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Experts from emerging and developing countries debate crucial, timely topics related to nuclear energy, nuclear proliferation, and economic development. Each author contributes an essay per round, for a total of nine essays for the entire Roundtable. This feature was made possible by a three-year grant from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry.

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Development and Disarmament Roundtable

The nuclear approach to climate risk

From desertification in China to glacier melt in Nepal to water scarcity in South Africa, climate change is beginning to make itself felt in the developing world. As developing countries search for ways to contain carbon emissions while also maximizing economic potential, a natural focus of attention is nuclear power. But nuclear energy presents its own dangers. Below, Wang Haibin of China, Anthony Turton of South Africa, and Hira Bahadur Thapa of Nepal answer this question: "Given nuclear energy's potential to slow global warming, do its benefits outweigh its risks, or do its risks outweigh its benefits for developing countries?"

Round 1

07/24/2012 - 05:43

Global issues, personal perspectives

Wang Haibin
07/25/2012 - 05:57

Water, climate, and thorium: Why nuclear power makes sense for South Africa

Anthony Turton
07/26/2012 - 06:14

Climate change, reactors, and bombs

Hira Bahadur Thapa

Round 2

08/08/2012 - 07:46

To each technology its proper time and place

Wang Haibin
08/09/2012 - 15:14

Progress, crisis, and ingenuity

Anthony Turton
08/16/2012 - 05:20

Environmental gains come with security risks

Hira Bahadur Thapa

Round 3

08/23/2012 - 05:32

The dangers of exaggerating risk

Wang Haibin
08/30/2012 - 06:40

Security in the new epoch

Anthony Turton
09/06/2012 - 04:51

Ability to harm brings responsibility to help

Hira Bahadur Thapa

Round 1

07/24/2012 - 05:43

Global issues, personal perspectives

It is not so simple to answer whether, given the dangers of climate change, the benefits of nuclear power outweigh the risks in developing countries. Different groups of people in the developing world may view the risks and benefits very differently.

For the purposes of this essay I will divide people in the developing world into two categories: a benefit group and a risk group. People in the benefit group, largely poor, are quite vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change, including drought, heat waves, rising sea levels, more frequent and stronger storms, food shortages, and so on. Thus, they may see significant benefits in nuclear energy and its potential to slow climate change. People in the risk group, on the other hand, are more capable of adjusting to climate change. Therefore, it might be expected that they would perceive greater risks in the development of nuclear energy than do the poor.

As the political scientist Francis Fukuyama has written, "Wealthy people have had disproportionate influence in most polities at most times in history." Given that members of the risk group are better off financially than members of the benefit group, class-based imbalances in political influence represent a large potential obstacle to the further development of nuclear energy in the developing world.

Making this obstacle even harder to surmount is that most nuclear reactors must be built where water is abundant (particularly along seacoasts or riversides). Locating these facilities close to water is an issue of convenience as well, because proximity to water eases delivery of the large, heavy pieces of equipment that are required for the construction and maintenance of nuclear power plants. But seacoasts and riversides are also the places where members of the risk group are most likely to live. (In China, to take one example, members of the benefit group might or might not live in such areas). That prosperous areas overlap with sites otherwise appropriate for nuclear power plants has ominous implications for the further development of nuclear energy -- especially in the aftermath of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

To members of the risk group, who enjoy economically advantageous positions, nuclear power is just one energy option. At the same time, while the effects of global warming may seem like a distant threat to members of the risk group because of their greater resources, a nuclear accident on the scale of Fukushima would threaten both their physical well-being and their livelihoods. Thus, fear of nuclear accidents provides members of the risk group strong incentives to adopt a not-in-my-backyard attitude.

Because people in the risk group have more economic and political power than do members of the benefit group, the expansion of nuclear energy in the developing world seems to face great difficulties. Further complicating matters is a widespread skepticism in the developing world regarding government in general, and in particular government's competence to monitor the nuclear industry. This is a skepticism that characterizes both the risk group and the benefit group.

