Thursday, September 11, 2008

Time to Even Out the Nuclear Energy Playing Field

On September 7, 2008, the New York Times reported that the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group, an international body which regulates the sale of nuclear energy and technology around the world has approved a deal which allows India to engage in nuclear trade for the first time in three decades.  India was banned from buying nuclear fuel and technology because it conducted nuclear tests, developed a nuclear weapons program and yet consistently refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.   The deal in question reverses past policy and practice in this regard and allows India to buy nuclear fuel and technology to power its civilian nuclear program thereby allowing it to meet its growing demand for electricity and to continue its economic growth.   In return, India has promised to separate its civilian nuclear reactors from its military reactors used for its nuclear weapons program.  It has also agreed to allow international inspectors to monitor its civilian nuclear program.

Putting aside the politics of the situation, it strikes me that a number of relevant questions need to be asked:

1. How does the international community explain its decisions to allow certain countries like India to trade in nuclear nuclear fuel and technology while denying others like Iran and North Korea the same opportunity?  Are there a set of principles on the basis of which such decisions are made?  Have these principles been agreed to by all nations in advance?  If not, what should these principles be?  

1.  If the issue is one of a nation's increasing demand for electricity and energy, shouldn't the international community be equally concerned with ensuring that such demands are met not only in India but in all countries where the need arises?  At the level of principle, isn't it crucial to deal even-handedly with the legitimate energy demands of the peoples of all nations including Iran and North Korea?  After all, they too, have claimed that they need nuclear reactors to satisfy the growing energy demands of their people and yet they have not been offered similar deals by the Nuclear Suppliers Group.  It is time to deal with all nations in an even-handed fashion, be they large or small, powerful or weak and ensure that the legitimate energy demands of all are met.  And yet, the issue is not that simple.  Clearly a closely allied question is how trustworthy a nation has proved itself to be in its dealings with the international community.  It is clearly too risky to allow all nations to have access to nuclear fuel and technology especially if one cannot trust their intentions.  Which leads us to the next question:

2.  What are we going to do about crafting a viable international system to adequately manage the risks of the proliferation of nuclear arms while at the same time providing for the legitimate energy demands of peoples everywhere? The current international system designed to protect the world from this danger appears to be falling apart at the seams.   In a world where nations can still adopt secret nuclear weapons programs that threaten the peace of the world, in which there is no mandatory, no-notice and geographically unlimited system of inspections of ALL nuclear sites worldwide and in which nations can choose whether they want to sign onto the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or not, it is too dangerous to allow countries to build nuclear reactors even if they claim that they are intended to meet legitimate civilian energy demands.  

In order to respond to both questions i.e., the legitimate and growing energy demands of countries worldwide while also ensuring our safety from nuclear weapons, I propose that we create a supranational institution with responsibility to manage all nuclear facilities and all activities related to the nuclear cycle worldwide.  This institution would be made up not of government appointees but rather of individuals elected by the people of every nation.  To ensure its independence from the dictates of individual governments it would be funded from levies imposed on the sale of nuclear fuel.  This body would be responsible for assessing the legitimate energy demands of all nations and of ensuring that each nation has fair and equal access to nuclear energy to meet its needs.  It would have the authority to set prices that are fair for all.  It would also have the authority to impose penalties on any individual, company and country that did not abide by its regulations.  Such penalties would have directly enforceable by the courts of each country.  The transparency regarding supply, demand and nuclear activities afforded by having all nuclear facilities under international management would considerably reduce the risks of secret weapons programs and would make the world safer.  Most importantly, nations would no longer feel the need to acquire nuclear capability because they would be assured that their energy needs were met.  They would also be secure in the knowledge that no other nation was building nuclear capabilities against which they would need to protect themselves.    

Fortunately, we do not have to start from scratch in creating such a supranational institutions.  The world has done something similar in the past with great success and created a model that we can learn from:  In the aftermath of the Second World War, six Western European nations including France and Germany established the European Coal and Steel Community and pooled the management of their coal and steel into its hands.  They were willing to cede a measure of sovereignty in this narrow economic sphere, albeit one critical to their reconstruction and economic well-being, because they concluded that it was in their collective self-interest to do so.  Consequently, despite their visceral discomfort with the idea of ceding sovereignty over such critical resources over which they had fought many wars, they did so to their great advantage.  In addition to ensuring that they all had equal access to the coal and steel they needed for reconstruction after the war, the creation of the Coal and Steel Community marked the end of ruinous wars between France and Germany and established the foundation for further European integration ultimately resulting in what we now know as the European Union.  There are many lessons the international community can learn from this experiment.  It can replicate this model to our advantage with respect to nuclear energy as well as oil and gas, learning from its strengths and avoiding its weaknesses. 

No comments: