Some learned from Fukushima. Did we?

Published: March 11, 2012
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The writer teaches physics and political science at LUMS

The writer teaches physics and political science at LUMS

One year ago, on March 11, 2011, a 30-foot monster wave smashed into Fukushima Daiichi’s complex of six nuclear reactors on the northern coast of Japan. Just a handful died as uncontrollable reactors inched towards meltdown and radiation poured out. But, apart from a few countries, the dream of a nuclear renaissance suddenly turned into a nightmare everywhere else.

A traumatised Japan, where nuclear power provided 30 per cent of its energy needs, has shut down all except two of its 55 reactors. Germany has decided to jump ship; within weeks of the disaster it decided to close its nuclear plants permanently. A third of the country’s reactors were decommissioned immediately, others will be wound down by 2022. In the UK, 61 per cent of people said they are strongly opposed to any new nuclear power station being built near their home. Italy and Switzerland have also voted against nuclear energy, while France is engaged in deep self-reflection.

Overreaction? No! The truth about Fukushima is just emerging — and it is scary. Although Japanese leaders had spoken soothing words to the public, they had badly panicked. A 200-page report on the disaster, to be released this week, quotes the chief cabinet secretary at the time, Yukio Edano, as warning that a “demonic chain reaction” of plant meltdowns could result in the evacuation of Tokyo, 150 miles away.

Tokyo escaped, of course, but the damaged plants will need about 40 years for their melted cores to be controlled and fully disposed off. A big swathe of territory lies contaminated. Latest estimates are that a staggering 40,000 tera-becquerels of radioactive cesium were released, far greater than the 89 tera-becquerels after the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

The cesium has made its way into supermarket beef, vegetables, and ocean fish. Tens of thousands of Fukushima refugees are living a difficult life after fleeing the clouds of deadly radiation. A 20-kilometre no-go zone surrounds the plants. In spite of much-vaunted Japanese technology and $13 billion spent so far on decontamination, progress is haphazard and slow.

Fukushima has also shaken China and India, though much less. They were planning 77 and 23 new reactors, respectively. But a normally passive population is speaking up in China. China’s eastern province of Anhui province opposes the Pengze plant, located in a populated area. A formal appeal has been made to Beijing to stop construction.

India’s nuclear programme, a holy cow until now, is also being protested. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh angrily denounced protests against the Koodankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu, claiming these were being led by foreign-funded NGOs. Mass protests and hunger strikes by social movements have led to deaths, injuries and riots in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Jaitapur. The construction of two nuclear plants has been delayed and West Bengal has dropped plans for six Russian reactors.

The world is still worried about Fukushima. But does Pakistan worry? Even as explosions tore through the nuclear complex, the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Commission flatly declared that a Fukushima could never happen here. It issued the following vanilla guarantee: “Due to geographical differences between Pakistan and Japan, the likelihood that similar extreme natural events may occur in the vicinity of the country’s nuclear plants is quite small”.

Since two extreme natural events are unlikely to be similar, this is technically correct. But how would Pakistan deal with massive radioactive release after deliberate sabotage, a terrorist attack, equipment failure, or operator error? Floods and earthquakes have shown that the country can make piteous calls for international aid but lacks the capacity to deal with disasters, natural and human-caused.

Fukushima should be an eye-opener. Japan has good engineering knowledge and practices, and a strong safety culture. Pakistan does not. Looking for shortcuts, and choosing to put faith in God rather than precautions, is in the national character. Nuclear plant operators can easily overlook critical safety procedures; outsiders cannot know because everything lies under the wrap of nuclear security. Bad practices are readily covered up.

Post-Fukushima, the science journal Nature recently teamed up with the Nasa centre based at Columbia University to see which nuclear plants have the largest populations surrounding them and, therefore, are potentially the most dangerous. The winner turns out to be Karachi. It has more people than any other in the world — 8.2 million by their estimates — who live within 30 kilometres of a nuclear plant, KANUPP.

Located by the seaside, this aging 40-year-old reactor is chronically incontinent and has leaked heavy water often, most recently earlier this year. Supplied by Canada, it went into in operation in December 1972 and completed its 30-year life span in 2002. But since then, lifetime extensions have kept this geriatric alive.

Power production has been erratic. According to IAEA statistics, KANUPP has been down 70.4 per cent of the time. A Stanford CISAC report says: “KANUPP performance is lower than even the oldest CANDU reactors operated in Canada and elsewhere except for the Rawatbhata reactors in India.” But even if it had operated as per design (120MW of electrical power), it could supply only 5-6 per cent of Karachi’s total electrical power needs — barely enough for Golimar and Lyari.

