Our attention is suddenly torn from Libya to the potential nuclear tragedy in Japan. But the events in Libya and Japan have one thing in common. In each case powerful, yet short-sighted interests have obstructed a rational approach to nuclear power. Recent Western support for Moammar Gaddafi’s ambition to build a Libyan nuclear energy programme reinforces the point.
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 and wind-born 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 shut down for days.
In the case of Libya, Western states normalised military-industrial relations while ignoring Gaddafi’s internal repression. France led the rush to supply Gaddafi with nuclear reactors to US approval while Europe has a special guilt since the EU had him imprison thousands of would be immigrants who have failed to cross the Mediterranean moat, and failed to ensure 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. Reactors currently in existence may well be kept online for as long as renewable energy sources cannot fill the gap. However the 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 nuclear energy further, building a new generation of reactors to replace and add to those already in existence in the UK, France, the US and Japan itself, it will be impossible to convince others to do without. China and India are currently constructing a number of new reactors. In the Indian case, the United States played a key role by lifting its 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.
As studies at our Centre have illustrated, nowhere in the industrialised world is there an official public assessment 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.’ Even so, South Korea recently reached deals with the United Arab Emirates and Jordan over exporting nuclear technology and building reactors. ‘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.