The recent leakage of heavy water from a feeder pipe of the reactor at the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP) has raised concerns about the safety of this ageing plant. The government has not provided any details about the release of radiation as a result of this accident, but the media has taken up this issue and there have been calls for the shutting down of this dangerous plant that should have been decommissioned years ago.

Sadly, it has taken an accident to bring this issue into the public eye. For too long Pakistan’s nuclear reactors used for energy production have been jealously guarded by the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, which comes under the Ministry of Defence. Over the years, there has been little debate about the safety aspects of Pakistan’s three main nuclear reactors. Given what we know of what happened in Fukushima in Japan, when the massive earthquake and tsunami struck earlier this year, there is even more need to examine the safety record of these plants.

Today, the obsolete nuclear power plant on the coast near Karachi (KANUPP) and the nuclear plant near Chashma Barrage on the Indus River (CHASNUPP I) provide only around 350 megawatts of energy from the Chinese built reactors. A second nuclear reactor at Chashma started operations earlier this year. They are extremely costly (around US $1 billion for each reactor at Chashma) and very unsafe, according to two of the country’s top physicists who teach at the prestigious Science and Engineering School at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

“KANUPP only produces 50 megawatts while CHASNUPP I produces 300 megawatts. CHASNUPP II only came on line in March this year and will produce another 300 megawatts,” explains nuclear physicist Dr Pervez Hoodhboy. Together they supply less than two per cent of energy to the national grid. “The PAEC would become irrelevant without them — it is a matter of ego for them to keep the reactors going… they are nothing more than toys,” he adds.

KANUPP, which is under repairs, is currently being run at only 30 per cent of its capacity. According to physics professor A. H. Nayyar that means it produces just 50 megawatts for the city of Karachi, which has a population of nearly 15 million people. “It generates enough electricity to power just three per cent of city”, he explains. To make matters worse, KANUPP came into commercial operation in 1972 and has out lived the 30 years of its life span, but the PAEC has given it a 10-year extension and intends to keep it going for a few more years with some repairs and replacements.

“The operators working there privately say that this reactor has gone beyond its life and they are afraid that something could go wrong,” says Dr Pervez who has visited KANUPP. “The structure has been weakened by decades of radiation.” He says that the plant is only superficially monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, “which does not have the capacity to look at everything important in a reactor”. KANUPP is located just off the Arabian Sea quite near the city of Karachi.

There have been previous accidents at the plant as well — in the 1990s, radioactive cooling water accidentally leaked from the plant, but officials played down the incident. The spent fuel is stored on location and should an accident occur, the degree of devastation would be very high. In case of an accident the coastal winds could blow the radioactive plume over the city of Karachi, which has grown in the past 30 years and there are homes close to the reactor now.

There are also several major faults around Karachi and the southern coast of Makran, so earthquakes and tsunamis cannot be ruled out. In November 1945 there was a tsunami with 40 feet high waves that hit the Makran coast triggered by an earthquake measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale. “There is an absence of a safety culture. Then there is the incapability of the authorities to deal with anything of this magnitude,” says Dr Pervez.

The reactors in Chashma, though newer, are not any safer due to their location in a seismic zone. In fact, A. H. Nayyar had pointed out the dangers facing CHASNUPP I in a report he co-authored in 1999 for Princeton University’s Center for Energy and Environmental Studies. Both CHASNUPP I & II are located on the banks of the Indus River, Pakistan’s lifeline and a major source of fresh water for irrigation and domestic use.

According to A. H. Nayyar, “The region is earthquake prone and in case of seismic activity, the soil can liquefy and cause a landslide. What would happen to the reactor then? We shared our concerns with the PAEC and in return they did some more seismological studies and that’s it”.

There is a regulating authority called the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority that was set up in 2001 by the government, but is staffed by ex PAEC officials so it is hardly independent. When contacted, the head of their Information Services Directorate, Mohd Ali Awan explained, “Although the plants are safe as per the regulatory requirements and international standards set by the IAEA, in the wake of the Fukushima accident, the PNRA has asked the PAEC to review safety and emergency plans”.

No deadline has been given to the PAEC, however, and given their history there is little indication that they will take any action other than to produce more reports.