The other nuclear threat.
On a quiet Friday afternoon in March 2011 something was stirring in the Earth deep under the waters of the North Pacific Ocean. Unknown to people preparing for their weekend on the North Eastern coast of the Japanese island of Hokkaido they were about to be hit by one of the largest earthquakes ever to be recorded in human history.
What is now known as the Tohoku undersea megathrust earthquake struck at 2.15pm Japanese time. It's hypocenter was 70 km off shore and it registered a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale. A few moments later a tsunami with wave heights reaching 100 feet washed ashore on the North Eastern coast of Hokkaido. The waters penetrated up to 10 km inland razing just about everything in their way. In a few minutes some 18,000 people had lost their lives.
But they were not the only casualties of that tragic day. At a nuclear power plant on the coast in FukushimaPrefecture the tsunami cut power to pumps supplying cooling water to the reactors and submerged backup emergency generators. With no cooling water the cores of 3 operating reactors overheated resulting in core meltdowns, explosions, and loss of radioactive containment. Radioactivity was released and continues to be released into the soil, air and water. A mandatory exclusion zone banning people from coming within 20 km of the plant remains in effect.
Three hundred tons of toxic highly radioactive water from the site continues to leak into the Pacific Ocean every day. The plant operator - Tokyo Electric Power Company - admitted recently that it has "lost control of Fukushima". Radiation in the vicinity of the plant is so high that it would kill a human exposed to it in 4 hours.
The Fukushima incident is emblematic of the problem with nuclear power. A serious accident results in the release of radiation into the environment. And this is the good news. The real problem is that nuclear fuel and waste products generated in nuclear reactors remain radioactive from 10,000 to tens of millions of years. For example 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. When these waste products are released into the environment in an accident they are there to stay.
While the Fukushima accident was triggered by a natural disaster similar accidents have occurred at other nuclear plants as a result of human error or equipment failure. The most notable of these was the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 in the then Soviet Union. The reactor containment vessel exploded due to operator error. The environment was contaminated. Over the years 4000 people died of radiation induced cancer. The cities of Chernobyl and Pripyat were completely abandoned. A 30 km permanent exclusion zone remains in effect around the accident site. And it may well remain in effect for hundreds if not thousands of years.
Fukushima has had a chilling effect on the global nuclear power industry. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, a physicist by training, understood immediately. Within days of the accident 8 of Germany's 17 reactors were shut down permanently. The remaining 9 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 5 operating reactors announced that the reactors 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, despite a few palliative statements of concern, seems unmoved. We have three operating nuclear power plants. One near Karachi at Paradise Point on the coast of the Arabian sea. And two at Chasma on the banks of the IndusRiver in Punjab. Disturbingly, two more reactors are under construction at Chasma and a third is planned. By the time the Chasma site reaches its planned capacity in 2020 it will have five operating reactors on the banks of the IndusRiver.
Imagine the consequences of a nuclear accident at Chasma: Contaminated radioactive water starts to leak into the IndusRiver. It is carried downstream to hundreds of cities and villages. Irrigation canals then carry it to most arable areas of the land. Within a few weeks much of livable Pakistan is contaminated.
Building the plants at all was a bad idea. But building them upstream on the Indus verges on suicidal negligence. If Japan, one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, is unable to cope with a nuclear accident, can we?
The plants at Chasma need to be shut down, and contracts for those being built cancelled. A disaster at Chasma will make our most intractable problem of today - terrorism - seem like a walk in the park.
Nadeem M. Qureshi is Chairman of Mustaqbil Pakistan
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