From Hiroshima to Fukushima-
Nuclear Lessons Learned and Unlearned
(Nagasaki Peace Day Lecture, 2011. Indian Pugwash Society at IDSA, New Delhi Aug 9, 2011)
I feel greatly honoured that I have been invited to deliver the Nagasaki Peace Day Lecture, 2011. I have been a member of the Indian Pugwash Society for some years, but this is the first time that I am participating in its activities other than using its excellent publications and website resources.
I am delighted that this session is being chaired by my senior colleague, Ambassador Arundhati Ghose, whom I admire and respect.
The long journey of the nuclear genie from Hiroshima to Fukushima and beyond has kept humanity on the edge of a precipice for more than half a century. We have been through many twists and turns, with fear of total annihilation looming large even while rays of hope emerged in the distant horizon from time to time. Sincere efforts were made to put the genie back in the bottle or to put it to productive use, but the nuclear danger has remained with us till today in different manifestations. Sadly, nuclear policies of various countries were determined by their ambition to acquire destructive power in their search for security. But security has eluded the planet, initially by the threat of use of nuclear weapons by design or accident, then by nuclear terrorism by non-state actors and now by the possibility of accidents in civil nuclear stations. The devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was caused by an act of war, but it set in motion a chain of events that led to the atoms for peace initiative, the creation of the IAEA, the advent of the NPT and related Treaties and the dream of a nuclear weapon free world and global zero.
Just as Hiroshima marked the beginning of a rethink on the possession of nuclear weapons, Fukushima should mark the beginning of a relook at civilian nuclear power as we know it today. It is not enough that we audit the facilities and satisfy ourselves that we are safe against the known risks like earthquakes and tsunamis. Needless to say, we should strengthen safety features and open our facilities for peer review to ensure that we are in tune with the best standards in the world. There should be transparency in the operations of our reactors and the results of studies done in the past on risks should be shared with the civil society. But above and beyond these measures, we have to rethink the whole question of civilian nuclear power generated by the same processes that are employed in the making of weapons. We should not be lulled into the belief that physical protection will save us from the vagaries of nature or simple human errors. We owe it to the future generations to start thinking of alternatives, whether it is fusion, sun, wind or waves. Fukushima must set us thinking on the use of nuclear power as much as Hiroshima prodded us to start thinking of the elimination of nuclear weapons.
The lessons we learnt from the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are valuable even if a world without nuclear weapons is nowhere near realization. Nations still consider nuclear weapons indispensable for their security, though 9/11 demonstrated that the power to destroy the world many times over provides no guarantee of security. The world tends to huddle under their nuclear installations and nuclear umbrellas in a futile quest for security. Those outside these false comfort zones find ways and means to acquire dubious nuclear capability from death merchants like A.Q.Khan. The grand bargain of the NPT has not prevented proliferation even among the signatories. The IAEA, which was designed as a mother cow to bestow the benefits of peaceful nuclear energy on developing countries was transformed into a watchdog, without keeping the concomitant promise of nuclear disarmament by nuclear weapon states. The CTBT and the FMCT are still in limbo. The India-US nuclear deal is embroiled in the liability act and the ENR guidelines.
In the distant horizon, however, there is hope because of the lessons we have learned and unlearned after Hiroshima. Today, there is no serious fear that any sovereign nation will use nuclear weapons against another. Four cold war veterans began trudging along a difficult path of disarmament, which goes beyond arms control and non-proliferation, to reach the top of a mountain from which a new vista of a nuclear weapons free world might come to view. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had visualized that vista long ago and drawn up an action plan to reach there. President Barack Obama started a journey from Prague in the same direction, though he is not sure whether he can complete that journey in his own lifetime. The global zero has inched away from the proverbial square one. Hiroshima and Nagasaki had their impact on mankind.
Today, a major challenge is to protect nuclear material from terrorists, whether state- sponsored or non-state. They obviously have no conscience to be touched by Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Much of the nuclear material, which has been reported lost, has not been recovered, but some material has been recovered, which was never reported lost. Sufficient knowledge and material are out there to put together a dirty bomb or even a clean one. A failed nuclear state may even place a sophisticated arsenal in the hands of terrorists. The war on nuclear terrorism is an urgent necessity, a lesson we have learned after 9/11 and other terrorist attacks in different parts of the globe.
A nuclear renaissance emerged out of a sense of security as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were caused by human error rather than by systemic deficiencies or natural disasters. The increased awareness of climate change and the role of nuclear power in mitigation of global warming gave nuclear power a new halo. In 2009, the IAEA reported that 65 countries lined up at the IAEA to seek technology to either start or expand nuclear power programmes. While the growth of nuclear power slowed down in the US and European Union, it began to grow exponentially in Asia, notably China and India. The India-US nuclear deal removed most of the restrictions on import of nuclear fuel and equipment imposed by a technology denial regime and India signed new contracts for supply of reactors and fuel.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011, involving a series of equipment failures, nuclear meltdowns and release of radioactive materials, following a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami could not have come at a more inopportune time for the nuclear renaissance. It was the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind. The severity of the nuclear accident was rated 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale, indicating an accident causing widespread contamination with serious health and environmental effects. Fukushima had an instant impact on the use of nuclear power everywhere in the world, ranging from evaluation of the safety situation everywhere to announcement by Germany and Switzerland of complete withdrawal from nuclear power by 2022 and 2034 respectively.
