Nuclear agenda after 3/11

by Ramesh Thakur

A year after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, all but two of the country’s 54 nuclear reactors are shut down. The Japanese people remain confused, apprehensive and distrustful of government statements and reassurances. The future of the nuclear power industry remains uncertain domestically even while exports of nuclear technology and materials continue.

Fukushima stands as Japan’s greatest humanitarian disaster since 1945. The official death toll is 15,854 killed, with another 3,155 missing and more than 6,000 injured. Nearly 344,000 people were evacuated. Many are still unable to return to their homes and some never will. The toll on the physical heath and mental well-being has also been heavy. It may not be possible to decommission the ruined reactors for several decades.

Coincidentally on the anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that caused the disaster in the Fukushima reactor, a small group of nuclear experts met in Tokyo under the auspices of the Toda Institute to discuss the fragile state of the global nuclear order. We concluded that the world is at a crossroads on all three dimensions of nuclear policy: the use of civil nuclear energy for electrical power, nuclear nonproliferation, and nuclear disarmament.

The Fukushima disaster underlined the importance of preparing for accidents and crises well in advance of the event because it is much more damaging to devise a plan on the day of or the day after such events. We have similarly been warned repeatedly of the dangers of a cascade of proliferation unless we address the countries of concern and the drivers of their nuclear proliferation programs. In addition, several decades after the original NPT bargain, the need to achieve rapid and demonstrable progress on nuclear disarmament becomes ever more urgent.

This will require overcoming public and policy apathy, ignorance and complacency on regional and global nuclear orders across the world. Nuclear weapons are uniquely destructive and therefore uniquely threatening to all our security. The near universalization of the access to nuclear technology, skills and materials has brought about a remarkable democratization of the weapons and means of total destruction. In consequence there is a compelling need to use the power of democratic mobilization to challenge and overcome the prevailing orthodoxy.

Specifically, we need research and evidence based analysis and advocacy on various fronts. First, to mobilize public consciousness to confront the reigning complacency on the risks and dangers both of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. The second requirement is to energize policy communities to the urgency and seriousness of the nuclear threats and the availability of nonnuclear alternatives as anchors of national and international security orders.

With respect to civil energy, choices and decisions have to be made on appropriate fuel cycles given energy needs and geological circumstances as relevant and the urgent requirement to satisfy safety (to minimize chances of accidents and have contingency plans to deal quickly and effectively with any accidents), security (to stop theft of nuclear materials by unauthorized people, including terrorists), and safeguard (to stop nuclear materials from being diverted to weapons production) dimensions.

Nuclear power is unquestionably a cleaner and greener alternative to other fuel choices. But if the risks are within an acceptable magnitude of order, the markets should be left to decide without governments shifting liability to the public sector. Only market-based decisions will reflect the true costs and risks, and determine the economic viability of such projects. On nuclear weapons, the risks are both urgent and grave. The existing arsenals and nuclear forces postures are still trapped in the logics of Cold War deterrence and regional analogues in Northeast Asia and South Asia.

On nuclear proliferation risks the world must prevent weaponization by Iran and strive to roll back the weapons program of North Korea. Beyond these immediate priorities, there is an equally compelling need to address shortcomings and deficiencies in the regional and international regimes for detecting and preventing any further proliferation either to state or nonstate actors.

We agreed that the biggest stimulus to nuclear weapons proliferation is their continued possession by nine states , with over 90 percent of weapons being held by Russia and the United States. If nuclear weapons did not exist, they could not proliferate. But because they do exist, they will proliferate. In other words, the very fact of their existence in the arsenals of nine countries is sufficient to guarantee that they will proliferate to other countries and nonstate actors. Conversely, nuclear disarmament is a necessary condition of nuclear nonproliferation.

This requires us to build on — and if necessary around — the NPT in order to have a nuclear-free world based on a universal, binding and verifiable nuclear weapons convention. We must prepare for a transition to a world that will construct all our common security free of the existence and threat of nuclear weapons, without in the meantime jeopardizing the stability of the existing nuclear order centered on the NPT.

The last caution implies care in avoiding two unfortunate outcomes in a precipitate rush to nuclear disarmament. First, by getting rid of nuclear weapons, we must not tip into a world where countries believe they can return to massively destructive conventional wars like the two world wars. Second, we must make sure that those non-nuclear states who shelter under the nuclear umbrella of others do not feel so threatened that they decide to get their own bombs. America’s Asian allies, for example, are already jittery about the credibility of the U.S. commitment to continue as the guarantor of stability and order in the Asia-Pacific, owing to Washington’s inability to address budgetary problems, economic stagnation, and political gridlock.

The third requirement is to create a global network of social movements as powerful catalysts and agents of change from nuclear to non-nuclear anchors. The great antinuclear movements of the 1980s need to be reinvigorated and exploit modern social media tools to connect with one another in today’s networked world. The occupy movements have demonstrated the disaffection of people from the dominant political and financial elites. To convert movements into coalitions of change requires a shift from protest to engagement with politics and policy.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University, and and adjunct professor at the Institute of Ethics, Governance and Law, Griffith University.