By Igor Khripunov and William Keller
Despite the seriousness of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, it is unlikely that events there will significantly curtail the global appetite for nuclear energy.
How many governments seriously contemplate a Three Mile Island- or Chernobyl-type response that would shut down the nuclear industry for 20-30 years in the face of global warming, climate disruptions, and the clamor for electricity in rising economies such as Brazil, India,Russia, and China?
Few would answer in the affirmative. After all, countries like South Korea and France ― to name a few ― boast respectable records for safely operating nuclear power infrastructure.
Skyrocketing oil and gas prices combined with the surge in energy demand will sustain the momentum of the so-called "nuclear renaissance" ― a renewal of the world's love affair with nuclear power. The nuclear renaissance has progressed swiftly in countries like China, where 28 reactors are reportedly under construction.
Few, if any, alternatives to nuclear power are in sight, and that will remain true for decades. Accordingly, the world should acknowledge reality, draw what lessons it can from Fukushima Daiichi, and make the future use of nuclear energy safer and more secure. This is a challenge of unprecedented proportions. Until Fukushima the nuclear renaissance encompassed some 65 countries ― at least 45 of which had no experience in building or operating nuclear power plants.
As members in good standing of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, even inexperienced states are guaranteed access to nuclear technology provided they pledge never to use it for military purposes.
They have ample reason to exercise their treaty rights. Energy shortages jeopardize sustainable economic development. External motives such as prestige, national pride, and ambition play their part.
Governments covet a reputation for scientific and technological prowess and for successfully executing large-scale projects. Nuclear power is a token of prestige that bolsters their power and standing in a multipolar world. Some hope accumulating nuclear technology and know-how will open up new military vistas.
The question, in light of these incentives, is not whether nuclear power will spread across the globe, but when. How can countries in great need tap the power of the atom, alleviating poverty and stimulating economic progress without endangering their neighbors?
One option would be for an international consortium of government and private entities to build and operate modern nuclear power plants in energy-starved areas. Such plants would represent the gold standards for nuclear safety and security and promote a balance between national aspirations and international obligations.
A wealth of experience in international nuclear projects already exists. Such institutional knowledge resides within the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, and its national affiliates throughout the world.
This would go well beyond the traditional approach, under which the international community supplies food, agricultural machinery, and the like under international sponsorship and supervision. The benefits to afflicted countries would be considerable. Blackouts resulting from insufficient electrical generating capacity constitute the most serious bottlenecks hindering sustainable economic growth. Droughts and other natural calamities only aggravate already grievous conditions.
International efforts tailored to the collective needs of, say, East African states would foster regional cooperation, creating economies of scale. A regional consortium could bring sorely needed electric power online far more quickly than could individual nations, furthering indigenous technological capacity. If the legal, financial, organizational, and other hurdles to this approach can be vaulted, the global North and South would begin to transcend past suspicions and enmities.
The advantages of collective international wisdom and collaboration are becoming abundantly plain as the saga of Fukushima continues unfolding. Like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, Fukushima will furnish many enduring lessons. The most important among them: technological fixes are no longer enough. It is high time to develop a new, innovative vision of global nuclear energy governance that spreads the blessings of nuclear power while curtailing its dangers.
Achieving this goal would require wisdom of world leadership and a changed mindset of all players, adjustments in the existing legal framework, expanded role of the IAEA and other international institutions, to name a few. Serving as vehicles to initiate and move the process forward are the two global events: the Nuclear Safety Summit tentatively scheduled before the end of the year and the Nuclear Security Summit to be held next April in Seoul.
Igor Khripunov is distinguished fellow and William Keller is director of the Center for International Trade and Security at the University of Georgia, the U.S.