Last week, the world’s attention was suddenly torn from Libya to the developing nuclear crisis in Japan. But the events in Libya and Japan have one thing in common. Each case serves as a powerful reminder of the dangers of nuclear power and the short-sighted, irrational risk analyses of those pursuing the technology.
In Japan, critics have argued for decades that building nuclear reactors in an earthquake-prone zone, such as the one in Fukushima, is a disaster waiting to happen. Radioactive material has a half-life far longer than modern human history. A radioactive leak can have devastating effects on surrounding soils and water while windborne radiation can have a global impact. Even with the best safety measures in place, there is no guarantee against human error, backup systems not working properly or threats to a stable supply of electricity when a large number of reactors have to shut down for days, not to mention the potential loss of human life and well-being.
In the case of civil war-torn Libya, Western states normalised military-industrial relations while ignoring Gaddafi’s internal repression. France led the rush to supply Gaddafi with nuclear reactors, striking a deal with the Libyan leader in 2007 (to US approval). Defending the move, President Sarkozy claimed it would “encourage those who renounce terrorism, who renounce the possession of nuclear arms,” adding that he had also spoken to the Colonel on Libya’s “progress on the path of human rights.” This seems particularly hollow as France and the EU only too willingly had him imprison thousands of would be immigrants who failed to cross the Mediterranean moat, without any UN or Red Cross presence or attention to human rights at all.
Nuclear power has often been called a bridge technology in the fight against global climate change and the pursuit of diversified energy portfolios. Once a nuclear power plant is up and running it does not generate CO2, although full life-cycle assessments expose nuclear’s carbon footprint as far exceeding that of most renewable energy sources. Still, reactors currently in existence may well be kept online for as long as renewables cannot fill the gap. However, current nuclear technology is fundamentally problematic for humanity, as the unresolved issue of nuclear waste, concerns over nuclear proliferation and the genuine security threat to nuclear infrastructure, be it through natural disasters, terrorist activity or civil war, reveal.
If the West pursues uranium-based nuclear energy further, building a new generation of reactors to replace and add to those already in existence it will be impossible to convince others to do without. The UK government signed off on plans for the construction of eight new nuclear power stations last October; President Obama recently embraced nuclear power in the US, approving $8 billion in federal loan guarantees for two new plants to be built in the state of Georgia; and Japan itself has announced timetables for nine new reactors to come online by 2020.
The biggest growth rates for nuclear, however, are to be found in emerging economies, with China, India and Russia currently constructing a large number of new reactors. In the Indian case, the United States played a key role by lifting its three-decade long nuclear trade moratorium. In doing so it damaged its own attempts at preventing the further spread of nuclear technology and set a dangerous precedent for other nuclear powers to follow. Not just France but also South Korea which recently reached deals with the United Arab Emirates and Jordan over exporting nuclear technology and building reactors.
So what impact should the Libyan example have on future risk assessments? As studies at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy have illustrated, nowhere in the industrialised world is there an official public appraisal of the impact of warfare on nuclear reactors. We should heed a warning at a SOAS conference in 2007 from Bahraini Ambassador to the UK Al-Khalifa that a Middle East full of nuclear powers would result in a ‘mushroom field.’ ‘Do you think we have the culture for nuclear?’, Al-Khalifa asked. ‘I do not think so.’
If an open, democratic and reasonable society is what we aspire to then the evidence suggests that while human rights certainly need a renaissance in much of the world, nuclear technology does not.