Response to a nuclear disaster

Updated August 18, 2019


MONSOON rains come every year and the country is always unprepared, leaving people to struggle with flooded streets and worse. The National Disaster Management Authority and its provincial counterparts clearly keep failing to take proper precautions. What would these bodies do in case of a much worse disaster such as a nuclear accident?

Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority has recently released the National Disaster Response Plan 2019. This plan discusses managing monsoons, floods and earthquakes, but is silent on responding to a catastrophic nuclear accident. In the over 100 pages of the new plan, the word ‘nuclear’ appears only once. This is an amazing oversight given that Pakistan has nine operating nuclear reactors (four at Chashma, four at Khushab, and one in Karachi) and two large reactors are under construction in Karachi, and others are planned. Potential nuclear accidents are simply wished away.

We know nuclear reactor accidents happen. They can happen due to design defects, human errors in operations, or due to unexpected natural events like an earthquake or a flood. Large quantities of radioactive materials can escape into the surroundings, making it essential to immediately move populations away from this radioactive contamination. The radiation can pose grave risks to exposed persons for decades.

The accident at Chernobyl in 1986 was caused by a design problem and operator error. An area of 30 kilometres in every direction was declared an exclusion zone and people were evacuated from there. The contamination of the area was so severe that people are still not allowed back in the exclusion zone after 33 years. Radioactivity from the Chernobyl accident spread as far as Ireland.

Nuclear reactor accidents happen. The radiation can pose grave risks to exposed persons for decades.

The Fukushima accident in 2011 was due to an earthquake-generated tsunami that hit the coast where the reactors were situated and caused multiple meltdowns. People within 30 km of the reactor were evacuated, and only very recently have been allowed back in some places. Most of the radioactivity from the Fukushima accident fortunately blew out to sea. Fear that the wind might change direction led the Japanese prime minister’s office to consider the evacuation of Tokyo, over 200 km away.

The Fukushima disaster could have been much worse. Recent studies have shown the accumulated spent nuclear fuel from many years of reactor operation that was stored in a cooling pool at the site was in danger of overheating and catching fire. The radioactivity contained in this spent nuclear fuel that could have been released was much greater than in the nuclear reactors.

The National Disaster Response Plan 2019 is not alone in its silence on dealing with a severe accident at any of the country’s operating or planned reactors or the stored spent nuclear fuel. The Punjab Disaster Management Authority website mentions the term ‘nuclear disaster’ but offers no measures to handle such a possible event.

The Sindh Disaster Management Authority website has only one ‘nuclear’ item — the ‘Standard Operating Procedure for Kanupp’ (the old reactor operating in Karachi), but this procedure is not available to see. Calling the phone numbers listed on this website leads to a PTCL recorded message “The system does not recognise this number”.

The biggest nuclear risk for any national disaster plan may be the two large nuclear power plants under construction on the Karachi coast. These plants are designed and manufactured by China and come under the CPEC project. The site is adjacent to the old Kanupp reactor that was built in 1971 when it was believed reactors were safe and should be built close to industrial and commercial centres to save on electricity transmission costs.

The Kanupp site at the time of construction was some 20 km from Karachi’s edge. Since 1971, Karachi has expanded enormously in population and size. It has gone from being a city of two million to about 20m people. Today, some residential areas of Karachi are barely 10 km from the site.

A nuclear reactor core meltdown at one or both of the new Karachi reactors or a spent fuel fire could release radioactivity into the wind. The wind often blows from the nuclear plant site towards Karachi and beyond. Under such wind conditions, the cloud of radioactivity could pass through the entire city, endangering lives of millions and making Karachi uninhabitable for decades.

What would a credible disaster plan for such an accident need to include? First, the National Disaster Management Authority and the one for Sindh must recognise the risk. Then they need to prepare to evacuate people from the areas expected to receive contamination. Any delay could expose people to dangerous levels of radiation.