Political calculations. In China, the central government immediately after Fukushima stopped assessing and approving new nuclear power projects. With the passage of time, some local governments have become eager to resume nuclear projects for the sake of economic growth, but the central government has remained hesitant to grant go-aheads. On May 31 of this year, however, indications emerged that the central government might resume steps toward nuclear expansion. But targets for nuclear power generation seem to be falling sharply. In early 2011 it was envisioned that China's nuclear power capacity would reach 86 gigawatts by 2020, but current forecasts call for an expansion to as little as 60 gigawatts.

This downward adjustment manifests the caution that the central government feels it must exercise in the post-Fukushima era. The central government has spent a great deal of time, of course, weighing the wishes of both the risk group and the benefit group. The government's calculation essentially involves the economic and environmental gains of nuclear energy versus the economic and environmental losses if a nuclear accident occurs -- no matter how unlikely such an accident might be.

China has a number of tools at its disposal beyond nuclear energy to help it address climate change. These include the further development of lower-carbon energy sources like natural gas, or zero-carbon energy sources such as wind and solar. The government can also acquiesce in local governments' unconventional measures, like widespread blackouts, to achieve targeted reductions of carbon dioxide emissions -- and in fact already did so in late 2010. But if just one serious nuclear accident occurs in China, even if it is not as severe as Fukushima -- and especially if it occurs in one of the three most prosperous areas in the country (the Pearl River Delta, the Yangtze Delta, and the Bohai Bay area) -- it will be an economic disaster for the country and a political disaster for the central government. Indeed, such an accident might be more than the government could afford.

07/25/2012 - 05:57

Water, climate, and thorium: Why nuclear power makes sense for South Africa

Participants in this Roundtable are asked whether, given the dangers that climate change presents, nuclear energy is worth the risk for developing nations. My own country, South Africa, offers a particularly interesting lens through which to examine this question.

South Africa is best known internationally as the one-time home of apartheid. Not as well known is that during the apartheid era, as South Africa became an international pariah, the country's decision-making elites responded to perceived threats to national survival by encouraging the development of sophisticated capabilities in science, engineering, and technology. One manifestation of this was a nuclear weapons program.

During its transition to democracy South Africa abolished its nuclear weapons program and, in 1991, acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Thus it became the world's first nuclear-armed country to voluntarily relinquish its weapons. This fact alone places South Africa in a unique position from which to reflect on questions of nuclear proliferation and nuclear energy.

In want of water. Today, the greatest threat to South Africa's survival, and certainly to its prospects for prosperity, may be water scarcity -- a problem that, as will be explained, is closely connected to climate change.

South Africa is among the 40 driest countries on earth. Its location between three global weather systems -- the intertropical convergence zone, the Southern Ocean, and the El Niño-Southern Oscillation -- helps account for the nation's annual average rainfall of only 495 millimeters (mm), compared to a global average of 860 mm. So severe are South Africa's water challenges that a national economy only exists because, through hydraulic engineering projects, rivers have been pushed around on a national scale.

Complicating matters, the majority of the country's economic activity takes place in the hinterland, on a high and dry central plateau. Johannesburg, which is the economic capital not only of the country but of continental Africa, is the world's largest city not located on a river, lake, or seashore. At about 1,800 metres above sea level, it straddles the continental divide that separates the Orange and Limpopo River Basins.

The Orange and the Limpopo, which drain into the Atlantic and Indian Oceans respectively, are crucial to the nation's economy -- but only a small percentage of the rain that falls across the country is converted into water in these rivers. The conversion rate in the Orange River Basin, for example, is a meager 3.4 percent. This means that, of 100 units of water that fall as rain across the surface of the basin, only 3.4 units become water in the river and thus become useful for industrial purposes. The rest is lost to evapotranspiration. Climate change will likely cause low conversion rates to fall even further as losses to evapotranspiration increase.

South Africa has attempted to address its chronic water shortage through dam construction, but dam-building is reaching its limits. In the Orange River Basin, total dam storage capacity is already equal to a staggering 271 percent of the annual average flow of the river. To put it another way, almost three times as much water is stored in dams on the Orange River as would flow through the river, undammed, over an average annual cycle. This is indicative of water constraints that call into question South Africa's viability both as a stable democracy and as a nation capable of providing full employment for all.

