Stirring up the nuclear pot


The nuclear genie may take a new form in view of changing threat perceptions and global uncertainties

A picture of the globe under the hood of a cobra was a familiar symbol of the precarious state of international security till recently. Accidental or deliberate pressing of the nuclear button was the nightmare that haunted humanity. At the same time, using the nuclear genie and harnessing it for prosperity was the best dream. Today, both the nightmare and the dream have become jaded. Nuclear weapons have ceased to be viable as instruments of war because of the unpredictability of the consequences of a nuclear war. No one can trust even the use of tactical nuclear weapons without collateral damage for the user. Today, nations can be destroyed with mobile phones and laptops without killing a single human being, making the “humaneness” of cyberwarfare the biggest danger.

The theories of deterrence of nuclear stockpiles have also been discredited after 9/11 brought the most formidable nuclear power to its knees. Non-proliferation today, if any, is not on account of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but on account of the futility of building nuclear arsenals. The threat of terrorism looms larger than the threat of nuclear weapons. After Fukushima, nuclear power too is receding as a sensible component of the energy mix. One clean-up operation after an accident can demolish many years of technological advancement and hopes of having cheap power. The sun shines as a source of energy, not the glittering nuclear reactors which seem to emit mushroom clouds.

Still a flourishing industry

Old habits die hard, however, and there is constant activity on the weapons and the power fronts. The nuclear and disarmament industry still flourish. Former U.S. President Barack Obama’s Prague speech had ignited cautious optimism that nuclear weapons would cease to be the anchor of security, though not during his presidency, not even in his lifetime. Rajiv Gandhi’s United Nations Plan of Action for total elimination of nuclear weapons came out of the dusty archives. The ‘Global Zero’ movement gained momentum, even as nuclear weapon powers continued investment in developing delivery systems and weapons.

U.S. President Donald Trump had once said that proliferation was good for American allies, but more recently, he said: “It would be wonderful, a dream would be that no country would have nukes, but if countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack.” He even hinted at the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances. The hope raised by four old cold warriors, George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn, by setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and working on the actions required to achieve that goal finally receded, and in desperation, the world turned to the good old UN machinery to create illusions of progress.

Emphasising non-proliferation

NPT enthusiasts have been disappointed of late that out of the three pillars of the treaty — non-proliferation, disarmament and nuclear energy for peaceful purposes — the first, non-proliferation, has got watered down and disarmament has become the priority. They also worry that dangerous technologies like enrichment are within the reach of the non-weapon states. In the context of Japan and South Korea debating acquisition of nuclear weapons, they feel that non-proliferation should be brought back to be the first priority of the NPT. The promotional function of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is also a concern for them. The IAEA has already shifted its focus from nuclear power to nuclear security, as a result. In 1995, the NPT was made a perpetual treaty with no possibility of amendment, but its votaries now advocate that non-proliferation should be emphasised to the exclusion of disarmament and nuclear energy promotion.

The UN General Assembly, with its unlimited agenda, readily jumped into the first UN conference in more than 20 years on a global nuclear weapons ban, though the nuclear weapon powers did not join. More than 120 nations in October 2016 voted on a UN General Assembly resolution to convene the conference to negotiate a legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading to their total elimination. Britain, France, Russia and the U.S. voted no, while China, India and Pakistan abstained. Though India had recommended the convening of such a conference, it abstained on the resolution as it was not convinced that the conference could accomplish much at this time. India said that it supported the commencement of negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament on a comprehensive Nuclear Weapons Convention, which in addition to prohibition and elimination also includes verification. The U.S. and others wanted to accept the reality that such conferences would serve no purpose. The conference has failed even before it commenced.

In the midst of this ferment, a debate has begun in India about a review of its no-first use doctrine. Experts seem to think that India’s doctrine is flexible enough to deal with any eventuality, but others feel that we should enter more caveats to safeguard our interests. Perhaps, it is best to let the sleeping dogs lie.

On nuclear power production

On the nuclear power front, the efforts to increase nuclear power production suffered a setback as a result of Fukushima. Many countries that had lined up before the IAEA for nuclear technology for peaceful purposes quietly switched to other sources of energy. The much-expected nuclear renaissance withered away. Except for China, India and Russia, most nations have shied away from building nuclear reactors or importing them. India’s liability law deterred U.S. companies from exporting reactors to India. The financial problems of Westinghouse, which had agreed to build six reactors in Andhra Pradesh, postponed, if not cancelled, the venture. But India has not fundamentally changed its three-stage nuclear power development, though the thorium stage eludes it.

The need for reduction of greenhouse gases was an incentive to increase nuclear power production, but President Trump’s challenge of the whole concept of climate change as a hoax and the consequent reduction of allocation of funds to protect the environment will further reduce the accent on nuclear power. The Kudankulam project is set to move along with Russian collaboration, but its progress has been slow. The nuclear liability law, the Westinghouse bankruptcy and the protests by local people have combined to delay the expansion of nuclear power in India.

Like everything else in international affairs, the nuclear pot is also being stirred on account of the uncertainties of the U.S. government and changing threat perceptions. Nobody thinks any more that peace and amity will break out between the U.S. and Russia, making nuclear weapons redundant. But no one is certain that the nuclear genie will not take new incarnations as a result of the ferment.

T.P. Sreenivasan, a former Ambassador, was the Governor for India of the IAEA and Executive Director of the IAEA 2020 Programme

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 10:42:42 PM |

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