While of doubtful benefit, KANUPP has tons of radioactive material stored in its core and can wreak terrible destruction if a major accident happens. Deadly radioactivity could be carried by the sea breeze toward the city. If lucky, the rich and the privileged might succeed in running away. But the poor would be doomed. The city would fall to looters and criminals, roads would be clogged, and vital services would collapse.

Dismissing Fukushima as irrelevant, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) has announced that it will seek to extend KANUPP’s life once again. Its chairman declared KANUPP to be safe for another 10 years and said “the plant’s operations would be made safer in case the KESC paid its dues on a frequent basis”. PAEC has further stated that KANUPP-II and KANUPP-III, each more than ten times the power of KANUPP-I, will be built at the same site. While the risk-benefit calculus of nuclear power can argued both ways, locating nuclear reactors near an unevacuable megacity is criminally foolish.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 12th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (35)

  • faraz
    Mar 11, 2012 - 10:03PM

    Pakistan lies at the intersection of Indian, Eurasian and Arabian plate. Punjab and Sindh lie on the north-western corner of the Indian plate while Balochistan and KP lie on the Eurasian plate. And Karachi lies on an active fault line. I read somewhere that a level 7 earthquake would shatter more than 60 percent buildings of the city.

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  • zalim singh
    Mar 11, 2012 - 10:14PM

    no sir.

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  • sana
    Mar 11, 2012 - 10:18PM

    an extremely well thought out article.
    Thankyou!
    Didnt know about the hazards of these plants before!

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  • imran
    Mar 11, 2012 - 11:15PM

    I am living in Khushab city (29 Kilometer away from Khushap atomic plant). Three years ago news spread in the city about the explosion in plant. Thanks God! that was a minor accident. But I feel population around the area had no awareness about the possible outcome of any disastrous. I think there should be a mass evacuation plan from these areas and also some awareness program for locals in case of any future incident. If an assessment of engineers, of country like Japan, proved wrong at the end, I have no trust on Pakistani authorities’ safety measures and their claims.

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  • Nadir
    Mar 11, 2012 - 11:15PM

    If there is, God forbid, a nuclear meltdown, we will spend our time blaming India, America or Israel, while turning the other way to the unseen dangers of radioactivity.

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  • Hassan
    Mar 11, 2012 - 11:37PM

    Especially in a country like Pakistan, with plentiful untapped potential for fossil and renewable energy, and a dearth of technical competence and intellect, it makes little sense to even think of operating nuclear power plants. The sort of things that go on here, one day post disaster we may be informed that the reactor containment shell was nothing but a pile of sand rather than concrete.

    In fact the price of electricity has become so high in Pakistan, that costly alternatives such as solar are fast becoming viable and quite feasible here on a domestic scale. If we are looking for a solution to the energy crises, I think it is to be found elsewhere, not nuclear.

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  • Ahmed
    Mar 11, 2012 - 11:44PM

    I feel PAEC is only going after atomic energy to have a foothold in power structure. Otherwise, we are lucky that we have a lot of sun and wind energy opportunities in Pakistan. In my opinion, Pakistan should stay away from nuclear power plants and use as much green energy as possible.

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  • Hafeez
    Mar 12, 2012 - 12:05AM

    Currently the total share of nuclear energy in electricity is around 0.5 percent in Pakistan. It is very expensive as well. It would be a lot better to roll all these nuclear plants and spend instead on the renewable energy. Policy makers ! Please listen and understand these calls.

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  • Nawaz
    Mar 12, 2012 - 1:16AM

    Now call him Dr. liberal who is American agent. Shame on right wing extremists.

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  • unspokenhermit
    Mar 12, 2012 - 6:48AM

    Few countries are still adamant to set up nuclear plants and they are ready to sacrifice anything for that. All these attempts to bring more and more nuclear reactors into operation do not appear to have some learning from Fukushima. I recently came across these atmpospheric simulations, produced an American independent organization, that indicate TEPCO vastly under-reported radionuclide emissions from the Fukushima Plant.

    http://www.datapoke.org/blog/8/study-modeling-fukushima-npp-radioactive-contamination-dispersion-utilizing-chino-m-et-al-source-terms/

    http://www.datapoke.org/partmom/a=40

    I’ve suspected for some time that the publicly released emissions data had been manipulated – If the models are correct I suppose this re enforces my hunch. Is there anyone here that can help us explain the implications of this model?

