Twenty-five years after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, the ongoing catastrophe at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in Japan has — it must be hoped — made clear once and for all that the purported blessings of the nuclear age are mere illusions: Nuclear power is neither clean nor safe nor cheap.
Indeed, the opposite is true. Nuclear power is saddled with three major unresolved risks: plant safety, nuclear waste and, most menacing of all, the risk of military proliferation. Moreover, the alternatives to nuclear energy — and to fossil fuels — are well known and technically much more advanced and sustainable. Taking on nuclear risk is not a necessity; it is a deliberate political choice.
Fossil-fuel and nuclear energy belong to the technological utopias of the 19th and 20th centuries, which were based on a belief in the innocence of the technologically feasible and on the fact that, at the time, only a minority of people worldwide, largely in the West, benefited from technological progress.
By contrast, the 21st century will be informed by the realization that the global ecosystem and its resources, which are indispensable for human survival, are finite and that this implies an enduring responsibility to preserve what we have. Meeting this imperative entails both an enormous technological challenge and an opportunity to redefine the meaning of modernity.
The energy future of 9 billion people, which is what the world population will be in the middle of the century, lies neither in fossil fuels nor in nuclear energy, but in renewable energy sources and dramatic improvements in energy efficiency. We already know this.
Why, then, do the most advanced countries, in particular, take on the risk of a mega-catastrophe by seeking to create energy from radioactive fission? The answer, ultimately, doesn’t lie with any civilian use of nuclear energy, but first and foremost with its military applications.
The energy derived from splitting uranium and plutonium atoms was originally used for the ultimate weapon, the atomic bomb. Being a nuclear power provides sovereign states with protection and prestige. Even today, The Bomb divides the world into two classes: The few states that have it, and the many that do not.
The old Cold War world order was based on the nuclear arms race between the two superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union. To stop others from trying to become nuclear powers, which would have multiplied and spread the risk of nuclear confrontation, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was framed in the 1960s. To this day, it governs the relationships between the nuclear powers and the rest of the world, imposing renunciation on the have-nots and nuclear-disarmament obligations on the haves.
Of course, the NPT has repeatedly been violated or circumvented by states that never subscribed to it. To this day, therefore, the risk remains that the number of nuclear powers will increase, particularly given small and medium powers’ hope to enhance their prestige and position in regional conflicts. Iran is the most current example of this.
The nuclearization of these not-always-stable states threatens to make the regional conflicts of the 21st century much more dangerous, and will also substantially increase the risk that nuclear weapons eventually end up in the hands of terrorists.