission power must be shelved.
"Until nuclear fusion power becomes available after some decades, Pakistan, like other countries, must rely on a mix of oil, gas, hydro, coal, solar, wind, and other renewables."
 The Express Tribune (Pakistan), March 22, 2011. The text of the article has been lightly edited for clarity.