Hotter, drier. Climate change, with its new and largely ill-defined risks, threatens to make matters worse. Increases in the ambient temperatures in South African river basins will exacerbate evaporative losses and disrupt weather patterns that are already unpredictable. And as ambient temperatures increase in areas that are stressed to begin with, the country's problem with excessive nutrient flows is likely to worsen -- already, about one-third of South Africa's available water is highly eutrophic (that is, rich in dissolved minerals and thus supportive of excessive life, most notably blue-green algae).

As a professional in the water sector who is deeply involved in strategic planning processes, I see no viable future for South Africa unless we develop a sophisticated recycling ethos. Today, national water resources that are available at a high assurance of supply amount to about 38 billion cubic meters annually. This number needs to increase to about 65 billion by 2025 if we are to achieve full employment (assuming that the water-use patterns on which employment depends do not become more efficient). This means that South Africa will either have to gain access each year to an additional 27 billion cubic meters of water from rivers to which we have no legal riparian claim (the Zambezi or the Congo) -- or we will have to use our total national resources about 1.7 times each year. But such recycling in effect implies desalination, because excessive mineral salts and endocrine-disrupting chemicals must be removed. This, in turn, requires massive amounts of energy.

South Africa's current energy platform, which is centered on coal combustion, is clearly unsustainable. But nuclear energy would be another story -- especially if South Africa were to construct nuclear power plants using thorium as a fuel. Indeed, South Africa is ideally positioned to utilize thorium-based power reactors. First, the country has large reserves of thorium, which is currently regarded as a waste mineral with few commercial uses. Second, South Africa occupies a moral high ground in nuclear affairs by virtue of having relinquished its weapons program, and thus it would make an appropriate candidate to help pioneer the use of thorium, a fuel with enhanced proliferation resistance. It should also be mentioned that South Africa is among the relatively few developing countries that already utilize nuclear energy, and does not lack for technical capacity in this sector.

South Africa's future will be dictated in large measure by the way the country addresses its water scarcity dilemma, and by its ability to create employment amid growing resource constraints. Extensive changes will be necessary if the country's challenges are to be met. Because the hinterland happens to be located on a high plateau, massive amounts of energy are required to pump water uphill to reach it; eventually, major industries will likely have to relocate to the coast. In all probability, desalination of seawater will become the hydraulic foundation of the nation's economy, and this suggests a greater potential role for nuclear energy.

South Africa enjoys an abundance of both uranium and thorium. But it is the latter resource that could provide the country the relatively clean energy it needs for economic development without introducing new proliferation risks.

 

07/26/2012 - 06:14

Climate change, reactors, and bombs

June's United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20, was criticized in many quarters for failing to produce binding agreements on climate change and other global issues. The criticism was justified, insofar as the international community has made so little progress in recent years toward addressing the potentially catastrophic effects of global warming, especially in the developing world. In my native country of Nepal, glaciers are retreating and creating new lakes that present terrible risks to people along riversides at lower elevations. The melting of Himalayan glaciers also threatens the supply of drinking water to millions of people in Nepal, India, and China.

Due to risks like these, it is only natural that developing countries -- especially middle-income nations with high economic growth rates -- are searching for alternatives to fossil fuels. Nuclear energy is among these alternatives; its ability to generate electricity without carbon emissions is one reason that a large number of developing countries, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), are considering the development of nuclear power sectors.

But several issues stand in the way of nuclear power's expansion in the developing world. The 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, for example, dealt a severe blow to an industry that had expected to receive a boost from fears about climate change. The accident provided a reminder that, even if one acknowledges the positive aspects of nuclear power, serious dangers remain inherent in its use. The dangers include, along with incidents such as Fukushima, an increased risk of weapons proliferation.

But, complicating matters, an ongoing tension characterizes efforts to contain proliferation and to facilitate the spread of peaceful nuclear energy. To some extent, this tension dates to the days of President Dwight Eisenhower. The United States under Eisenhower strongly promoted the peaceful use of nuclear power around the world, and Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program created a conducive atmosphere for the birth of the IAEA in 1957. But after all, it was the United States that had dropped two atom bombs on Japan in 1945. Even today, the IAEA's twin objectives of promoting peaceful nuclear applications while stopping the spread of nuclear weapons can sometimes seem at odds.

