Power and peace: how nations can go nuclear without weapons

A nuclear-capable Pakistani missile during testing in 2011. The international community hopes other aspiring nuclear nations can develop nuclear power without the military muscle. EPA/INTER SERVICES/AAP

This article is part of The Conversation’s international series on the Future of Nuclear. You can read the rest of the series here.

In 1972, when Pakistan became the first Muslim-majority nation to develop an operational nuclear power reactor, it owed much to the work of Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam.

Besides serving in the late 1950s as a member of the newly formed Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, and then in the 1960s as science advisor to President Ayub Khan, Salam also won a Nobel Prize for his work in defining the “weak nuclear force” – one of the four fundamental forces of the Universe and the process that underpins radioactive decay.

Like Albert Einstein, Salam was a firm believer in the peaceful use of nuclear power. In 1968 he won the “Atoms for Peace” award from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The metaphor of the “weak force” that Salam discovered is ironically apt when we consider what has happened since then to the country’s nuclear energy program and to that of its neighbour, India. Ideology and political competition spawned a nuclear arms race that trumped the weaker domestic imperative of nuclear energy.

Both India and Pakistan developed nuclear energy in the early 1970s, but more than 40 years later both get less than 5% of their electricity from nuclear power, while each has amassed a cache of more than 100 nuclear warheads.

The nuclear arms race costs India and Pakistan billions of dollars every year – enough to build at least one new nuclear reactor per year in both countries. Yet the deterrence doctrine has swamped the economic arguments for investing in nuclear energy rather than weapons.

Nuclear capability seems to have a seductive appeal towards weaponisation in countries that exist in conflict zones. Aspiring nuclear power states should consider this danger of the military co-opting any nuclear agenda, as happened in Pakistan despite the pioneering work of well-intentioned scientists and nuclear energy advocates like Salam.

The Gulf goes nuclear?

The United Arab Emirates is currently spending US$20 billion on building four nuclear power plants. Based on South Korean technology, the first one is set to open in 2017. This is an important development in the context of energy diversification for the Gulf, which has traditionally been a bastion of fossil fuels.

What remains to be be seen, however, is how this will affect the security dynamics in the region. The regional conflicts between Shia and Sunni powers, as well as rivalries between Gulf nations, including the dominant power Saudi Arabia, will need to be carefully monitored.

Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia made two announcements almost in parallel. In March it announced a US$2 billion deal, also with South Korea, to develop nuclear energy. Then this month the Saudi foreign ministry hinted at the possibility of a nuclear weapons program, citing its concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

These parallel developments have some resemblance to the way Pakistan’s nuclear program was co-opted by a military agenda. The main difference, of course, is that Saudi Arabia has acceded to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), whereas Pakistan has not. However, as the case of North Korea shows, accession to a soft law treaty does not amount to much, given that any country can simply decide to withdraw from the treaty.

Iran has ratified the NPT but, because of a trust deficit and the malleable nature of soft international law, there has been continuing concern about its uranium enrichment activities. To assuage concerns in this regard, the crux of the potential agreement with Iran hinges on unfettered access from international inspectors to the country’s nuclear facilities.

If the nuclear deterrence doctrine is still to be believed in an age where cyber-warfare can do just as much potential damage, we can still find alternative responses. Turkey, for example, hosts several US nuclear weapons on its territory as a result of its NATO membership. Thus a country’s nuclear energy development can be couched in conversations of security alliances to prevent the public benefit goals of nuclear power from being misappropriated. If there is assurance of security granted by existing nuclear powers, further nuclear weapons development also becomes unnecessary.

Expanding the energy options

Of course, the debate over nuclear energy is not purely one of national security or arms proliferation. Amid calls to reduce fossil-fuel dependence, we also need to ask how nuclear energy compares with other energy sources such as hydropower, solar and wind, and to consider the global environmental impacts of nuclear power.

Nuclear reactors are still largely dependent on a supply of mined uranium – perhaps in the future we will need to make better use of reprocessed materials by embracing safer and cheaper “breeder reactors”. In embracing nuclear, we would also need a science-based risk-management approach to learn the lessons of tragedies such as Fukushima.

What developing countries such as Pakistan need is the means to develop cost-effective transitional fuels. For example, the planned natural gas pipeline from Iran should help to meet Pakistan’s short- to medium-term energy challenges.

The move has raised suspicions in the West, but nuclear power bravado or the threat of sanctions should not be allowed to hamper this ecologically and economically meaningful solution. Energy supply is a planetary problem, and it should be considered through a concerted global effort with a wide range of options.

Perhaps a more robust global energy treaty needs to be developed from the nascent and still relatively powerless Energy Charter, an initiative that grew out of the thawing of the Cold War and aims to overcome established economic divisions in developing energy projects. As nuclear energy is debated, security mechanisms should be used to serve the cause of ecological and economic efficiency, rather than being brought in as a trump card to serve the military agendas of nations and their leaders.

This article is part of The Conversation’s international series on the Future of Nuclear. You can read the rest of the series here.