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  • Hafiz Shah Ali
    Mar 12, 2012 - 8:38AM

    Very good article.
    The October 8, 2005 earthquake was not a freak “event,” analogous, for example, to a meteorite striking from outer space. The problem is due less to the Act of Nature and more to the Inaction of Man.
    Times magazine of 01 June 2009 on page 44 gave a listing of 10 World’s most Earthquake Prone Cities (mega cities).Karachi is listed at number 9 and in my view probably the most unprepared.
    A review of historical seismicity near Karachi reveals:  It is within striking distance of one or more Mw 8 subduction zone events to the west  reverse faulting earthquakes with 6< Mw <8 in the Kachchh region to the east  Mw 7.9 strike ruptures to the northwest, and  Mw 6 earthquakes near and possibly beneath the city, (little or no data are available to characterize return times and probabilities for any of these events (Dr Bilham et al)

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  • Karachi
    Mar 12, 2012 - 9:03AM

    “While the risk-benefit calculus of nuclear power can argued both ways, locating nuclear reactors near an unevacuable megacity is criminally foolish.”

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  • Ather Zaidi
    Mar 12, 2012 - 9:49AM

    A well-articulated article. The policy-makers and the politicians (especially those based in Karachi) must take into account the points raised by Dr. Pervez and raise it as an important issue.

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  • Saif M
    Mar 12, 2012 - 9:50AM

    This article is surely inspired by anti-Islamic forces :))))

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  • Khan
    Mar 12, 2012 - 10:42AM

    @Hassan

    IF we rely on fossil fuel too much, then issues of CO2 emissions and global warming should be discussed. Also the nuclear energy is cost-effective.

    We can have hydal power, but then India is not releasing water in the rivers our dams rely on.
    I think Dr. Hoodbhoy dramatizes minor issues. Accidents and misfortunes can happen anytime, anywhere.

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  • Citizen
    Mar 12, 2012 - 11:04AM

    wonderful article . I wonder why Govt had turned deaf ears to this issue . Kudos to Mr Pervez for bringing up such an important issue and fulfilling his responsibility as a true citizen, and researcher. No hopes from government , all we can do is pray ;May Allah keep Pakistan in its safety . ameen

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  • Subah
    Mar 12, 2012 - 11:15AM

    Pakistan seldom learns from something let alone this very important issue. To start with we never think of power generating projects for the benefit of the people so how can we think of their health safety. Other countries have got very far in achieving all techniques available for power generation. Pakistan has been blessed with numerous resources. Unfortunately, the leaders have thought of nothing but selfish incentives. Very well said that the natural calamities which befall our nation have shown how to make piteous calls for aid. Our leaders have used such calamities as a scapegoat to blame for their failure to deliver. ( And of course blaming the past governments).
    For the leaders, such calamities are a blessing in disguise, because it has been in the news lately that the aid has’nt been spent rightly. It is true that Pakistan lies on the most dangerous earthquake belt. But why worry or learn, we dont even have the Kalabagh dam to save!
    We never think good for the people. The old plant existing on the coastal area polluting the sea breeze with radioactive material might be no problem for the authorities because so many old aircrafts that have grounded at last also had a great risk of meeting disaster and human casualties. The death toll risen sharply due to suicides goes unnoticed. First you have to teach these people the harms of the discharge from such plants and the life long effects and the drastic effects on the food we eat and the generations to come.

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  • Vinayak
    Mar 12, 2012 - 11:33AM

    The author has done very impressive research and he has quoted very good statistics to support his arguments. Before reading this article, I was in 2 minds as to whether developing nations should invest in nuclear energy, but now my opinion is clear.

    Things which come out of the article are —

    (1) Even though the risk of something untoward happening with a nuclear reactor is very less, it is not a risk which is worth taking.

    (2) The cleanup cost following a nuclear catastrophe is huge. Japan spent some $ 13 billion. Certainly Pakistan cannot afford to spend so much.

    (3) In case of a nuclear disaster, a large area around the reactor will be rendered uninhabitable for generations to come.

    (4) The author says that nuclear catastrophe can arise not only because of earthquake, but it can occur because of human error, or sabotage also. Indeed the threat of deliberate sabotage seems to be great.

    The author is a known opponent of nuclear bombs. I would like to see an article from him which creates awareness of the danger of nuclear submarines.