It would be an exaggeration to claim that the IAEA cares only about preventing military applications of nuclear technology, but at times the agency and its Board of Governors are portrayed as improperly favoring the most powerful member states -- which seem to care much more about proliferation than about expansion of nuclear power. The agency has been accused of issuing flawed reports regarding the alleged proliferation activities of some NPT signatories; for example, a November 2011 report on Iran has come in for heavy criticism, and not just from Iranians. At the very least, the agency's commitment to facilitating the spread of peaceful nuclear technology does not seem to match the vigor it exhibits on proliferation questions.

Taking Iran as an example again, the IAEA and a number of major powers have been heavily engaged in efforts to stop that country's perceived weaponization. The latest negotiations between Iran and the five recognized nuclear weapon states, plus Germany, have not yielded positive results; but far more effort has been expended on Iran than seems to be devoted to helping developing countries exercise their inalienable right to nuclear power.

Something similar might be said regarding North Korea. That country's withdrawal from the NPT in 2003, and its tests of nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009, arguably sprang -- at least in part -- from a US failure to hold up its end of the bargain spelled out in 1994's Agreed Framework. Under that agreement, the United States was to facilitate construction of proliferation-resistant light water reactors in North Korea and to provide Pyongyang with heavy fuel oil to make up for the electrical capacity North Korea would lose by freezing operations at its existing nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. The light water reactors were never completed; the shipments of fuel oil were suspended in 2002. Today, a resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis is as elusive as ever.

So the IAEA (and the major powers) failed to stop proliferation in the North Korean case and may be on the verge of failure in the Iranian case. To be fair, the agency is designed as a warning system, not as a police force; if it finds that a country is out of compliance with its obligations under the NPT, the only action at its disposal is to bring the noncompliance to the attention of the UN Security Council. Still, just as the Iranian and North Korean cases suggest that the IAEA is sometimes unable to meet the NPT's nonproliferation objectives, the agency also sometimes fails to facilitate the spread of nuclear technology's peaceful uses. Perhaps this suggests that a deep conflict is at work between promoting power reactors and banning nuclear weapons.

Obstacles and solutions. But the IAEA cannot be blamed for everything. Also unhelpful to the goal of expanding the peaceful utilization of the atom without introducing unacceptable risks is the role that commercial considerations sometimes play in nuclear issues. A case in point is the 2008 US-India nuclear cooperation agreement, and the arm-twisting that the world's only superpower exerted to convince the Nuclear Suppliers Group to grant India an exception to its export controls despite India's not being a signatory to the NPT. In this instance a nuclear-armed country outside the nonproliferation regime gained many of the benefits that participation in the regime would confer. Such an arrangement contributes nothing to the integrity of the nonproliferation regime, because all countries that aspire to the development of a nuclear energy sector should enjoy the confidence that others are playing the game fairly.

Still, despite all these difficulties, it might be possible to strike an acceptable balance between the benefits and risks of nuclear expansion -- whether the risks are Fukushima-type accidents or the clandestine pursuit of nuclear weapons. Establishing such a balance might depend on the development of advanced reactor technologies with enhanced safety features, but additional useful steps could include multilateralization of the fuel cycle and a corresponding strengthening of the multilateral framework for the control of nuclear facilities and materials. If a strengthened framework were established, one in which all countries could place their confidence, safeguards and safety regimens could be steadily enhanced. Thus the way might be paved for a time when the peaceful atom could be embraced by all nations that could afford the cost. Such a day must be hastened if the most harmful effects of climate change are to be averted.

Round 2

08/08/2012 - 07:46

To each technology its proper time and place

In his first Roundtable essay, Anthony Turton presented a perceptive analysis of the linkages among water scarcity, electricity demands, and climate change in South Africa. He also outlined inspiring ideas about easing that country's water constraints by using nuclear energy in the desalination of seawater. It is my view, however, that while Turton's ideas may be sound for South Africa, they have limited applicability in many other places -- including China.

If nuclear energy is to be developed in a sustainable fashion, cost-benefit ratios must always be kept clearly in mind -- and in different locations, nuclear power can present starkly different cost-benefit ratios. In developing countries with constrained water supplies and less constrained electricity supplies, it may make sense to use nuclear energy to desalinate seawater (and even to pump it to remote locations). But in developing nations where the population suffers from an urgent shortage of electricity, the idea of consuming a great deal of power to produce fresh water would seem to lack a firm economic basis.

