The Sindh High Court on Thursday blocked the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission from establishing two nuclear power plants on the outskirts of Karachi in violation of environmental laws.
Hearing a petition filed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, Dr. A. H. Nayyar and Arif Belgaumi, a two-member bench led by Chief Justice Maqbool Baqar issued notices to the PAEC, the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority chairman, the Sindh Environment Protection Agency director general, the Pakistan Environment Protection Agency chairman and the Sindh Environmental and Alternative Energy Department to respond to the complaints by Nov. 11.
During proceedings on Thursday, the petitioners’ counsel, Abdul Sattar Pirzada, submitted that the PAEC intended to build the K-2 and K-3 reactors using the ACP-1000 design, which has not been constructed or tested anywhere else. The 1,100MW power plants, which are to be built by the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), have “unclear” safety precautions, said Pirzada, adding that any malfunction could prove disastrous for the 21 million estimated residents of Karachi.
The petitioners’ lawyer claimed that the nuclear disasters in Japan (2011) and Ukraine (1987) had raised concerns about the safety measures adopted in nuclear plants. He said reactors located so close to a major population hub like Karachi required planning for mass evacuation in case of a nuclear disaster. He told the judges that the city lacked the infrastructure for evacuations.
According to Pirzada, the nuclear project was granted an environmental impact assessment without fully complying with environment protection laws, adding that no public hearing had been organized to take all stakeholders’ concerns into consideration. The lawyer urged the judges to declare the project illegal until a public hearing could be organized to determine the suitability of the reactor location.
Pirzada told Newsweek his clients did not wish for the project to be cancelled, as was being presented in the media. “I’m dismayed to see in the press that the perception is that [the petitioners] don’t want the plant to open, that they are against energy generation in Pakistan,” he said. “That is not correct. What they are simply saying is that they have a right to attend a public hearing so all concerns of the public could be addressed.”
The petitioners’ counsel said this was not a matter of national security, but personal safety. “In a place like Pakistan, where governance is so poor anyway and the administration has failed to act on so many occasions, what kind of contingency plan can they have?” he asked, noting that transparency would ensure “all concerns of the public could be addressed.”
Talking to Newsweek via email after the stay order had been issued, Hoodbhoy said he had been forced to turn to the courts after the PAEC had refused to hear the petitioners’ concerns. “They tell us our fears are baseless” because “accidents can’t happen, we’ll be very careful, tsunamis are not coming to Karachi.” He said the PAEC had also claimed it could not share environmental assessment reports on the project because it’s a matter of “national security.” He said they had also claimed the International Atomic Energy Agency has visited the site and declared it safe. “The IAEA is not responsible for nuclear plants. It does not analyze what specific reactors may do under different circumstances. That is not their job,” he added.
He said the project could only be viable if it were moved far away from any major population centers, noting that this was law in the U.S. “They [government] do not have a major evacuation plan for Karachi,” he said. “For Pakistan you have an additional issue where you do have people who want to willfully inflict damage,” he said, adding, “At least the PAEC is being forced to hold a public hearing about the safety aspect, something it has steadily refused to do.”