    I read that the nuclear fuel in the core of sunken nuclear submarines, is not easy to recover. The radioactive material will eventually get released into the ocean, and ocean currents will carry it all over the world, affecting marine life and rendering sea-food unfit for human consumption.

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  • Abid Saleem
    Mar 12, 2012 - 12:16PM

    Nuclear meltdown…..we are facing brain meltdown….who is going to remedy that!

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  • R20
    Mar 12, 2012 - 12:41PM

    Congrats to Hoodbhoy for writing such a good article on a issue which was depressing me and others present when told by a friend that how dangerous this plant was. How it has aged out and how every year the technical team sends a report to the authority for the closure but ignored on political and other reasons. One thing is for sure nuclear energy is far more dangerous, country like Pakistan where SOP’s and written security guidelines are ignored and felt proud of should not have one. Whereas faith in God is concerned I have one but I believe the teaching of Islam the Religion I follow teaches you for saving lives super-seeds all the other must do’s (Faraiz). Islam teaches you to save masses and nuclear technology always jeopardizes many lives therefore to be proud of having it is un-islamic.

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  • faraz
    Mar 12, 2012 - 12:52PM

    Wouldn’t it be helpful if you suggest alternate sources of energy for Sindh and particularly Karachi ? In current power crisis, even a MW of power is critical!
    The only cheap alternate source for this area is wind energy which can be produced 24/7, 365 days a year by establishing wind farms across the coastline. The venture can be more advantageous by establishing wind turbine manufacturing industry in Karachi providing jobs to thousands. Anybody in private sector got the guts to do it?

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  • Mar 12, 2012 - 1:03PM

    Thank you Dr. Hoodbhoy,
    Its a scary proposition to live in Karachi. To highlight something of this importance is a must. We, the citizens MUST do smthg together, as we know the govt wont. But an initiative on this, a movement is very important.
    Rgds,

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  • Irtiza
    Mar 12, 2012 - 4:02PM

    Paranoia, delusion and overfear of a nuclear holocaust is equally as bad as inadequate planning, having faith in God and not in safety preparations, and mindless over-optimism about one’s capability.

    That’s exactly what this article has successfully achieved.

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  • mateen saeed
    Mar 12, 2012 - 5:10PM

    Dear Professor Sahib, this article like your last one “run for your life”, is equally thought provoking, although nature of threat lying underneath are different. Lets pray, this is all we can collectively do.

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  • Abdul Rehman
    Mar 12, 2012 - 5:50PM

    A relative of mine owns a factory and he releases poisonous chemicals into the ground with a thought to the consequences. This is the Pakistani mentality. I hope our nuclear plants are run better.

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  • Mar 12, 2012 - 6:50PM

    “Don’t worry, Abdullah Shah Ghazi will save us, as always!” is what I’ve heard the most. Thanks to Dr. Hoodbhoy for such an informative piece.

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  • Cautious
    Mar 12, 2012 - 7:20PM

    Outstanding article — like everything in life you have to look at the cost vs the benefit and it would appear that the benefit of keeping around dilapidated outdated nuclear plants is negligible. The elephant in the room is how Pakistan could defer proper maintenance on a nuclear reactor to the point where it’s off-line 70% of the time.

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  • MarkH
    Mar 12, 2012 - 7:39PM

    @Vinayak:
    I’ll simplify it for you. If nuclear anything touches anything, it’s bad for a good span of time and not easy to clean.

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  • gt
    Mar 12, 2012 - 9:13PM

    Dear Prof. Hoodbhoy,

    Coal on average contains 70 parts per million of mercury and arsenic and about 6 parts per million of uranium. Coal used for power generation also creates a minimum of 25% ash. A superthermal power plant burns several millions metric tons [Mg] of coal/year, depending on its capacity.

    Please do the maths! Per million tons, at least 70 Mg of arsenic and mercury are volatilized into the atmosphere along with at least 6 Mg of uranium metal. These are very toxic to animal and human life and also tend to generate a yield ceiling on agricultural crops, over a period of time. Now multiply the effects of ONE SUPERTHERMAL power plant, to say nothing of many! Of course, expensive scrubbing of smokestacks could remove a part of the pollutants, especially the Nitrogen dioxide fractions and a few others. That is not being done in China or India, and nor will it transpire in Pakistan. Coal gasification in situ sounds great, but again has a huge pollution load on both atmosphere & ground water.

