2011/12/11

Following the Decay Chain of Nuclear Safety from Israel’s Nuclear Weapons to the Fukushima Daiichi Catastrophe

Many people would find the title of this post to be an absurd claim. They would say it is a desperate attempt to stretch the nuclear accident in Japan to an unrelated situation on the other side of the world.

However, an article in Bloomberg Business Week (the farthest thing one could imagine from a bastion of left wing, peacenik radicalism) makes the connection between nuclear weapons proliferation and nuclear reactor safety. It is noteworthy that it is not just the granola and sandals crowd that wants nuclear safety to be overhauled. Corporations have their vital interests at stake, too.

The IAEA has devoted most of its resources to stopping “rogue states,” from obtaining nuclear weapons, while enforcement of reactor safety has been ineffective and collusive with the industry it is supposed to oversee. In recent years, pro-American (and thus pro-Israel) officials from the Japanese nuclear industry were promoted to high positions in the IAEA for their tough-on-Iran positions. Yet at the same time, there was concern in diplomatic circles about this emphasis. The Bloomberg article describes the rise of Japanese nuclear bureaucrats in the IAEA:

Since coming to office in 2009, Amano has spent five times more money fighting terrorism and preventing proliferation than on making the world's 450 nuclear reactors safer…
The agency's safety division garnered little respect in U.S. diplomatic cables that described the department as a marketing channel for countries seeking to sell atomic technology.
They also questioned the credentials of Tomihiro Taniguchi, the IAEA's former head of safety who helped create the regulatory regime in Japan, which is being blamed for failings that led to the Fukushima disaster.
“The department of safety and security needs a dedicated manager and a stronger leader,” U.S. IAEA Ambassador Glyn Davies wrote in December 2009 in a cable released by Wikileaks, the anti-secrecy website. “For the past 10 years, the department has suffered tremendously because of Deputy Director General Taniguchi's weak management and leadership skills.”
The U.S. backed Amano's bid to replace Mohamed ElBaradei in 2008 because he was believed to be supportive on confronting Iran. ElBaradei was accused by the U.S. and its allies of overstepping his IAEA mandate in seeking compromise solutions to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue. Amano was “solidly in the U.S. court,” according to a U.S. cable in October 2009 released by Wikileaks. The U.S. IAEA mission declined to comment on the cables.

The flaw of the Bloomberg article is that it doesn’t trace the roots of this problem back far enough. It is extremely rare to find any article in commercial media about the role that Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons have in the long history of futile attempts at stopping nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East and South Asia. It is Israel’s insistence on keeping its arsenal that drove Iraq and Libya, and now Iran to have its own. In her comprehensive history of the nuclear age, In Mortal Hands, Stephanie Cooke describes it this way:

…. the United States adjusted, and readjusted, its sights. How, after all, should it respond to what it knew was happening? Each new entrant to the nuclear weapons club would over time pose the same conundrum. Could they be stopped? Should they be stopped? And if so, how? In Israel’s case, accommodation became the easiest way out, but there would be a price to pay for that, in Iraq, then in Libya, and more recently in Iran. But it also added to reasons for restraint against India, and hence Pakistan, after those countries joined the club, because any other response would have raised questions about the treatment of Israel. (p. 229)

The world found out about Israel’s undeclared possession of nuclear weapons thanks to the Israeli dissident nuclear scientist Mordechai Vanunu who was illegally extradited (abducted) from Italy by Israeli agents. He has lived imprisoned or under house arrest for the last twenty years for the crime of having told the world about Israel’s covert nuclear weapons (In Mortal Hands, p. 241-242).

And that’s the connection between Iran’s nuclear weapons program and the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe. Iran could have been demotivated from developing nuclear weapons if Israel and other nuclear powers had made serious proposals about disarmament. With that distraction out of the way, there would have been no pressure to promote individuals who were products of the collusive and incompetent Japanese nuclear regulatory culture. Serious efforts could have been made to secure the safety of nuclear reactors, decommission aging plants, put diesel generators out of the reach of tsunamis, and find the best option for long-term storage of nuclear waste.

The result of this misguided approach is the destruction of at least 8,000 square kilometers of human habitat in Japan, destruction of the natural environment, a massive poisoning of the North Pacific, and an unknowable amount of future diseases and destruction of livelihood for the people of Japan. Other pressing issues, like giving the IAEA the authority to shut down dangerous reactors, still remain – something the former head of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei (who was replaced by Amano and considered too soft on Iran) has spoken of as an urgent necessity. Meanwhile, no nuclear incident has happened in the Middle East, unless you want to count the scattering of depleted uranium throughout Iraq since the first Gulf War in 1991.

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