Nuclear Energy and Global Environmental Sustainability in the 21st Century

June 3, 2021

Preamble

The need for alternative sources of energy to fossil fuel towards conserving our world for future generations has led to the search for more sustainable options including wind and solar power, biogas and nuclear energy amongst others. However, the adoption of nuclear energy has been quite controversial in comparison to other alternative options, especially when one considers the challenges of managing nuclear waste, which could result in radioactive contamination. Radioactive contamination has affected several countries that have adopted the use of nuclear energy for different reasons – including the development of nuclear weapons. These countries include Algeria, Japan, the USA and French Polynesia.  In spite of this shortfall, some countries have continued to embrace the use of nuclear energy, with the UK announcing earlier in March that it will be increasing its nuclear weapons stockpile by fifty percent (50%). The nuances of the adoption and use of nuclear energy thus constituted the points for discussion during the second meeting of the Africanist Scholars’ Forum, organised by the West African Transitional Justice Centre (WATJCentre) on June 3, 2021. The forum explored the pros and cons of nuclear energy as are relevant today, while revisiting the poser by the iconic former South African President, Nelson Mandela, on whether the African Continent indeed needed nuclear weapons.

 

Observations

The forum acknowledged the need to make the important distinction between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. While nuclear energy is simply the output of nuclear fusion, decay and/or fission of radioactive substances, including uranium and plutonium, that could be used to generate power, nuclear weapons are war equipment developed from radioactive substances that are capable of producing mass destruction within a short period. The devastating potentials of nuclear weapons, especially in terms of collateral damages in the aftermath of war situations, were adduced as enough reasons for total disarmament, and by implication, the elimination of nuclear weapons today.

The importance of avoiding a nuclear war because of its devastating short-term (over a billion deaths, acute drop in temperature, and prolonged smoke and dust in the air) and long-term (enduring exposure to cold, darkness and radioactivity, and subsequent diseases and fatal birth defects) consequences was first portrayed in Carl Sagan’s 1983 idea of Nuclear Winter. Sagan’s projection was based on the tension during the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union, with the risk of its degeneration into a nuclear war. For one, the nature of violence driven by territorial aggression, as reflected in the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, as well as the caliphate ambitions of terrorists championing the cause of Political Islam, brings to the fore the question of humanity’s preparedness in terms of the responsible use of nuclear energy. The controversy surrounding the deployment of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as an endgame at the conclusion of the Second World War includes the consideration that though they were deployed as a deterrent measure against the Soviet Union, the act further sped up the arms race in the struggle for global domination in a bipolar, and subsequently multipolar world.

The inadequate implementation of the three objectives of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signed by 191 states, which stipulated the non-acquisition of nuclear weapons outside the five nuclear states of China, Russia, the US, the UK and France; the disarmament of these five states; and the peaceful use of nuclear technology, has partly been due to the application of double standards in which the nuclear powers are increasing their nuclear weapons stockpiles while trying to enforce compliance in smaller countries with nuclear power plants. As Hugh Gusterson mentioned in his 1999 seminal article ‘Nuclear Weapons and the Other in the Western Imagination,’ the global nuclear order is one of ‘nuclear apartheid’ enforced by the West’s unfounded perception of countries from the other continents, especially those captioned as developing countries, as incapable of the responsible use of nuclear energy. This has generated reactions from countries such as Israel, India and Pakistan that are yet to sign the treaty, which delimits non-nuclear powers to the development of nuclear energy technologies.

On the flip side, the development of nuclear energy technologies provides a credible alternative for power generation, especially in light of the global desire to reduce carbon footprints. However, these technologies are yet to create sustainable channels for waste disposals leading to the question on the proper management of radioactive wastes and their environmental effects. These hazardous effects have been spotlighted in recent debates, following Japan’s decision to release more than one million tonnes of contaminated water from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean in two years, following the 2011 disaster. Although the Japanese government has stated that the radiation levels of the discharged water will be below those set for drinking water (due to some treatment), there has been strong opposition from its local fishing industry, as well as neighbouring countries like South Korea and China. As it were, the destructive effects that the polluted water could have on the marine life of the ocean are yet to be determined. Contrastingly, advocates of nuclear energy project that it is the only proven technology capable of producing electricity on a massive scale without emissions, while the dangers of production have been overstated.

Perhaps a safer way to dispose nuclear wastes is being developed by Finland, through the creation of the Onkalo Nuclear Waste Disposal Facility for the final disposal of its spent nuclear fuel. The project, which has been on since the 1980s, entails the disposal of nuclear wastes more than 400 metres deep into the bedrock. This depth is projected to be safe as it has stable conditions and a weak flow of groundwater. The wastes are also to be protected by several release barriers. When completed, the facility could allow Finland store its nuclear waste in a repository within the country for up to a hundred thousand (100,000) years. As laudable as this attempt appears, there is still some scepticism around the sustainability of the disposal method across different generations. Climatic and topographic differences may also prevent the implementation of similar projects in other climes. Suffice to state that there are other initiatives including the ‘walk away safe reactor’ that is programmed with redundant control to shut down when there is a malfunction, and a refurbishing technology where spent fuel from old reactors are fed into new ones to produce ‘cleaner’ energy.

The plan to safely dispose spent nuclear fuel within territories from which they are generated and consumed reflects a sense of responsibility, which negates exploratory testing of nuclear weapons across other territories, with Africa often at the receiving end of such ventures. While the prejudice against the development of nuclear technology in Africa may be validated by the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, some of which have been deployed for terrorist attacks plaguing some countries on the continent, it is important that the educational curricula are updated to include teaching the state-of-the-art technology on the development and responsible use of nuclear energy.

Recommendations

States across the world should have the shared aim of actively seeking to reduce their nuclear weapons stockpiles, with the ultimate goals of disarmament of the nuclear powers and non-proliferation in other countries as was recommended in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, we recognize that states, which contend that current war threats can only be mitigated by their possession of nuclear weapons to serve as potent deterrent against countries with the aim of further stockpiling them, find it inevitable to possess nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, there remains a dilemma of the unanswered question regarding the credibility of these enforcing states, and whether or not such possession truly enhances international peace.

The development of nuclear energy technologies is plausible if used responsibly and nuclear wastes can be safely disposed. Inventions such as the Onkalo Nuclear Waste Disposal Facility are already leading the path to sustainability in the consumption of nuclear energy. There is therefore the need for more investments in research to further study this model, as well as develop other sustainable models for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel. It is also important that countries making use of nuclear energy imbibe the tradition of safely disposing its waste within their borders.

For African countries to be able to develop sustainable nuclear energy technologies, there needs to be a strong emphasis on updating the educational curricula across different levels of education on the continent, especially to include the responsible and sustainable use of nuclear energy. With several countries in the South of the Sahara battling with epileptic power supply, nuclear energy may be the credible alternative in the provision of largescale sustainable energy.