Thursday, February 21, 2008

What happened to non-nuclear options?


What happened to non-nuclear options?

A conference on nuclear disarmament and peace reminds us of the world's forgotten commitment to disarmament. Speakers at the event also debunked a number of claims that governments usually make in support of their militaristic and geo-political objectives. Aparna Pallavi reports.

10 February 2008 - "For the last 40 years, all we hear when it comes to disarmament is the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty," said N D Jaiprakash of Delhi Science Forum "The unanimous United Nations resolution for General and Complete Disarmament passed in 1959 has been completely forgotten. If it is a peaceful and nuclear free world that we want, we must stop mincing words and resurrect the demand for General and Complete Disarmament."

He was speaking at the third national conference of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, held in Nagpur between 1 and 3 February, where participants demanded the complete and unequivocal rejection of the nuclear option in both civilian and military life. As expected, the recent Indo-US nuclear deal came under sharp criticism during the conference. Also under the microscope was the serious issues of militarisation in South Asia, terrorism, as well as other connected issues like the viability of nuclear power as an energy option, the impact of uranium mining, and health issues connected with radiation.

Nuclear disarmament

Speakers at the conference came up with different interpretations of the world situation regarding nuclear disarmament, with some opining that doomsday is drawing closer, while others discerning rays of light within the general gloom.

Speakers vociferously denounced the confrontational national sovereignty theory which opposed the deal per se but not nuclearisation itself.

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Karamat Ali, a peace activist from the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, felt that some positive trends are visible. In Pakistan, especially, he opined, the Musharraf government's theory that there is a risk of nuclear weapons falling in the 'wrong hands' has gone a long way towards debunking the nuclear deterrence theory, at least among the common people. "People are now realizing that instead of protecting the country, the nukes are in need of protection themselves," he quipped. People are no longer falling prey to the jingoistic jargon of national pride and national security, he said.

John Hallam, Australia-based peace activist and researcher, felt that the risk of nuclear weapons getting fired purely by accident is more real than is thought. He cited the incidents of 1983 and 1985 when nuclear collisions between the US and USSR were narrowly averted, and the Kargil war, when both India and Pakistan came dangerously close to using their nuclear arsenals. He said that a single missile fired inadvertently could trigger a response large enough to destroy three-fourths of the world's population and forests, a disaster that no so-called 'safety measures' could possibly mitigate.

Former political columnist and peace activist Achin Vinayak further debunked the fear of nukes falling into 'wrong' or 'terrorist' hands, saying that the political definition of the phrase recognises only non-state groups as 'terrorists', whereas it is national governments who have caused the greatest number of casualties historically. He felt that while the threat of global nuclear war had come down since the Cold War with three new nuclear-free zones coming up and many countries like Argentina, Brazil and New Zealand declaring themselves nuke-free nations, the threats of regional nuclear war in South Asia and Central Asia have gone significantly up.

Speakers vociferously denounced the confrontational national sovereignty theory which opposed the deal per se but not nuclearisation as a principle. Prominent journalist Praful Bidwai said that equating sovereignty with weapons amounts to 'perversity', and stressed that sovereignty has to be of the people.

The wrong energy choice

Apart from political and military issues, the question of 'peaceful' use of nuclear power also came under close scrutiny at the conference. The most important question that came up was the viability of nuclear energy, which is currently being touted as a major energy option of the future in India. Wholly contrary to the government line, speakers at this conference were in agreement that nuclear energy is unsafe in the extreme, expensive, and globally speaking, fast growing redundant, besides being inadequate for India's energy needs.

Dr Channa Basavaiah, associate professor at Osmania University, Hyderabad, pointed out that the high hopes about the potential of nuclear energy have been debunked time and again in the country's history. "Homi Bhabha had predicted that by 1987 India will generate 20,000 MW of electricity through atomic energy. When this target could not be met, Prof Ramanna brought the target down to 10,000 MW by the year 2000. Today we see that not even a tenth of the figure has actually materialised. We all talk about the non-performance of the public sector, but don't talk about the non-performance of the nuclear sector." Bidwai condemned the nuclear energy option as 'economically unviable and environmentally unacceptable'.

Magsaysay-award winning peace activist Sandeep Pandey, who also happens to be a former nuclear scientist, pointed out that even with the optimum use of its entire nuclear potential, India will be able to generate only about 9 per cent of its domestic electricity needs, which is far too little. "Sustainable and low-cost energy options like wind, solar, biogas and minor hydroelectric projects have far more potential, but have not been explored."

Speakers also pointed out that atomic power was being increasingly rejected by the developed world, with atomic plants shutting down and countries like France and Japan turning to sustainable energy in a big way.

Uranium mining and its impact on public health

Uranium mining, the first stage of a nuclear programme, is itself a highly hazardous activity, and came in for considerable scrutiny and criticism. Jharkhand-based journalist and film-maker Shree Prakash made a presentation regarding the callous attitude of Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) regarding the health problems arising out of carelessly disposed radioactive waste. "Not only is the company not ready to take up the issue scientifically, they are ridiculing the concerns of the local people in the areas around the mines, and giving perverse answers to their queries."

"Not only is UCIL not ready to take up the issue scientifically, they are ridiculing the concerns of the local people in the areas around the mines, and giving perverse answers to their queries."

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Dr Shakeel Ur Rahman of Indian Doctors for Peace and Development presented the results of a recent study carried out in Jadugora area which showed a substantial rise in the incidences of primary sterility, congenital birth defects and cancer among the residents of villages close to the mining site.

Dr Channa, talking about the overall uranium mining situation in the country, said that while there was no public hearing before uranium mining in Jadugora was undertaken, the public hearings being organised at new proposed uranium mining sites in Meghalaya, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh are little better than a sham. An overwhelming majority of the residents of these areas are against mining, but the government is going ahead with these projects in the teeth of those protests, using the 'national interest' bogey.

The conference concluded with a call for complete nuclear disarmament worldwide. The demands raised during the conference include declaring South Asia a nuclear weapons free zone, the calling of a world summit on disarmament, opposing the Indo-US nuclear deal and strengthening struggle against nuclear energy in all forms.

Aparna Pallavi
10 Feb 2008

Aparna Pallavi is a journalist based in Nagpur, and writes on development issues.