October Issue 2015

By | Art | Published 4 years ago

Hawke’s Bay is an idyllic beach in Karachi, situated on the shores of the Arabian Sea. Its golden sands and crystal blue waters have for long afforded a break from the chaos and clutter of the city to weekenders. There are people who are fortunate enough to own or be able to rent the beach huts that dot the shore; others take the long drive for just a glimpse of the sea and its tranquil surroundings.

The beach area is surrounded by small fishing villages or goths. Fishermen have dwelt here peacefully for centuries. The men go out to sea on fishing trawlers, dredging its depths for a living. In recent years, various development schemes have been initiated in the vicinity, among which provisions have been made for families dislocated by the Lyari expressway.

Picnickers come to Hawke’s Bay from the elite areas of the southern city through Lyari, and there are approaches through  Baldia Town and Orangi Town as well.   A short distance away from the bathers and their huts is the country’s first ever nuclear power plant, known as Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP), which was constructed in the early ‘70s, under the patronage of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The American company, General Electric, had been approached by Nobel Laureate Dr Abdus Salam to provide technical support for the project. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was accompanied by Dr Salam at the inauguration ceremony.

The ageing plant’s life effectively came to an end in 2003, but after refurbishing with Chinese collaboration, it has soldered on and now produces 85 MW of electricity.

Faced by a growing energy crisis, the previous PPP government had proposed the use of civilian nuclear power for generating electricity. They had planned on expansion of KANUPP as well as the construction of new power plants at the site. The PML-N government concurred, and approved construction of Coastal Power Projects K-II and K-III for Hawke’s Bay, to be funded by Chinese loans.

In 2013, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif laid the foundation stone of the two coastal nuclear power projects, K-II and K-III, with a production capacity of 2217 megawatts near the KANUPP site at Hawke’s Bay beach. The move sparked a debate, with physicists, environmentalists and civil rights organisations highlighting the risks involved in building nuclear power plants on the coastline of a densely populated city with poor infrastructure, lacking any significant institutional capacity disaster management. Citizens have also expressed their concern regarding the use of untried and potentially unsafe Chinese technology for plant construction.

The authorities were very quick in approving an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report regarding the controversial nuclear power plants, which was submitted in a highly objectionable manner, considering the obvious hazards. As the well known scientist and civil rights campaigner, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy wrote in Newsweek Pakistan. “In recommendations pertaining to nuclear plant construction in the United States, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission says a new reactor should be sited away from very densely populated areas, preferably with fewer than 500 people per square mile within a 20-mile radius. That zone around Karachi’s power plant holds about 6,450 people per square mile.”

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The move by the government and the complicity of the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) in this regard compelled concerned individuals and civil society organisations to move  the courts. The court issued notices asking SEPA to abide by its regulations and consult  concerned citizens through a public hearing. But even that practice was exercised in a farcical manner, when inadequate time was granted for reviewing the EIA report and raising concerns. The public hearing was hastily convened at the KANUPP site at Hawke’s Bay, an inconvenient location for people living in distant parts of the city.

The formalities were fulfilled in a controversial manner and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif hurried to the city on a one-day visit to attend the inauguration ceremony last August, amongst oft-repeated statements about the Pakistan-China friendship.

The hasty action taken by the government and blatant disregard for reservations expressed by concerned citizens led to an outcry.  The petitioners in the case, Karamat Ali, Executive Director of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), Mohammad Ali Shah, Chairperson of Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF), Roland de Souza of Shehri-CBE, Dr A H Nayyar, senior scientist and president of the Pakistan Peace Coalition, Arif Belgaumi, senior architect, and Asad Iqbal Butt of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) Karachi, issued a joint statement stating that the project was moving forward with reckless disregard for the safety and well being of the 20 million people who live in Karachi.

They complained that SEPA, in according blanket approval to the project, failed to challenge the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) into considering, as required by its own laws, alternative sources of electricity like wind and solar power that are the most rapidly growing sources of electric power all over the world. Even in China, annual growth in nuclear power plants is only 5-10% of that in wind energy plants.

Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy had, in an interview for The Friday Times stated, “The government has been successfully enticed into the deal because the Chinese are dangling a $6.5 billion soft loan — which is greater than the annual budget of the Pakistan Army. This means that we will not seriously consider alternative means of energy production, such as wind power, which exist aplenty in Pakistan but need capital.”

Issues related to nuclear power plants and the options for environment-friendly alternatives have hardly been brought into the arena of public debate. In this case, the PAEC did not want to conduct public hearings, citing contractual restrictions and bindings. However, awareness is building up and the Hawke’s Bay nuclear plant issue has sparked off a wider debate  about  nuclear projects. PAEC and the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority (PNRA) have been compelled to issue clarifications and assurances, but these fail to address the concerns of the citizens of Karachi.

Just Waiting to Happen…

The road leading to Hawke’s Bay goes through Mawach goth, Suparco Road and the newly inhabited Scheme 42, which has the famous Edhi graveyard where those who have died or were killed in the city, but the bodies were unclaimed, are finally laid to rest in the graveyard of the unknown.

This graveyard is also the final resting place for those who died in the two worst incidents in Karachi in recent years, in terms of the high number of deaths. The first one was the Baldia factory fire in 2012, when 289 people were burnt alive; 18 bodies could not be identified and were buried in the Edhi graveyard. The second incident was the heatwave in June this year, during Ramzan, which resulted in the deaths of more than 2000 people across the city; almost a 100 could not be identified and, as there were no claimants, so eventually they too were buried in the Edhi graveyard.

Both these catastrophes were a result of negligence and lack of safety and emergency measures in the city. A warning for KANUPP and other power plants!

If the authorities are unable to deal with a localised fire and a heatwave, how will they cope in the case of a nuclear accident?  That requires years of training and preparedness to handle emergencies.

The two incidents mentioned earlier showed how government officials and agencies could easily be tempted to avoid noticing all the irregularities and lapses in measures regarding public safety and health.

Another recent case in point is the action of the Karachi Port Trust (KPT), which has been dumping coal in an open space near the railway track along the road from the Tower to Mauripur. The track runs along the centre of two of the most thickly-populated neighbourhoods of the city — Machhar Colony and the Agra Taj Colony.

“The practice has been going on for the last couple of months, they dump the coal there in the open space, which spreads through the air, blackening almost everything around and contaminating the air and water and is a hazard to life,” said Malik Seemab, an employee at a goods transport company which has offices in the vicinity.

But does anyone really care? The ‘concerned’ authorities for the protection of the environment have ignored this issue just as they are intent on ignoring all the danger signals inherent in having nuclear power plants situated in heavily populated areas. Their notions of security defy comprehension: a Karachi Nuclear Power Complex (KNPC) newspaper ad of a tender notice for some scrap items from 2011 mentioned, “For the visit of site plant, only Muslims with NADRA original CNIC will be allowed after confirming at security gate.”

As an activist pointed out “Perhaps, it was one way to protect the sacred nuclear site from inviting any calamity or incident.”  If that is the level of comprehension of what security at a nuclear power plant comprises, then Karachi is totally unprotected and unprepared for any nuclear fallout or incident — like the Japanese tsunami that wreaked havoc on their heavily fortified nuclear plant now known as the Fukushima disaster. Does anyone care?

This article was originally published in Newsline’s October 2015 issue.

Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order