Evacuation of a city like Karachi is almost unimaginable and certainly cannot succeed if it is not carefully planned and if the people do not cooperate. The biggest challenge would be to take millions of terrified and confused people out of the city through the only three exit roads available: M9, N5 and M10. These roads could be completely clogged.

Where would the Disaster Management Authority relocate these millions of people? Relocation may mean keeping people away from their homes and places of work for years, perhaps decades. They will need food, water, sanitation, medicine, shelter, refuse collection, education, employment, transportation, and so one. Where is the planning for this?

No disaster response plan can work without active support from the at-risk population. People will follow only when they trust the authorities. In Pakistan, there is no such trust in any state authority, with good reason. The National Disaster Management Authority and the one for Sindh must work to earn the public trust.

The National Disaster Management Authority and its partner in Sindh should work with civil society, the city and government agencies to plan and carry out a large-scale rehearsal for how Karachi’s millions of citizens are to be safely and quickly evacuated in the face of a nuclear disaster. Until this can be done successfully, the new Karachi reactors should be not be allowed to operate.

The writers are physicists.

Published in Dawn, August 18th, 2019

Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission's response to this article reads as following:

Apropos the article Response to a Nuclear Disaster, published in daily Dawn on August 18, 2019, Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) would like to correct the alarmist insinuations and factual errors again made by the authors.

They could have avoided these errors of commission by contacting PAEC, which is the lead agency that deals with all matters related to siting of nuclear power plants, construction, operation, decommissioning and their waste management. It works in close liaison with NDMA and its provincial offshoots.

The authors have erroneously misconstrued that National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has failed to take necessary safety and precaution for the existing and upcoming nuclear power plants.

They also tried to raise a scare by giving an impression that no measures are in place to address a nuclear incident. It is important that the worthy readers should be aware of related facts rather drawing misconceptions by an alarmist view.

Pakistan takes nuclear safety and security very seriously and its record is a gold standard repeatedly recognised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

It is common knowledge and internationally appreciated fact that Pakistan has an impeccable record of safe and secure operation of nuclear powers plants for more than more four decades.

All international best practices have been followed and the safety and security features have been observed for the two plants under construction in Karachi. These plants will add much needed 2200 megawatts of electricity to the national grid by 2021.

Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority (PNRA) maintains a 24/7 check over all radiological and nuclear safety and security matters of PAEC.

The regulatory authority is independent and ensures that all operations are within the guidelines set by IAEA.

Pakistan is a responsible nuclear power that takes nuclear safety and security as a national responsibility. Inter alia other international obligations, Pakistan is a signatory to Convention on Nuclear Safety, Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident and the Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident.

An elaborate and foolproof mechanism is in place to meet this obligations and to ensure that Pakistanis continue to benefit from nuclear energy.

Nuclear power plants are sited and constructed under highest safety standards that are internationally considered strictest industrial standards – surpassing even the ones followed in aircraft manufacturing.

The upcoming plants are of latest generation and have state of the art safety features like double containment wall that remove the risks on 1970s on the basis the politically motivated and technically incorrect article has been written.

To deal with any nuclear safety and security incident, a comprehensive and foolproof system is in place in Pakistan. Nuclear Emergency Management System (NEMS) operate 24/7.

The plans for nuclear emergencies are elaborate and take care of concerns raised in the article. The authors have incorrectly stated that two nuclear power plants being built near Karachi are part of the CPEC. The decision to construct these plants predate conception of CPEC.

Construction of is a tedious and careful process that takes years. Before a license to construct is issued, a public hearing is a mandatory requirement. Sindh Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) held these hearing before Karachi Nuclear Power Plant – II and III were launched.

All stakeholders were invited by SEPA through publishing of public notices in leading newspapers of the country. Unfortunately, these two authors avoided showing and debate their concerns.

PAEC assures Dawn’s valuable readership and Pakistanis in general that the Commission continues to work in their best interest not only in electrical power generation but also in minerals exploration, developing high-yield stress tolerant crops, cancer treatment, design and fabrication.

PAEC shall continue to contribute to national development while ensuring safety and security.