Learning from disaster? After Sendai and Fukushima by Richard Falk*

Turkey is currently committed to going ahead with its plans to build four nuclear »»

Turkey is currently committed to going ahead with its plans to build four nuclear reactors despite the disaster unfolding at the Fukushima reactor plant in Japan.

 The construction of these reactors had been agreed upon in a deal reached with the Russian government, and since the Japanese events has been reaffirmed by Russian President Dimitri Medvedev and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The leaders confidently insisted that nuclear power can be made safe even in countries such as Japan and Turkey that are earthquake prone. The Turkish Akkuyu reactors are to be constructed over the next several years under the auspices of the Rosatom Nuclear Energy State Corporation, a state-owned Russian company, which will own and operate the nuclear power plant. Akkuyu will be situated in an earthquake region, some 180 kilometers from the city of Adana. One feature of the arrangement is that the Turkish government has guaranteed the purchase of 70 percent of the power produced during the first 15 years of operation.

Despite this inter-governmental agreement, the question for Turkey and other countries contemplating the construction of reactors at this time is whether reliance on nuclear energy makes sense given what we now know about its unpredictable vulnerability to accidents. After the 1986 Chernobyl partial meltdown, the disaster was interpreted in a Cold War context as due to the faulty technology used by the Soviet Union, but such an explanation will not do for Japan, considered a highly advanced country when it comes to the use of the best available technology, and acutely sensitive to hazards associated with earthquakes. In fact, the operating company, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), had a bad reputation and safety record, and the Fukushima reactors were flawed and overage, suggesting that systemic factors associated with cutting costs and earning profits override safety policies in almost any national environment. As well, as the American experience with nuclear power demonstrates and the Japanese record confirms, the government agency assigned to regulate nuclear power and protect public interests tends over time to become aligned with a private sector approach. It ends up protecting the viability of the industry more than the wellbeing of the public. It is important that Turkey understands these patterns and does not come to regret its embrace of nuclear energy at some later date.

At the same time, there are no easy answers. If nuclear power is rejected, there tends to arise a greater dependence on coal and other fossil fuels. With existing commercially viable coal technology, the impact on societal health has been far worse than that associated with nuclear power. According to most accounts, Chernobyl led to 10,000 deaths, which is approximately the same number as coal causes each year. Of course, such a comparison has its limitations. It does not take any account of the fear and trembling produced by a crisis of Fukushima’s character, which is terrifying for a society as a whole and has the potential to inflict harm on millions of people over a period of many years. In Japan at present, the magnitude of harm could be magnified many times if a development as ordinary as a shift in the wind direction occurs in Sendai, driving radioactivity in dangerous densities south in the direction of Tokyo.

Weighing benefits against risks

What is finally at stake with nuclear power is how a particular country should weigh the benefits of clean and efficient nuclear power against these momentous risks, as well in view of the expensiveness of the energy. In the background is the degree of need, the existence of alternatives, and the extent to which the development of nuclear power also reflects a strategic goal for Turkey that could be important in the future in the event of a regional nuclear arms race emerging over the course of the next decade.

Further back in the history of nuclear power is the incredible “Faustian bargain” offered to the non-nuclear world: Give up the nuclear weapons option and in exchange get an unlimited “pass” to the “benefits” of nuclear energy, and besides, the nuclear weapons states, while furtively winking at one another while negotiating the controversial Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968) promised in good faith to pursue nuclear disarmament and indeed general and complete disarmament. As we know, the bad half of the bargain relating to the spread of nuclear technology has been largely fulfilled, while the good half of the bargain (getting rid of the weaponry and moving away from the war system) never gave rise to even halfhearted nuclear disarmament proposals and negotiations. Instead the world settled irresponsibly for managerial deals reached by the main nuclear weapons states from time to time, negotiated arrangements known as “arms control” measures that were especially seeking to stabilize the nuclear rivalry of the Cold War era between US and Soviet Union (now Russia) in mutually agreed ways that were intended to reduce financial burdens and cut risks of accidental or unintended nuclear war.

This critical view of arms control has been recently confirmed by the presidential commitment. The US administration announced that it intended to devote an additional $80 billion for the further development of nuclear weapons before it could persuade the US Senate to ratify the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in late 2010. New START is the latest arms control ruse that may be worthwhile on its own but was falsely promoted by Washington in the world as a step toward disarmament and denuclearization. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with arms control -- it may usefully reduce risks and costs under certain circumstances -- but it is definitely not disarmament and should not presented as if it were.

The establishment of a nuclear-free zone

The issue of nuclear energy is, in the larger setting of world politics, inseparable from concerns about nuclear weaponry and should enter into Turkey’s assessment of its interests and the promotion of its soft power diplomacy. From this perspective nothing would contribute more to the peace and security of the region than the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the region that includes Israel and Iran, and that prohibits all countries, including Turkey, from allowing nuclear weapons to be deployed on its territory as part of its NATO commitment. In that event, it would be important to place added safeguards on the production of nuclear energy, in the event that the other risks were assumed, as part of establishing a new strategic environment that was less prone to regional warfare and its possible escalation above the nuclear threshold. It would seem that such a positive scenario could only evolve in the event that a just and sustainable solution to the Palestine/Israel conflict was finally found.

I think that the tragic events at Fukushima give many governments, and their societies, an extraordinary opportunity to reconsider their overall relationship to both nuclear energy and nuclear weaponry. For nuclear energy the risks and costs have become far more ominous than they were a few months ago. For nuclear weaponry, there is long overdue in the Middle East and globally an evaluation of the morality and viability of a situation in which some countries possess and rely diplomatically on the weaponry while others are prohibited from acquiring at the cost of military attack, as was the pretext for attacking Iraq in 2003 and represents the core of the continuing threat directed at Iran.

It would seem that in a world of sovereign states, nuclear weapons should be prohibited for all, or the security option of the weaponry be given to all. The nonproliferation approach only seemed sensible as a transitional phase, allowing the nuclear weapons states to negotiate a nuclear disarmament treaty, and avoiding the complexities of spreading the weaponry to additional states during that process. After 48 years, it is no longer reasonable to accept the nonproliferation fiction that the states that do not possess the weaponry are more dangerous to world order than the states that have the weapons and are continually working to improve their possible uses in warfare. The whole idea of accumulating weaponry with the capability to annihilate a foreign country is by itself repugnant and unlawful. The fallout from the weaponry connects in lethal ways the anxieties associated with Fukushima with the nightmare memories evoked by the mere names of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

*Richard Falk is a professor emeritus of international law and practice who taught at Princeton University for 40 years.