Using South Africa’s planned nuclear reactor building programme to advance world peace

2016-08-03 22:06

Every August, the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki guarantee that nuclear technology and all things nuclear related pre-occupy the public mind for a few short weeks. Notwithstanding the assurances of the nuclear lobby, the evocativeness of the image of the atomic mushroom cloud rising over Hiroshima that has been burned into popular consciousness ensures that public thoughts inevitably turn to the awesome destructive potential of nuclear power and the dangers associated with nuclear technology. Speculatively, the observance of these anniversaries is likely to assume greater significance for South Africans this year given the controversy generated by the government’s plans to expand our nuclear electricity generation capacity and mounting concerns regarding the costs and affordability of this programme.

Coupled with the increasing frequency and indiscriminate nature of terror attacks abroad, along with the possible existence of home-grown terror threats, many South Africans are likely to be prompted to reflect upon the state of world affairs and to ponder whether these weapons achieved the ends for which they were supposedly employed viz. to make war so destructive so as to be inconceivable thereby making the world a safer place. Speculatively, given the increasingly fractious relations between the West, Russia and China; the rise of newer geopolitical groupings which threaten to usurp Western hegemony and the ideological influence wielded by non-state actors such as the Islamic State; it seems as if the world is a much more dangerous place than it was 71 years ago for all our knowledge of the destructive potential of nuclear weapons and our fear thereof. In the midst of all this anxiety, it becomes relatively simple to lose sight of the purpose used to justify the ghastly nuclear bombings and to lose track of the progress which we as a society have made toward the realisation of the goal of world peace.

Arguably, South Africa, by virtue of her history and the bold leadership she showed in the area of nuclear disarmament when former President De Klerk took the voluntarily decision to destroy apartheid SA’s nuclear arsenal, is in a unique position to advance the cause of global peace. It could do so if it included nuclear disarmament as an objective of its nuclear plans and declared that it would seek the fuel requirements for the reactors it plans to build as part of its nuclear reactor building programme from decommissioned nuclear warheads. Specifically, enriched uranium from the illegal (narrowly defined) small nuclear arsenals of countries like North Korea and Israel for example or any country which may feel the burden of maintaining nuclear weapons has become too onerous, Pakistan for example.

Before scoffing at this initiative, consider the precedent that has been set in this regard by the little known Megatons for Megawatts Programme. Under this programme, Russia and the United States provide civilian nuclear power stations with surplus nuclear fuel extracted from the warheads that they have decommissioned under existing nuclear weapons reductions treaties. Needless to say, this programme represents the culmination of many years of difficult negotiations. Given the stage at which South Africa’s plans are, there is also sufficient time available for South African policymakers to carefully work out the details of the proposed scheme and for our diplomats to calculate the suite of incentives that would be necessary to entice the countries we approach to destroy their nuclear arsenals.

Consider too the benefits which this programme could yield to different stakeholders. For renegade states, signing up for this scheme affords them the opportunity to demonstrate a firm commitment to world peace and thereby shed their international pariah status. Acceptance by the community of nations is likely to allow them to secure benefits which far outweigh the dubious benefits which they believe they draw from retaining their nuclear weapons arsenals.

For South Africa, the South African government in particular, making the reduction of nuclear weapons stockpiles an explicit goal of its nuclear reactor building programme would garner domestic support for a nuclear deal which is starting to be viewed with an increasing amount of scepticism by a weary public. In diplomatic circles, championing such a scheme would enhance our diplomatic stature and hence our leverage in international affairs. A welcome benefit, at a time when the holes in our foreign policy (think of the failure of our policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’ when it comes to President Mugabe’s rule in Zimbabwe) are starting to become as gaping as the holes in some of our senior politicians’ heads.

For the hibakusha, the dwindling number of survivors of the atomic bombings, pledging to implement this programme would send a far more meaningful message this anniversary than all the empty promises made and the faux empathy expressed in the endless speeches which politicians and leaders eloquently and solemnly deliver at the annual ceremonies held to commemorate these events. Perhaps an even more powerful message would be the signal it would send to the established nuclear powers that the rest of the countries of the world, the vast majority of which do not even dream of acquiring nuclear arms, are no longer prepared to tolerate the effrontery they show us by continuing to maintain and even expand their nuclear stockpiles. Putting disarmament firmly on the global agenda and linking disarmament to development as this scheme does sends the message that humanity truly desires to make the world a safer place which is free from the threat of nuclear annihilation. Hopefully, the direct challenge to the status quo contained in this message would spur the nuclear powers to honour their long overdue commitments to nuclear disarmament that they pledged under existing international treaties.

In recognition of these potential benefits, it is argued that South Africa should incorporate global nuclear disarmament into its programme goals and attempt to use its stature and its plans to expand its nuclear programme to advance the goal of world peace, a goal which has proven so elusive since the dawn of the Atomic Age at the end of World War II. Should South African policymakers have the vision to adopt this policy, ordinary South Africans ought to overcome their fears of nuclear power (irrespective of whether real or perceived) and muster the courage to support the government’s controversial nuclear reactor building plans.

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