Although many countries, notably India, declared business as usual, the nuclear power scene around the world changed beyond recognition. In any event, it was clear that by 2050, nuclear power would be absent from the US and the EU. Whether any announcement is made or not, every country has begun to plan quietly for finding viable alternatives to nuclear power. The lesson we learned from Fukushima is that the prospect of dotting our coastline with nuclear reactors is perilous even if it guarantees much needed electricity as an engine of growth. Human survival should have a higher priority than human development.
Fukushima has clearly accentuated the divide between those who believe in nuclear power as the panacea for our power shortage and those who believe that nuclear power is fraught with dangers, ranging from accidents to proliferation risks and long term damage from waste disposal. The former group would have us believe that the risks far outweigh the benefits of nuclear power, while the latter would have us close down reactors instantly and switch to solar, wind and wave energy. Having been a champion of nuclear energy and its benefits, I would advocate a third way. First and foremost, let us not minimize or hide the impact of Fukushima on mankind by arguing that nobody has died in the Daiichi plant while thousands perished in the tsunami. We do not know how and when the radiation leaks will manifest in disease and death. The most recent reports on the aftermath are alarming. The Wall Street Journal reported on July 20, 2011 that Japan has banned all beef exports from the affected areas and introduced a health review of human beings for thirty years.
Business as usual is not an option for nuclear power after Fukushima, just as we learned after Hiroshima that nuclear weapon should not be a legitimate weapon of war. We should begin visualizing a world without nuclear power in 30, 40 or 50 years and begin developing alternate sources with the same vigour with which we developed nuclear reactors. Once that vision is recognized, human ingenuity will be channelized into innovation. We do not need to halt production or stop imports of nuclear material and reactors, but let there be a sunset clause for nuclear power in our planning for the future. I am painfully aware that there are no takers for this approach yet and the established camps on both sides of the divide have dismissed it as utopian, foolish and worse, devious. I am no scientist, but someone who argues that the imported reactors are bad, while the indigenous reactors are benign, cannot be credited with much scientific wisdom. If the processes are the same and safety features are similar, how can “swadeshi” be better than “videshi”? Nuclear disarmament was also dismissed in the same manner before, but at least the vision of a nuclear weapon free world is now shared by the haves and the have-nots. The lessons of Hiroshima have been learned, but the lessons of Fukushima are wished away.
The nuclear dilemma persists, despite the process of learning and unlearning ever since the atom was unleashed, but some truths must be recognized from experience, regardless as to whether one country or the other incorporates them in its policy framework.
First, the devastation from the use of nuclear weapons is so great for the present and future generations of mankind that use of such weapons should not even be contemplated. Nuclear weapons must be declared illegitimate and eliminated. Second, non-proliferation efforts on discriminatory basis will not eliminate the threat. As Dr. Mohamed Elbaradei says in his book, “The Age of Deception”, “the threat will persist as long as the international community continues to address only the symptoms of each nuclear proliferation challenge, waging war against one country, making a deal with a second, issuing sanctions in a third, seeking regime change in still another. So long as nuclear weapons remain a security strategy for a limited few possessor countries, with umbrella arrangements that extend that security to a secondary circle of allied countries, so long as others are left out in the cold, the proliferation risk will be with us.” The need for total elimination of nuclear weapons is a lesson that Hiroshima taught, but it took us 66 years just to acknowledge it. No one knows how long it will take to eliminate nuclear weapons.
Fukushima, preceded by Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, has also had its lessons. First, nuclear power carries with it a safety risk, which cannot be ignored, whatever be its benefits. As Prof. Amarjeet Singh said at this very forum last year, “safety makes all plants mutual hostages…. A nuclear accident anywhere in the world affects the prospects of nuclear power everywhere.” He was prophetic when he said, “Nuclear energy is more brittle than other strategies to mitigate climate change as one major future accident could overnight nullify the resources and time invested in nuclear power up to that point.” Fukushima came just eight months after those words were uttered in this very hall. No amount of action by the international community can eliminate this danger, unless we have the courage to visualize a world without nuclear power and work for finding alternatives for energy production.
We have seen political, economic and environmental colonialism and should be aware of “nuclear power colonialism” in the making. We appear to be eyeing the “buyer’s market” in reactors and fuel as their supply increases as major countries move away from nuclear power. We should not forget that President Bush had defended his nuclear deal with India by saying that India’s use of nuclear power will reduce pressure on oil. A Japanese Minister has just declared that Japan might terminate its fast breeder reactors to eliminate the rationale for reprocessing. When developed countries move away from such technologies, export incentives for such material to developing countries will increase. The reduced demand in some countries makes the market move to other regions. In fact, fear has been expressed that the ironic consequence of Fukushima may be a more dangerous global nuclear landscape. India and China may well be the victims of this trend unless we exercise caution.
Hiroshima and Fukushima have brought to light two facets of the danger from the nuclear genie. Man developed nuclear weapons in his quest for security and realized the folly of mutually assured destruction. The quest for energy security has driven him to develop nuclear power, the more benign manifestation of the atom. The time has come for him to pause and ensure that the second quest does not prove as dangerous as the first.