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Nuclear reactors: Karachi’s newest danger?

May 15, 2015
—Reuters/ File
—Reuters/ File

Nuclear power and patriotic pride are inextricably intertwined in Pakistan. In the decades since the tests were conducted, Pakistan’s possession of a nuclear bomb is believed to be by many, the sole reason for why the country; located as it is at the intersection of where superpowers like to spar, continues to exist.

It is a belief that is fed and promoted with zeal by politicians and popular culture; and all institutional arms of the state. Little kids cheer the bomb, that good bomb that can destroy everything, even as smaller bad bombs go off all around them.

The word nuclear then is considered by most to be an incontrovertible good thing. It is no wonder then that the construction of two additional nuclear reactors at KANUPP near Karachi are being regaled as the solution to the city’s continuing plunge into darkness.

With more power it is assumed, and with nuclear power, the city of lights, now the city of darkness and death can be resurrected again. The city’s inhabitants, their lives long cut up and diced away by constant power outages are eager for the reprieve. In the city’s ever dimming reality; hoping for light is but a necessity.

Also read: Karachi's citizens fear 'nuclear nightmare'

But, like everything else produced in Karachi, the 1100 MW electricity produced by the AC-3000 reactors are not to be reserved for Karachi but rather for the national grid and for areas that will bear none of the environmental risk of living next door to a nuclear reactor.

The proximity is worth noting; the new reactor will be less than 20 miles from Karachi’s downtown. Nearly 7,000 people live in every square mile of that distance. Even Chernobyl, the plant at the heart of one of the world’s worst nuclear plant disasters, was located further away from such dense human settlement.

The nearness to hapless humans is not the only problem being ignored in this energy eager moment.

Map courtesy The Washington Post
Map courtesy The Washington Post

The new Chinese made nuclear reactor, which has the capacity to produce far more electricity than its predecessors, is not being used anywhere else. Karachi and its environs then will be the trial run for this mass nuclear energy production experiment.

Then there are Karachi’s geographical realities; the plant will not simply be close to people it can kill, it will also be in an earthquake and tsunami prone zone.

In years past, when storms have skimmed the shore, the city has relied on the supernatural powers of the shrine at its coast. Arriving storms descending on nuclear reactors may not be held back by the luck and folklore.

The fallout from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant continues even four years after the tsunami, with radioactive water still seeping into the ocean.

What will be the scale of Karachi’s condemnation, if such a storm hits its soon to be nuclear coast?

A thin sliver of civil society had tried to fight the scapegoating of Karachi for the country’s energy needs.

To pacify them, without permitting them to actually influence the altering of the plan or its construction, a “public hearing” was held on April 27th 2015. To make it as inconvenient as possible, it was held at KANUPP instead of actually in the city precluding many from attending.

Perhaps, the organisers were underscoring just how “far” the nuclear reactor will be from the city. Radiation, however, travels faster than traffic and people, and unlike the annoying objections of environmental and civil activists; it cannot be stopped.

The over 300-page environmental impact report issued by the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission is a daunting read. Its heft and technical details; along with the short time permitted to peruse its contents is of course, all meant to deter anyone from saying anything.

For those who may look through its pages; it is grim reading detailing the tons of liquid and solid radioactive waste that will be produced from the energy, making behemoth that will likely be Karachi’s newest danger.

If you look past the report’s promises and consider the ineptitude with which even non-radioactive waste is disposed off in Karachi, you cannot help but be terrified.

Also read: Nuclear plants project: Certain facts not being made public for strategic reasons, SHC told

If things go wrong, and they do so often in Karachi, the poison will spread farther, to the 20 million inhabitants of Karachi who stand directly in the path of the plant’s noxious and tainted effusions.

Just like the streets of Karachi, its dark corners and alleys and its million days of mourning bear the brunt of the nation’s war and the nation’s pain; so too, will they bear the weight of the nation’s want; their contaminated lives lighting up the homes and havens of those far away, in other, luckier parts of Pakistan.