Will Pakistan be able to handle possible failure at nuclear plants?

Published: October 9, 2013

Houses are swept away by an earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011. PHOTO: REUTERS

On March 11, 2011, something stirred within the earth’s surface, deep under the waters of the North Pacific Ocean. The people who were preparing for their weekend on Hokkaido, Japan’s second-largest island, had no idea that they were about to be hit by one of the biggest earthquakes ever to be recorded in human history.

The calamity, now known as the Tohoku undersea megathrust earthquake, struck at 2:15 p.m. Japan Standard Time. Its hypocenter was 70 kilometres off-shore and it registered a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale. A few moments later, a tsunami followed the earthquake. With wave heights reaching up to 100 feet, the tsunami washed ashore on the North Eastern coast of Hokkaido. The water penetrated up to ten kilometres, destroying just about everything that came in its way. Within the span of a few minutes, some 18,000 people had lost their lives.

However, they were not the only casualties of that tragic day. At a nuclear power plant on the coast in Fukushima Prefecture, the tsunami had cut power to the pumps supplying cooling water to the reactors and also submerged backup emergency generators. Without the cooling water, the cores of three operating reactors overheated, resulting in core meltdowns, explosions, and loss of radioactive containment. Thus, radioactivity was released and continues to release into the soil, air and water till today. A mandatory exclusion zone, banning people from coming within 20 kilometres of the plant, remains in effect.

To make matters worse, almost 300 tons of highly radioactive water from the site continues to leak into the Pacific Ocean every day. The plant operator – Tokyo Electric Power Company – admitted last week that it has “lost control of Fukushima”. Apparently radiation in the vicinity of the plant is so high that it would kill a human exposed to it within four hours.

However, embedded in this tragedy is a much-needed lesson about nuclear power plants. It is obvious that a serious accident, such as the Fukushima, can result in the release of radiation into the environment. However, this is only the beginning of the problem. The real problem is that these nuclear fuel and waste products generated in nuclear reactors remain radioactive for thousands to millions of years. For instance, the half life (a measure of the rate of natural decay of radioactive materials) of the waste product Plutonium 239 is 24,000 years, and that of Neptunium 237 is two million years. This means that when these waste products are released into the environment during an accident, they are there to stay and contaminate for years to come.

While the Fukushima accident was triggered by a natural disaster, similar accidents have occurred at other nuclear plants due to human error or equipment failure. The most notable of these was the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 in the former Soviet Union. The reactor containment vessel exploded due to operational error, contaminating the environment resulting in the death of 4,000 people from radiation-induced cancer over the years. The cities of Chernobyl and Pripyat were completely abandoned and a 30 kilometre permanent exclusion zone remains in effect around the accident site; and may well remain in effect for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Furthermore, Fukushima has had an effect on the global nuclear power industry. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, a physicist by training, understood its impact immediately and within days of the accident, eight of Germany’s 17 reactors were shut down permanently. The remaining nine are all due to be closed by 2022.

The Italian parliament voted to cancel all contracts awarded in the past few years to build nuclear power plants. Switzerland, with five operating reactors, announced that the plants will continue to operate but will not be replaced at the end of their life span. Even China, with ambitious plans to build nuclear capacity, suspended approvals for all new plants as it sought to review safety issues.

Pakistan characteristically, except for a few meagre statements of concern, seems unmoved. We have three operating nuclear power plants – one at Paradise Point on the coast of the Arabian Sea, near Karachi; and the other two at Chasma, on the banks of the River Indus, in Punjab. Even more disturbing is the fact that two more reactors are under construction at Chasma and a third is under consideration. By the time the Chasma site reaches its planned capacity in 2020, there will be five operating reactors on the banks of the River Indus.

Now imagine if there were to be a nuclear accident at Chasma. What will happen? Contaminated radioactive water will begin to leak into the River Indus from where it will be carried downstream to hundreds of cities and villages. Irrigation canals will then carry it to the most arable land in the country and within a few weeks, much of liveable Pakistan will be contaminated.

Although it was a bad idea to build the plants in the first place, building them upstream on the River Indus seems to be the height of suicidal negligence. If Japan, one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, is unable to cope with a nuclear accident, then how will we?

It is imperative to shut down the plants at Chasma and to cancel the contracts for those being currently built. Trust me a disaster at Chasma will be the end of Pakistan, making our other problems – like terrorism – seem like a walk in the park.

Nadeem M Qureshi

Nadeem M Qureshi

Chairman and founder of the political party Mustaqbil Pakistan, Nadeem has a business background and has studied engineering at M.I.T. in Cambridge Mass. and business. He also went to Harvard Business School in Boston. He tweets @NadeemMQureshi (twitter.com/NadeemMQureshi)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.