Nuclear power has been considered to be clean energy. Ever since the dawn of the nuclear age, there has been a popular demand for utilising nuclear power for peaceful purposes. The U.S. has been recognised as the world’s premier country to introduce nuclear power. Ironically, the very country that played a pioneering role in developing nuclear energy has been accused of being the first nation to manufacture and use atomic bombs. Then the American administration’s decision to drop two atom bombs over Japan killed millions of people in 1945.
While the U.S. cannot avoid being blamed for misusing nuclear power, its former president Eisenhower had campaigned hard for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. His initiative, known as “Atoms for Peace”, of December 1953 is worth mentioning, which created a conducive atmosphere for giving birth to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1957. As an affiliated agency of the UN, the IAEA is guided by two objectives, i.e., promoting peaceful application of nuclear energy and preventing the clandestine diversion of fissile nuclear materials into weapons production.
However, the IAEA has been subjected to criticism of being biased in favour of its powerful members of the Board of Governors. The current nuclear impasse in Iran is a case in point where the UN and other world powers have been disappointingly engaged in stopping the perceived nuclearisation of the country. The latest two rounds of negotiations between Iran and the P-5+ Germany to resolve the nuclear standoff - as the former is alleged to have pursued nuclear weapons under the guise of research reactors - have hardly yielded any positive results.
A similar nuclear controversy arose in connection with North Korea’s nuclear programme in the 1990s and early 2000s, which revolved around the question of whether a member of the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) could exercise its legitimate right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy by not adhering to the provisions of the treaty. Since North Korea decided to withdraw from the NPT in 2003 and exploded nuclear devices twice in 2006 and 2009 to the surprise of the international community, the resolution of the country’s nuclear imbroglio has remained as elusive as ever.
Both these incidents in recent times attest to the fact that there is a conflict between promoting power reactors and banning atomic bombs. In this ongoing oddity, the IAEA seems to have become the victim as it has failed in meeting its fundamental objective of spreading the peaceful fruits of nuclear technology - radioisotopes for medicine, agriculture and industry - by denying the military uses of nuclear energy.
Fairly speaking, the IAEA is a warning system rather than a police, which can only bring the wrong doings of any member to the attention of the UN Security Council. Nevertheless, the UN agency has sometimes been accused of issuing flawed reports with regard to alleged weaponisation of some members.
Against the backdrop of increased greenhouse gas emissions leading to global warming, the aspirations of the developing countries, especially those with higher economic growth rates, for harnessing nuclear power have significantly gone up. Available statistics suggest that the pace of expansion of nuclear power reactors in emerging Asian economies such as China and India, among others, has been quicker. A growing world nuclear market requires substantial expansion of power reactors to provide the increasing fuel.
The Indo-US controversial civilian nuclear cooperation agreement of 2008 and the world’s only superpower’s arms twisting of nuclear suppliers to provide country-specific exemption to India highlights the craze for producing nuclear energy as well as its commercialisation.
Being a clean energy as opposed to fossil fuels that aggravate environmental degradation, the nuclear industry is likely to be attractive for many middle-income developing countries around the world. This was evidenced by the increasing number of countries with nuclear power reactors under operation and also those applying for new reactors as verified by the IAEA.
But the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant in Japan on March 11, 2011 has dealt a severe blow to an industry that was boosted by negative climatic affects engendered by carbon emissions levels which have gone alarmingly high. The upcoming Rio+20 world event from June 20-22 will be highlighting in more detail the catastrophic impacts brought about by global warming. It may, hopefully, prompt discussion on various forms of clean energy to improve the environment.
While acknowledging the positive side of the use of nuclear energy, one cannot lose sight of the danger inherent in its use as it is prone to problems of safety and safeguards. Safety is related to the calamity arising out of nuclear accidents and safeguards apply to stopping possible diversion of fissionable materials to military uses. Most of the reactors use uranium, one of the basic fuel ingredients, and such uranium is enriched to a maximum 3.5 per cent, a level much below than required for weapons-grade materials. The enrichment facilities in any country with power reactors could possibly be a major point of diversion of fission materials for military purposes.
One of the risks involved in producing nuclear power is reactor-operation itself, because the fission process produces highly radioactive by-products in the fuel, which could be sought by a would-be terrorist or hijacker. Reprocessing and enrichment are the most critical of all phases of the nuclear fuel cycle because plutonium is obtained through reprocessing, and bomb-grade material is produced only from highly enriched uranium (HEU) also widely referred to as U-235.
Hence, how the use of the peaceful atom can be expanded to meet the world’s elevated energy needs prompted largely by industrialisation in the developing world without incurring unacceptable public risks is a serious challenge. Striking a bearable balance between expansion of the nuclear industry and its associated risks - not only in terms of catastrophes caused by accidents in Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) but also in clandestine pursuit of nuclear weapons by possible cheating of the NPT - might be possible through designing an advanced category of power plants equipped with increased safety features and multilateralisation of the nuclear fuel cycle.
In pursuance of this approach, a strong multilateral framework is needed for the control of nuclear facilities and materials. All aspirants of peaceful nuclear energy should have the confidence that the others are playing the game fairly. Once such confidence is developed, both safety and safeguards can be steadily enhanced. This may pave the way for embracing peaceful atoms by all those who can afford to.