Environmental gains come with security risks

By Hira Bahadur Thapa, August 16, 2012

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.