China, a country whose economy and electricity needs are both growing rapidly, currently operates 15 nuclear reactors. More than one of these plants is used for desalinating seawater, but only when, as is the case with the Hongyanhe facility in Liaoning province, desalination is unavoidable. The pressurized water reactors at the Hongyanhe facility require a great deal of fresh water to operate, and the local supply of fresh water is inadequate for this purpose. Therefore, the plant has been designed to desalinate over 10,000 cubic meters of seawater daily for its own operation.

Significantly, the desalination technology that the plant has adopted is reverse osmosis. The choice is significant because reverse osmosis consumes less energy per unit of fresh water produced than do other desalination methods, rendering the energy needs and economic costs of desalination acceptable to the plant's operators. But -- according to an interview I recently conducted with a senior economist at China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group, the plant's owner -- the company has no plans to desalinate more seawater than the Hongyanhe facility needs for its own operation.

The company's decisions regarding desalination reflect a trade-off between water demands and power demands; such trade-offs are common in the developing world, where many countries require more water, more electricity, or both. I believe that, in a world where 1.5 billion people lack access to electricity, it is power demands that, on the whole, are more acute than water demands.

This is not to minimize the severity of water shortages in many countries, least of all in Africa -- where persistent drought in nations such as Sudan and Somalia has contributed to bloody conflicts in recent years. And because persistent drought in some regions is among the expected outcomes of global warming, it is hard not to associate drought-related conflicts with increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Therefore, so that the climatic challenges facing countries such as Sudan can be minimized, countries around the world must increase their efforts to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide -- for instance, through greater use of low-carbon energy sources like nuclear power. There is no guarantee that nuclear energy will forestall the worst effects of climate change, but hope at least lies in that direction.

Finally, I would take some issue with Turton's assertions that South Africa "has large reserves of thorium" and "is ideally positioned to utilize thorium-based power reactors." I find these statements too optimistic and perhaps oversimplified -- in view of the fact that India, a country with greater thorium reserves than South Africa, with well-known ambitions in thorium technology, and with 20 nuclear reactors currently in operation, nonetheless relies primarily on pressurized heavy water reactors at its nuclear facilities. Thorium-based power reactors are of course a wonderful idea. But like fast breeder reactors, they belong more to the future than to the present. Many years are likely to pass before thorium reactors become a mature technology.

08/09/2012 - 15:14

Progress, crisis, and ingenuity

This Roundtable asks participants to assess, against the backdrop of climate change, nuclear power’s appropriateness for the developing world. In this essay, however, I would like to consider a related but broader issue -- human beings’ prospects for continuing to thrive on a planet whose ability to support human life is increasingly under stress.

I was recently invited, along with a number of co-authors, to write a paper on water resource management. In the paper, we argue in favor of the idea that the world has recently undergone a transition from the geological epoch known as the Holocene to a new epoch, the Anthropocene. That idea, associated with Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen among others, hinges on the notion that Homo sapiens is now affecting the very forces that will shape the Earth of the future. For example -- and significantly to this Roundtable -- radionuclides are now being found in the sediment of many rivers at levels much greater than would be the case under normal background conditions. This increase in radionuclides can be precisely dated to the mid-1940s -- which coincides with mankind’s capacity to split the atom. That is, future sedimentary rock will be formed from sediment that has been altered by human beings.

All this highlights a profound dilemma faced by the human race. The dilemma relates, on one hand, to the viability of the planet’s life support system; and on the other, to growth in human population, economic activity, and technological capacity. The planetary life support system is a dynamic equilibrium in which complex variables interact to create a set of environmental conditions conducive to life; if the equilibrium goes too far out of balance, conditions conducive to life will degrade. Meanwhile, human population has grown rapidly for centuries and looks set to continue doing so for decades more; global economic activity has increased markedly as well; and technological advances continue apace. This has created ever-increasing demand for energy and water, among other resources, and has placed great stresses on the biosphere.

