The next Fukushima-style nuclear accident could take place just miles away from a city of 20 million people if China presses ahead with its plans to build a new nuclear reactor near the Pakistani metropolis of Karachi.
China has agreed to construct a 2.2-gigawatt nuclear power plant near Karachi using a new reactor design, the ACP-1000. The reactors would be added to an existing plant that was built in the 1970s and rises above a popular beach used by vacationers and small-scale fishermen.
It also sits only 20 miles from the largest city in Pakistan.
A lack of safety infrastructure is in place
“You are talking about a city one-third the population of the United Kingdom,” said Karachi lawyer Abdul Sattar Pirzada, who is fighting the project in court. “If there would be an accident, this would cripple Karachi, and if you cripple Karachi, you cripple Pakistan.”
The U.S. nuclear regulatory commission recommends that new nuclear power plants be located in areas with no more than 500 people per square mile within a 20-mile radius of the plant. In contrast, this radius around the Karachi plant has a density of 6,450 people per square mile. To make matters worse, Karachi’s disaster and public safety infrastructure is limited; the city only has a handful of public hospitals and a few dozen fire trucks.
“You couldn’t even dream of evacuating Karachi,” Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy said. “The minute an alarm was sounded, everything would be choked up. There would be murder and mayhem because people would be trying to flee.”
The area is prone to earthquakes and tsunamis
Like Japan, Pakistan is a country at high risk of earthquakes. Because the nuclear plant sits on the coast, it is also in a region considered at severe risk of tropical cyclones and tsunamis.
China and Pakistan claim that the new reactors are designed to be less prone to accidents than Fukushima. However, Mark Hibbs, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that there is a reason that poorer countries shy away from nuclear power.
“If there was a lesson we learned from the Fukushima accident, it’s that, if you are going to get into the nuclear business, and if you don’t have world-class technology, good logistics, enough personnel, a lot of money and experience managing crisis situations, then you are not going to be able to manage a severe accident,” Hibbs said.
Karamat Ali of the Pakistan Institute of Labor Education and Research echoed this criticism, noting that the world’s three worst nuclear accidents – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima – took place in the United States, the former Soviet Union and Japan, respectively.
“Those are three highly advanced countries,” Ali said. “This is Pakistan. We don’t live on technology and science. In fact, we are quite allergic to that.”
Pakistani and international observers have also raised concerns that the new plant could be a target of terrorism. In the last four years, Pakistan has suffered an attack on a naval base, an attack on the Karachi airport, and the hijacking of a navy ship.
The technology is untested
Many Karachi residents also worry that the ACP-1000 reactor is untested technology and that industrial accidents are already common in Pakistan, even without the added complication of operating Chinese technology.
“We are going to be the guinea pigs,” Karachi architect Arif Belgaumi said.
Zia Mian, a Pakistani physicist for the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, notes that the new reactor would generate 22 times as much electricity as the current Karachi reactors. It would use 40 to 60 tons of enriched uranium fuel each year, one third of which would turn into nuclear waste.
“You put all of that together, and the hazards are unimaginably larger,” Mian said.
Construction on the plant began in late 2013 and was halted in December 2014 when a judge ordered a new environmental assessment.