Twenty-five years after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, the ongoing catastrophe at the Fukushima nuclear reactor 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 realisation 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 nine 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 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 United States and 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 nuclearisation 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.
Despite the NPT, a clear separation between civilian and military use of nuclear energy hasn't always worked, or worked completely, because the NPT's rules permit all signatory states to develop and use — under international supervision — all of the components of the nuclear fuel cycle for civilian purposes. From here, then, all that is required to become a nuclear power are a few small technical steps and political leaders' decision to take them.
This political power, not the requirements of energy policy, is what makes giving up nuclear energy so difficult. As a rule, the path to nuclear-power status always begins with so-called ‘civilian' nuclear programmes. The supposed ‘civilian' nuclear ambitions of Iran have thus, for instance, led to a large number of such ‘civilian' programmes in neighbouring states.
And, of course, the reactions of the nuclear powers to the disaster at Fukushima will be watched and analysed closely by the so-called ‘clandestine threshold countries.'
So how will the world — first and foremost, the main nuclear powers — react to the Fukushima disaster? Will the tide truly turn, propelling the world towards nuclear disarmament and a future free of nuclear weapons? Or will we witness attempts to downplay the calamity and return to business as usual as soon as possible?
Fukushima has presented the world with a far-reaching, fundamental choice. It was Japan, the high-tech country par excellence (not the latter-day Soviet Union) that proved unable to take adequate precautions to avert disaster in four reactor blocks. What, then, will a future risk assessment look like if significantly less organised and developed countries begin — with the active assistance of the nuclear powers — to acquire civilian nuclear-energy capabilities?
Any decision to continue as before would send an unambiguous message to the clandestine threshold countries that are secretly pursuing nuclear weapons: despite lofty rhetoric and wordy documents, the nuclear powers lack the political will to change course. Were they to abandon nuclear energy, however, their epochal change of heart would constitute a seminal contribution to global nuclear security — and thus to the fight against nuclear proliferation.
Joschka Fischer is a former German vice-chancellor