Those who see the planetary life support system as finite argue that it cannot be expected to support unlimited population growth and economic development. They argue that if human beings fail to curb their population growth and economic activity, the support system that has allowed intelligent life to evolve in the first place will be overrun. This is the essential attitude of Malthusianism, which predicts that the inevitable outcome of human expansion is catastrophe. But a competing discourse -- the Cornucopian viewpoint, which is sometimes associated with the late University of Maryland professor Julian Simon -- holds that humans through their ingenuity will manage to solve the problems that arise from population and economic growth.

I believe in humanity’s capacity to learn, innovate, and adapt so as to sustain intelligent life on this planet; thus, I count myself as a Cornucopian. Part of what attracts me to Cornucopianism is that it allows dilemmas to be converted into something different -- problems. The problems revealed through the Cornucopian lens are complex, and are likely to become more complex over time. Nonetheless, problems are receptive to solutions in a way that dilemmas are not.

Human beings are distinguished from other species by their ability to innovate, but people must now innovate fast enough to address the stresses that human life places on the planetary support system. Fortunately, mankind’s technological progress over the years has been quite impressive. For example, it was only a few decades ago that the atom was split for the first time. But by last year, when a grave accident developed at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, the damage was contained reasonably well despite difficult circumstances, and the lessons learned from this incident can be incorporated into future designs for nuclear power facilities. To my mind, the outcome of the Fukushima accident provides support for a Cornucopian view of the world.

I do not consider myself an especially ardent advocate for nuclear energy. But I do believe that if the human race wishes to survive, all options that might benefit humanity’s chance of survival must be explored, and these options include nuclear energy.

08/16/2012 - 05:20

Environmental gains come with security risks

Nuclear energy has attracted renewed interest in recent years, partly because of its ability to generate electricity while producing only negligible emissions of greenhouse gases. For many developing countries, however, establishing and maintaining a nuclear power sector presents a plethora of challenges. This is especially true for a "least developed country" like Nepal, my own nation. Though Nepal became a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2008, the country's limited human and capital resources make it an unlikely candidate to develop a nuclear energy sector.

But because of the global threat of climate change, even nations without power reactors of their own could benefit from a worldwide expansion of nuclear energy. If climate change progresses, Nepal faces threats to its water supply due to Himalayan glacier melt and to its agricultural sector because of potential changes in weather patterns. Nepal therefore has good reason to welcome the further development of nuclear energy in other countries.

But though a nuclear expansion could produce climate-related benefits for a country such as Nepal, it would also introduce new risks. For example, an accident like the one that took place last year at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station -- or, worse yet, an incident similar to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster -- could have terrible consequences within Nepal. Indeed, Nepal happens to be surrounded by two developing nations that are among the world's top candidates for nuclear expansion -- China and India. As Wang Haibin noted in his first Roundtable essay, many people in the developing world regard with skepticism their governments' competence to oversee nuclear power. Such skepticism need not be confined to one's own government.

For Nepal, though, the risks inherent in nuclear expansion involve a security dimension as well. South Asia, a dangerous region because of the enmity between India and Pakistan, has a history of terrorist events like the coordinated attack against Mumbai in 2008. Pakistan has often been accused of lending aid to terrorist groups. In such an environment, all nuclear installations must be considered potential terrorist targets, so an increased number of installations creates a greater risk of attack.

Another issue that makes some Nepalis apprehensive is the 2008 US-India nuclear cooperation agreement. Pakistan, unsurprisingly, reacted to the deal very negatively, but the agreement is also troubling because of what it suggests about US and Indian attitudes toward China. In the words of Shyam Saran, India's former foreign secretary, the agreement "reflects a certain strategic convergence between the United States and India… We have similar concerns and attitudes regarding the emergence of China." And any evidence of tension between India and China must be considered worrisome to Nepal.

Nepal's resources are limited -- technologically, scientifically, and financially. The country cannot afford a nuclear sector of its own. But it nonetheless stands to benefit in environmental terms from a nuclear expansion elsewhere, despite the risks outlined above. Someday, perhaps, the risks associated with nuclear energy can be reduced through the development and commercialization of fusion reactors, a technology that could revolutionize the nuclear sector around the world. Until then, however, regional powers must ensure that nuclear energy diminishes risks instead of compounding them.