    Returning to the conventional superthermal plant, please calculate the amount of ash and the area required to dispose of it and the pollution problems caused. You are a master mathematician and also very intellectually honest. I cannot say anything about nuclear plants because it lies beyond my area of competence. However, I have outlined some of the issues dogging coal-fired electricity. Thank you for your continued concerns.

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  • Irshad Khan
    Mar 12, 2012 - 9:23PM

    his appreciable warning will and shall not prevail. Further, due to prevailing law and order situation, a common man`s life is not safe anywhere in Pakistan then how it can be made safe in case of a calamity. We do not need expensive Nuclear Energy as we have many other alternatives ie hydro, coal, wind and solar energy sources in surplus.Recommend

  • gt
    Mar 12, 2012 - 9:28PM

    Mark H,

    You are quite wrong. Nuclear isotopes can have different half-lives. Some have half-lives of mere days, including water, types of carbon etc. And, the types of radiation emitted are diverse, alpha particles, beta which are electrons but which can be spun up to more energetic states under certain conditions [brehmstrahllung], and more high energy neutron/gamma radiation/ X-rays etc. There are different levels of exposure as well, and time x dosage interaction.

    Finally, there are isotopes like Iodine 125, and Strontium 99M that migrate to specific organs; that iodine to the thyroid gland, and the strontium to the bones. These particular types and attendant neutron emissions are quite damaging to the human body.

    Beta sources when ingested can also be damaging to the membranes.

    But it is not true to say that when something touches something, it becomes toxic. Carbon 11 and Carbon 13 isotopes are used in a great many applications, along with many other isotopes that enter the human body and perform MANY useful and lifesaving tasks. It is all a matter of proportion and degree.

    You may be surprised to learn how strong the background radiation is from a coal-fired plant, and what the hazards are from such a source. I have tried to describe this in another post. However, if you are going to use energy at the rate of a Western civilization, then there are some tradeoffs that are going to have to be made!!!

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  • XX
    Mar 13, 2012 - 12:10AM

    I believe the Fukushima reactors were damaged due to the force of the tsunami and not due to the earthquake, as they were engineered to withstand an earthquake of that magnitude but it was not possible to safeguard against a tsunami of that force (that’s just my understanding). If that’s the case then as long as we take the necessary engineering precautions against earthquakes and keep the reactors away from coastal areas then it would probably not be possible to have a Fukushima-like event here.
    If we do keep the reactors in coastal areas and if we have a tsunami as well, then a Fukushima-like event is probably inevitable, no matter how good the engineering.

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  • Majid
    Mar 13, 2012 - 12:37AM

    I will disagree with the author regarding Pakistan’s capacity to deal with nuclear disasters. International atomic energy agency ( IAEA) has placed Pakistan’s nuclear security action plan (NSAP) as a bench mark for other nuclear states. More over Pakistan’s standard to extend or decommission the nuclear power plant are by no means less than international standard set forth by IAEA and other relevant international instruments. I would like to ask that if Pakistani scientists are so in competent then there should have been radiation leaks incidents in nuclear power plants or during transporting radioactive waste. But is there any incident reported so far?

    Nuclear power is not without challenges but Pakistan as an established and responsible nuclear state has managed to uphold professional excellence in managing nuclear operations which the author is well aware.

    Space for improvement is always there and Pakistan’s scientific community continues to induct standard practices in this regards.

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  • freehussaini
    Mar 13, 2012 - 8:46AM

    KANUPP offers lucrative jobs to the scions of the well-connected. Plus, there is big money in there for the rulers through classified mega-contracts and secret nuclear budgets. All this skimmed money gets deposited overseas into the personal accounts of the rulers who can move to safe areas as the people perish due to the meltdown the dear Professor foresees. Then, the rulers would turn around and would make more money by collecting and stealing the huge disaster donations the world might respond with. A meltdown at KANUPP might actually be a boon to the Pakistani rulers. Dead or, alive, KANUPP is a cash cow to the rulers. They would never shut down KANUPP before it melts down.

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  • Rishabh Jain
    Mar 14, 2012 - 10:13PM

    Indians and Pakistanis:
    Need to stop writing here …
    get out on the street and sh(o)ut down these reactors.
    For an even more damning analysis of the shortcoming
    of India’s civil nuclear energy programme,
    see the article by Nityanand Jayaram and Sundar Rajan.
    It will make us all realise why India was wrong in 1972,
    to go nuclear and why Pakistanis were wrong in 1998.
    The entire nuclear paradigm is based on the flawed
    international sense of (in)security.
    Thank you, Mr. Hoodbhoy for keeping up with this protest.

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