Can national nuclear programmes ever be justified?

Author: Stephanie Heng
School: Raffles Institution
Year Written: 2019
Grade: N.A.

Nuclear energy is often referred to as the energy which is released from the nucleus of an atom, produced when weather fusion or fission occurs in a nuclear reaction. It is a term that conjures up spectres of deformed bodies, irreducible waste, and nuclear anxieties. That said, it is the right and duty of the state to do all in its power to ensure that its people are safe from any external threats. With this in mind, it appears that national nuclear programmes – as controversial as they may be – can actually be justified insofar as they secure a country’s sovereignty and energy independence. While detractors may argue that nuclear programmes cause more harm than good, the potential benefits that a well-regulated national nuclear programme can bring to a country far outweigh the possible negative consequences.

Some may argue that weaponised nuclear programmes have long proven themselves to be destructive to international peace and stability. It is said to be an affront to human rights due to its ability to cause prolonged and unnecessary suffering. Nuclear weapons have extensive long-term effects beyond its immediate destructive capabilities upon detonation, such as radiation sickness, which plagues a population long after its detonation. During World War II, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed nearly 80,000 in Hiroshima and 40,000 in Nagasaki. Damages were not just limited to the physical devastation of the area. Radiation exposure led to unspeakable and excruciating suffering in the form of cancer and physical deformities. We can simply turn to history to see how weaponised nuclear programmes are unjustified insofar as they wreak havoc upon international peace, stability, and general humanity.

Nonetheless, this myopic view fails to consider how nuclear weapons can also act as a deterrent to safeguard national security. This is exemplified through the theory of mutually assured destruction. Historically, the Cold War failed to truly escalate into a full-blown nuclear war because neither country could deal with the widespread destruction that a nuclear war would have wrought. The fear of mutually assured destruction, caused by the knowledge that the other party had in their possession a viable national nuclear programme, ironically prevented the further escalation of the Cold War. The tensions between India and Pakistan is also being stifled through the knowledge that both parties possess nuclear capabilities, and remains one of the strongest factors in preventing an escalation into armed conflict. Therefore, in the context of protecting one’s sovereignty and maintaining equilibrium, national nuclear programmes for the purposes of military use can be justified.

Beyond weaponised national nuclear programmes, national nuclear energy programmes can be justified as well as nuclear energy is one of the most foremost sources of sustainable and environmentally friendly sources of energy. In today’s world, the over-reliance on fossil fuels has resulted in almost irreversible environmental damage. In these times, a sustainable source of energy that does not create the negative consequences of fossil fuels is highly attractive, and even necessary. With the world’s conventional sources of energy being depleted at an astonishing rate, nuclear energy provides a sustainable and renewable alternative, making it a viable choice. In 2011, nuclear energy accounted for roughly 10 per cent of the world’s electricity. Japan, even after the nuclear disaster of Fukushima, has decided to reopen the nuclear reactors, and even has plans to open more. The closure of nuclear reactors had resulted in an increase in the cost of electricity, and more importantly, the doubling of carbon emissions from electricity industries. Previously, nuclear energy had been 30% of all of Japan’s energy. As such, this demonstrates how national nuclear programmes can be justified as a beneficial pursuit for alternative sources of energy. The quest to establish a national nuclear programme is also made ever more pressing due to the rapid depletion of fossil fuels and rising carbon emissions.

Others may argue that such nuclear programmes possess a propensity for disaster with long-term impacts. These include radiation poisoning, the pollution of the environment and its surrounding water bodies. Chernobyl for instance is one of the worst nuclear power plant accidents in history, and its land remains uninhabitable for the next 25000 years. More recent examples include the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, which caused serious concern regarding the radioactive releases to the air and the water leakage from Fukushima Daiichi contaminating surrounding water bodies. As such, due to the devastating repercussions of any nuclear disasters, detractors may argue that this undermines any possible justifications for a national nuclear programme.

Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that sufficient regulation and the observance of internationally recognised rules and regulations can reduce any chances of disasters occurring to an almost minute level. It has been revealed that the Chernobyl accident occurred as the nuclear scientists deliberately ignored important safety precautions, and constituted a gross violation of the operating code of conduct. Similarly, for Fukushima, the technology in the plant was a good ten years older than that employed in any other Japanese nuclear reactors. One must also consider the presence of international organisations, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose sole aim is to properly regulate and monitor the use and operation of nuclear reactors, which helps mediate the chances of similar disasters from occurring again. As such, the potential risks associated with national nuclear programmes can be reduced through careful regulation and adherence to the rules and codes of conducts. This option should not be entirely dismissed solely due to the actions by errant scientists.

To conclude, national nuclear programmes can be justified on the basis that it secures the country’s sovereignty, security, and resource development. It is reductionist to simply state that a national nuclear programme will forever be unjustified; whether it is justified or not lies in the execution of the nuclear programme. A well-executed, regulated programme adhering to the rules and regulations set up by international bodies will serve the country well in securing its borders and energy supply. In such scenarios, the development of a national nuclear programme is indeed justified – and in some cases, necessary.