Round 3

08/23/2012 - 05:32

The dangers of exaggerating risk

Accidents at nuclear power facilities are rare. And even in an incident as serious as the one that occurred last year at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, the damage was ultimately contained within certain limits. But the risks associated with nuclear power are often portrayed as simply unacceptable, and publics in many countries continue to view nuclear power as fundamentally dangerous. To understand more about this phenomenon, it is useful to compare the risks posed by nuclear energy with the dangers presented by other methods of base-load electricity generation -- fossil fuel combustion and hydropower.

In one sense, a power plant running on fossil fuels poses only a low risk to public safety. True, an explosion at such a facility could threaten the lives of people who live in the immediate area, but the danger does not extend beyond that. The real danger posed by fossil fuels is pollution. To begin with, burning these fuels produces pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which have direct and negative consequences for human health. Even more significantly, burning these fuels produces carbon dioxide, the primary cause of the global warming that threatens to alter life on this planet radically. Though power plants' carbon emissions will likely be reduced in the future through technologies like carbon capture and sequestration, significant carbon emissions seem a certainty for an indefinite period of time.

Hydropower, meanwhile, is widely regarded as a safe source of energy, with easily manageable risks. An argument can certainly be made that dam construction creates environmental problems, but the operation of hydropower plants does nothing to aggravate global warming. Quite the opposite -- if global warming causes water flow through river basins to become more irregular, it is climate change that may harm hydropower facilities. On a similar note, some hydropower plants may suffer if fossil fuel exploitation reduces the availability of water to hydroelectric facilities -- in China, for instance, coal mining places great stresses on water resources.

Given all this, it is not difficult to argue that fossil fuel combustion represents a greater set of dangers than does nuclear power -- or, for that matter, than hydropower, which is in a sense nuclear power's "natural ally." Still, according to public opinion surveys examined in a 2010 report published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, majorities in only two of 18 countries supported building nuclear power plants in order to combat climate change.

If nuclear energy is to become a more significant tool in the fight against global warming, proponents of nuclear energy must accept that nuclear power comes with a certain degree of risk -- and sometimes in the form of accidents. Then again, proponents must contend with two other dangers related to nuclear energy that are generally not exaggerated. The first is nuclear weapons proliferation; other sources of energy, it must be admitted, present no risk equivalent to proliferation. The second is at the back end of the fuel cycle, mainly involving the disposal of spent fuel. This risk, in some ways, may be underappreciated by the public.

Anti-proliferation efforts are an ongoing political project; the dangers of the fuel cycle may likewise be addressed through multilateral initiatives and technological advances. But public fear about safety at nuclear power plants remains a serious obstacle to nuclear expansion, and therefore to progress against climate change.

08/30/2012 - 06:40

Security in the new epoch

A prominent theme running through several essays in this Roundtable has been security. Wang Haibin has discussed the ways in which people of different economic classes perceive the risks to personal security that are posed by climate change and nuclear energy. Hira Bahadur Thapa has detailed the threats to Nepal that South Asia's unsettled security situation entails. And I have written about South Africa's acute water constraints, which I believe threaten the country's economic security and indeed its survival -- and which I also believe could be mitigated through nuclear-powered desalination efforts (perhaps with proliferation concerns reduced by the use of thorium as fuel).

Human beings are capable of enhancing their own security through sophisticated means that are unavailable to other species. During the Holocene -- the geologic epoch when Earth's climate was relatively stable -- people learned to grow food, manage water, and build permanent shelters that mitigated environmental risk. Technological advances such as these allowed humanity to become a dominant species; the capacity for manipulation and control is an essential element of human success.

This capacity also makes human beings the only species that can hope for security as a fundamental condition of existence. Other species' lives are characterized by inherent insecurity; a range of adaptive strategies has evolved as a result. One of the most successful strategies is for members of a species to cooperate when faced with a common threat. I believe that, though human beings have succeeded because of their ability to manipulate their environment, they will have to adopt the cooperation strategies of other species in order to continue prospering.

Dominance and wisdom. I asserted in my second Roundtable essay that a transition has been effected from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. That is, human beings have begun to manipulate their surroundings on a global scale -- and new security challenges, like climate change, have emerged as part of this process. These challenges affect individuals, who live within particular ecosystems, but each ecosystem is nested within the global climate system; even national economies can be seen as wholly owned subsidiaries of the global ecosystem. Thus, though the new security challenges of the Anthropocene will often manifest in local forms, approaches to them must be subordinated to global considerations. Efforts to achieve balance between the local and the global are likely to influence political systems at various levels.

