Monday September 20, 2021

A nuclear future?

July 23, 2016

As the bipolar nuclear order in South Asia is headed in an uncertain direction, too many questions remain unanswered. What is the future of continued expansion of nuclear power in the region? Would an increasingly large number of power plants and nuclear facilities lead to heightened risks of nuclear terrorism? And, how do the nuclear establishments of Pakistan and India plan to cope with any untoward nuclear accident?

A quick and easy answer to all these questions would be that it depends: on what the governments of both countries are doing to ensure a high level of nuclear safety; on the terrorists’ intentions and capabilities; and, lastly, on the level of nuclear transparency measures. But this is certainly not an adequate answer.

What makes it generally difficult to come up with an adequate answer is the lack of access to reliable information and a demonstrated reluctance on the part of security establishments in both countries to share information with not-so-friendly journalists and writers. However, based on publicly available information, a reasonable argument can be made that the stakes are high and we can expect occasional accidents or other unauthorised acts of sabotage in the future.

Anyone who argues otherwise does not know that security is never 100 percent. It is the way it is. That’s why the nuclear facilities or power plants can never be made into something completely safe. We can get to 98 or 99 percent unbreachable security. We will never reach 100 percent.

South Asia’s nuclear future will be determined by our ability to minimise the probability of such occurrences, and respond to a number of specific challenges arising as a result of our atomic obsession.

The safety of nuclear power plants in India has historically remained one of the key unaddressed problems. A 1996 report by India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) identified above 120 safety issues at nuclear power plants. According to the former director of AERB, A Gopalakrishnan, India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has repeatedly ignored recommendations to improve safety standards at power plants.

While Pakistan has a relatively better record of operating nuclear power reactors, there is no reason to expect that future chances of an accident in nuclear power plants have been fully eliminated. There are some questions about whether Pakistan has independent oversight of matters relating to nuclear safety.

A nuclear power plant may not explode like a nuclear weapon but a small 200 MW reactor contains a huge amount of deadly materials like iodine and strontium, even more than a nuclear weapon detonated in the atmosphere. These devastating radioactive materials get released in huge quantities if the containment vessel of a reactor is somehow breached.

Even the most experienced nuclear power states like Japan and the US have witnessed nuclear power plants accidents in the past. Unless Pakistan and India are doing better in maintaining safety, which a lot of people have a hard time believing, the risks of accidents will persist.

Many experts in both countries have been questioning the wisdom of expanding nuclear power, on the grounds that renewable energy resources rank among the most cost-effective of all available options. The notion of nuclear electricity ‘too cheap to meter’ has long been rejected in the Western world but our nuclear establishments have been very successful at selling this idea to ignorant masses.

The protection of nuclear facilities in both countries will continue to be a matter of great concern because of terrorism challenges.

The revelation that the 9/11 hijackers were contemplating the possibility of crashing one of the four hijacked planes into a nuclear power reactor greatly heightened these concerns. Terrorist interests in targeting nuclear power plants were demonstrated again in the ‘Toronto 18’ case in 2006.

The gravest threat both Pakistan and India face is the possibility of terrorists getting hold of nuclear or radiological materials. South Asia, as a hotbed of global terrorism, remains particularly vulnerable to the threat of a nuclear power plant being attacked by terrorist groups, leading to an environmental catastrophe.

A nuclear power plant could also be attacked in a time of war, causing thousands of causalities. Both Pakistan and India have agreed not to attack each other’s nuclear facilities and regularly exchange information about the exact locations of these facilities. However, to what extent these agreements will actually be adhered to in the event of armed conflict remains a debatable point.

In the absence of an international agreement about the adequacy of protection standards, the risk of sabotage can be mitigated only if the further proliferation of enrichment and reprocessing technologies is actively discouraged.

In the US and other developed countries, that have many decades of nuclear experience, there is still an intense debate about the sufficiency of physical protection standards. However, what is worrisome is that in South Asia, and particularly in Pakistan, this debate is not even allowed to exist.

The people of South Asia have been hostage to ambitious nuclear establishments, paranoid militaries, and weak civilian governments. A stable nuclear order will not emerge automatically or without any consistent effort in this direction. We have to think hard about the steps that need to be taken to make the emergence of a stable and secure regional nuclear order possible in the years to come.

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