South Asian Perspective of Nuclear Safety

Intense debate has been prompted about nuclear safety since the world faced its fourth nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan on March 11, 2011. The latest nuclear accident was caused by earthquake which led to devastating tsunami. It was tsunami that brought damage to nuclear power plant leading to spread of radiation in surrounding areas of Fukushima. Earthquakes are hardly predictable though geologists tend to categorize different regions as being at risk of this disaster based on the study of region’s geological survey.

As per various geological studies done in the region, South Asian countries seem to be more vulnerable to earthquake. A quick look at history testifies this prediction. In the recent decades many South Asian countries have suffered much owing to earthquake. India, Pakistan, Afghanistan have been hit very often by earthquake resulting in colossal loss of lives and materials. In this context the earthquake measuring 6.8 rector scale the epicenter of which was the Indian state of Sikkim close to Nepal’s borders that struck on September 18, 2011 reminds us of impending catastrophe in our region.

The experience of Japan has established the fact that areas that are prone to earthquake carry added risks if there are nuclear installations be it for military or peaceful purposes. Even the nuclear power reactors meant for producing energy of medical research may be damaged through earthquakes and become the cause of exposing the entire region to the dangerous level of radiation. The transient evacuation of Nepal’s embassy from Tokyo in March for fear of radiation leaked from Fukushima nuclear plant  exemplifies the wreckage.

Nuclear safety has many dimensions. The issue of safety is more serious when there are nuclear reactors that produce highly enriched uranium and reprocessed plutonium. These ingredients have dual-use which means that with a little extra effort countries determined on going nuclear can manufacture atomic bombs if the countries are already producing such fissionable materials.

Therefore, countries are sometimes vying for peaceful nuclear programs and simultaneously engaged in making atomic bombs. The dual-use technologies combined with nations’ hidden design of producing nuclear weapons have compromised the novel objective of the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which seeks to stem the proliferation of atomic bombs.

The past nuclear accidents which occurred in 1979 (US), 1982 (France) and 1986 (Ukraine) were all connected to peaceful nuclear programs. Although some reviews concerning safety measures were made following those incidents, none of the countries with nuclear power reactors have adopted any radical measures to drastically reduce their reliance on nuclear energy. Such consistent pursuit of nuclear energy will likely be seen in foreseeable future.

In the immediate aftermath of world’s largest nuclear accident in Chernobyl in April, 1986 it was widely thought that nuclear power would be revisited. Actually Chernobyl explosion drove a large amount of radioactive debris-parts of the fuel rods-30,000 feet high in the air. But the above incident was not instrumental in effecting the nuclear policy of countries around the world.

However, after Fukushima disaster some countries dependent on nuclear energy started the reorientation of their nuclear policies. Among them Germany reacted quickly by announcing the closure of a number of nuclear plants where it believed that the plants were not safe. Sweden was also proposing to shut down some nuclear power plants and the U.S. also unveiled its desire to adopt more stringent safety measures to avoid recurrence of Fukushima-style disasters.

Worldwide nuclear power accounts for 14% of electricity generation but fight against global warming due to excessive use of fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil, has helped to accelerate the expansion of nuclear energy. Available sources from the International Atomic Energy Agency suggest that 440 nuclear power reactors are in operation around the world. Sixty such plants are being built and most of them in the developing world this year. Nuclear energy has been favored because of ruinous effects of the carbon emissions released from the consumption of fossil fuels on global environment.

Mohamed El Baradei, former Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has predicted that global nuclear power capacity could double by 2030.  Currently thirty countries already use nuclear power. Nepal’s immediate neighbors and emerging global powers like China and India are heavily investing in nuclear power generation. Suffice it to say that India’s aspiration to become a major producer of nuclear energy has been remarkably boosted by 2008 Nuclear Cooperation Agreement with the U.S.

In this connection a new joint study report on Indo-U.S. cooperation cosponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, underscores the importance of India to America as both agree to work cooperatively in crafting new Asian security where the latter acknowledges the nonproliferation credentials of the former.

As per the above report president Obama during his 2010 visit to India announced U.S. intention of supporting India’s phased induction into four multilateral export control regime like Nuclear Suppliers Group, Missile Technology Control Regime, Australia Group and Wassennar Arrangement.

How much India’s prospects for producing nuclear energy have been enhanced by 2008 Indo-U.S. Agreement is evidenced by its ability to import uranium from Kazakhstan and other countries to produce 40% more nuclear energy in 2010 than in the previous years. Without U.S. collaboration India would not have been granted country-specific exemption from Nuclear Suppliers Group allowing her to enter the nonproliferation mainstream and revitalize its nuclear sector.

South Asian security environment is predominantly shaped by Indo-Pakistan relations. Historically, bilateral relationship between these two nuclear powers has remained more adversarial rather than congenial and their nuclear competition makes the neighborhood worrisome when the issue of nuclear safety captures the world attention.

Unhappily, Pakistan has to this day not had a civilian government peacefully succeeded by another civilian government resulting from free and fair elections. It has relied on its nuclear capability to make room for its asymmetric balance with India on conventional weapons. It produces more fissile materials than any other country on the planet. The aforementioned report also substantiates that in April 2011, Pakistan tested a short-range ballistic missile system amid suggestions that Islamabad has an intention in developing nuclear weapon capabilities for possible battlefield use.

In consideration of Indian suspicion of Pakistan’s retention of ties with certain militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba in order to maintain asymmetric forms of influence in its neighborhood and Pakistan’s traditional fear of existential threat from India, the possession of nuclear weapons by these rival South Asian countries remains a credible source of anxiety in the region.

A responsible stewardship of such dangerous weapons by both possessors is a sine qua non for stabilized South Asia which requires the deployment of effective safety measures to prevent nuclear accidents, both natural and man-made.

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