This brings my argument back to nuclear energy. Will the security risks posed by global warming  prompt people to accept the more localized risk of accidents at nuclear power facilities? Will people's calculations be affected by improved nuclear oversight and continued advances in engineering? Is it correct to characterize the acceptance of nuclear power as the sort of cooperative behavior that human beings must display if they are to continue thriving? To my mind, answers to these questions proceed from accepting that human beings are the world's dominant species, but acting on that acceptance with wisdom. Applied to nuclear issues, wisdom might mean embracing the further development of peaceful nuclear technology while rejecting weaponization. (Applied to water, it would require people to behave like custodians, instead of mere consumers who discard an altered form of water as waste.)

Meanwhile, in order for the security challenges of the Anthropocene to be met, humans through their ingenuity must produce technological advances quite quickly, and institutions must incentivize such advances when market demand does not spur them. This is a tall order, and it must be addressed in disparate contexts, on scales both global and local. The job will be easier if human beings can maintain an awareness of the interrelatedness of ecosystems, and the nested nature of threats and opportunities. Humanity must be brave enough to explore the new frontiers of science but wise enough to fashion a collective security in which security does not depend on building weapons.

09/06/2012 - 04:51

Ability to harm brings responsibility to help

All participants in this Roundtable recognize the dangers associated with nuclear energy, and have discussed its expansion in terms of manageable risk. We all nonetheless agree that such an expansion is justified by the dangers of climate change. Given the consensus on nuclear energy that has emerged in this Roundtable, in my final essay I would like to explore the ways that a country such as Nepal, which is unlikely to develop a nuclear sector of its own, could contribute to climate change efforts -- and the responsibilities that wealthier countries bear toward Nepal and other least developed nations.

Nepal's emissions of carbon dioxide are very low. Statistics from the US Energy Information Administration show that in 2010, on a worldwide basis, more than 31,780 metric tons of carbon dioxide were emitted into the atmosphere as a result of energy consumption. Of this total, Nepal was responsible for a mere 3.36 metric tons. But as I have detailed in my previous essays, climate change presents grave dangers to Nepal, in areas ranging from the productivity of agriculture to the physical safety of Nepalese citizens. In short, the damage that Nepal stands to suffer from climate change is out of proportion to its responsibility for the problem.

Many other least developed countries are situated similarly. Low-lying coastal nations like Bangladesh, island states like Kiribati, and dry countries like Niger whose precipitation levels might fall even lower as climate change progresses -- all are justified in viewing the advance of climate change with alarm. Making matters worse, nations with low levels of development are especially ill equipped to solve the new problems that climate change will present them.

These countries can attempt to influence international behavior on climate issues, for instance through the Least Developed Countries Group, an association of 49 nations within the UN system. Nepal has chaired this group, and has campaigned in that capacity and others for action on climate change. But the political influence of least developed countries is limited. Ultimately, it is the more developed countries that must take the difficult steps necessary to contain the damage of climate change.

Still, even though Nepal's carbon emissions are negligible and its political influence is restricted, the country could make direct contributions to slowing climate change. Nepal, for example, is a good candidate to stage reforestation projects under the Clean Development Mechanism, an element of the Kyoto Protocol that allows industrialized nations to meet their carbon-reduction goals in part by funding emissions-related initiatives in developing countries. Nepal could also help other nations lower their emissions by further developing its own hydropower sector -- as Wang Haibin mentioned in his third Roundtable essay, hydropower is a safe form of electricity generation that does not contribute to global warming. Nepal, with its abundant hydropower potential, could export significant amounts of electricity to nearby nations whose carbon emissions are greater than its own.

Initiatives such as these require the participation, financial and otherwise, of wealthier nations. Nepal cannot undertake them alone. But in any case, the heart of the climate-change problem is that countries more developed than Nepal release too much carbon into the atmosphere. I have argued that nuclear power could be an important part of reducing carbon emissions, but it is only one piece of a larger puzzle. And though Nepal can make a contribution to assembling the puzzle, more developed countries must do the bulk of the work.