AN extraordinary event took place in the US in the mid-1980s and the 1990s. A nuclear power plant, already constructed near the town of Shoreham in Suffolk County, New York, loaded with fuel and ready to start producing electricity, was shut down and dismantled without generating even a single unit of electricity. The local population had insisted an acceptable evacuation plan be prepared in collaboration with local and state government departments. Since the utility — the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) — failed to provide a satisfactory plan, the reactor was decommissioned and dismantled.

In 1979, while the reactor was still under construction, the US had its first serious nuclear reactor accident at the Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania. The partial meltdown of the fuel core released radioactivity into the environment and people nearby were asked to leave the area. There was mass panic as over 140,000 people tried to escape.

For the first time, the American public realised that reactor accidents could pose grave risks to their health and property. This strengthened opposition to the Shoreham reactor from local residents and activists from elsewhere in the country. On June 3, 1979, about 15,000 protesters showed up at the reactor site in Long Island’s largest-ever demonstration. Harsh police action and hundreds of arrests resulted.

In response to the Three Mile Island accident, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) added an important safety condition: nuclear power plant owners must prepare a plan to evacuate nearby populations with local and state authorities’ help. LILCO prepared a plan, but it was deemed credible neither by the county legislature nor the New York governor. The Suffolk legislature in 1983 voted out the evacuation plan 15 to one, saying the county could not be evacuated safely.

With no evacuation plan, will Karachiites let the reactors be built?

The Shoreham plant was completed in 1984. While it waited for clearance from the NRC, the 1986 Chernobyl reactor accident happened, adding to public fear. Public opposition to the reactor rose to 75pc.

Finally in 1989, the New York governor announced, closure and dismantlement of the reactor. By then the cost had spiralled to $5.5 billion. Decommissioning took three years at a cost of $186 million. Such was the level of importance given to preparing a workable plan for evacuation.

Suffolk County residents were so determined to avoid the fallout from a nuclear reactor accident in their backyard they even agreed to pay for its construction and dismantling costs through enhanced electricity bills for the next 30 years. The Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 proved them wise — the people of Fukushima Prefecture were saved only due to rapid, systematic evacuation to safe distances.

This story has relevance for Karachi, whose population will face risks to health and life from a possible accident at any or all of the four large nuclear power reactors under construction on the Hawkes Bay coast.

Suppose a severe accident, however improbable, does take place, resulting in a cloud of radioactivity from the site. The wind normally blows from the reactor site towards Karachi city with an average speed of 15 km per hour. It would take the radioactive cloud about an hour to reach the city’s nearest edge and another two hours to its farthest end, depositing radioactivity on the ground as it passes. Hopefully, the city authorities would know of the approaching disaster, and immediately issue a warning asking people to leave the city to avoid exposure to radioactivity, and people would listen and act quickly.

Now imagine many of the 20m Karachiites trying to leave at the same time. There are only four main roads out of Karachi: the National Highway N5, the Super Highway M9, The RCD Highway N25, and Karachi Northern Bypass M10. No one would take N25 and M10 which would take them closer to the accident site or into the wilderness. That leaves only two roads, N5 and M9. Imagine millions of people trying to flee Karachi through only two major roads.

Contravening international laws and standards, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission has failed to make evacuation plans for those residing within a distance of 30 km from the plant; the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority failed to insist on it when approving construction. No evacuation plan means when people are asked to leave, there will be chaos — traffic logjams, riots, etc. Nearly all will get stuck and be exposed to radioactivity.

The issue of mass evacuation in case of a major nuclear disaster cannot afford nonchalance. No plan exists but it’s not too late. Construction of the reactors should be halted until a viable emergency mass evacuation plan is prepared together with the city administration — and tested for workability. People should not be left in the hands of fate.

Can Karachiites take a leaf from the Shoreham experience?

Written by Dr. A.H. Nayyar. Published in Dawn, September 12th, 2016.