The disaster at Fukushima in Japan was the most recent in a line of alarming nuclear accidents. However, it is often forgotten that Fukushima was designed in the 1960s, and had a chequered safety history. Beginning with faulty design that violated regulations and continuing with a scandal about falsified safety records in 1976, Fukushima was a model of nuclear mismanagement. Till 2008, safety experts were concerned that batteries and generators needed to cool the reactor were located in the basement and vulnerable to flooding, which is precisely what happened when the tsunami hit. Scandal also surrounded the appointment of former regulators to lucrative posts associated with the plant. Finally, the Tokyo Electric Power Company maintained the plant, not the Japan Nuclear Safety Commission. Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are the flagship cases for nuclear power sceptics. However, all could have been avoided but for mismanagement, corruption, secrecy, and profiteering. When discussing nuclear power in Pakistan, these are the words to keep in mind. Pakistan’s civilian nuclear sector is in the spotlight these days over plans to expand facilities at Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANNUP) and Chashma Nuclear Power Complex. Currently Pakistan operates three reactors, two at Chashma and one at KANNUP. In July 2013 the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) approved 3.5 GW of new power projects worth Rs 1,303 billion: 2,200 MW nuclear, 425 MW gas, and 969 MW hydel, to reduce reliance on thermal and thereby cut power costs. All the nuclear power projects depend on Chinese support. The expansion at KANNUP has drawn significant criticism, some from abroad but mostly at home. Environmentalists lead the charge, saying the dangers of pollution and proximity to residential areas make expansion too dangerous. The Chashma installations are less in the public eye but lie on an earthquake-prone fault line. On the one hand critics have a point; KANNUP was built when Karachi was not the megalopolis it is now. Its proximity to the city presents a hazard. Moreover, nuclear power plants produce substantial quantities of nuclear waste. Safe waste disposal is a major consideration for nuclear power plants anywhere. On the other hand, Pakistan has a good record of nuclear operations, even according to the exacting standards of the IAEA, a point foreign office spokesperson Tasnim Aslam quickly pointed out.
The real problem comes down to management. In a country rife with corruption and inefficiency, can government be trusted to run nuclear power plants, especially next to cities? The question of whether Pakistan needs nuclear power is moot. Pakistan’s energy problem worsens day by day and nuclear power is part of a comprehensive solution. Alternative energy resources must be explored and developed on a war footing. While nuclear power may not be an end in itself, it could be a means if the government proves capable of handling the responsibility. *