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by Najib Saab
Perspectives, April 2011

Nuclear reactors or hernia surgery?

Najib Saab

 

The debate on the use of nuclear power in Europe inspired the Italian cinema company MOROL Productions to produce a documentary entitled, ‘The Nuclear Question.' This documentary was shown at the Rome Film Festival in October 2009, and received awards for presenting the nuclear question from ethical, environmental and economical perspectives.

A quarter of a century following the Chernobyl disaster and its repercussions, and three decades after the Three Miles Island nuclear accident in the US, the film poses several questions: is there a moral justification for accepting the potentially disastrous results of nuclear accidents in order to meet raising energy demands? Is the nuclear energy option inevitable? Or was Italy's 1987 decision to ban nuclear reactors, based on a referendum following the Chernobyl disaster, a wise decision?

When MOROL approached me in August 2010 to request an interview for another documentary on nuclear energy in the Arab region, I welcomed the idea, and found it useful to contribute to a serious discussion on the subject. At that time, the thought of a global nuclear disaster on the scale of what happened seven months later in Fukushima was considered mere fiction.

"Are you afraid of the devastating effects of nuclear radiation in the Arab region, considering the possibility of an accident similar to Chernobyl at an Iranian nuclear reactor?" This opening question surprised me, because before the Lebanese should fear, for example, the effects of an accident 2000 km far in Iran, they should fear a nuclear accident in the Israeli Dimona reactor, which is only 200 km away, that is if we limit the fears to a mere accident. The Dimona reactor produces fuel for nuclear warheads and is located in a country which is at war with its neighbors, and which refuses to sign the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Iran has signed that treaty, but still is suspected to pursue its nuclear program with military ends. What guarantees can the Lebanese and the Arabs have against an intentionally triggered nuclear apocalyptic attack, especially from a country with which most are officially in a state of war?

Furthermore, at the opposite end of the Mediterranean, dozens of nuclear reactors exist in France, and it is enough for one accident to occur for radiation to reach Arab countries across the sea. Moreover, Turkey is preparing to construct nuclear reactors on the Akoya coast close to Cyprus, only 300 km away from Beirut.

These reactors are all closer to us, I pointed out to my interviewer, and he commented that, in spite of this, many Arab countries have begun to build nuclear power stations. "This is true", I told him, "and Arab countries have multiple motives, as some suffer from a deficit in energy sources, yet own stocks of uranium, and plan to extract it and use it to produce electricity from nuclear energy, as is the case in Jordan. Still, the ‘nuclear club' imposed on Jordan the condition of buying ready-to-use enriched uranium in order to allow building a reactor." Feasibility studies often ignore the cost of dismantling nuclear reactors and dealing with the waste and possible disasters, which, apart from the environmental and human risks, would increase the liabilities and overweigh potential economic benefits.

Moreover, other Arab countries, rich in conventional energy like oil and gas, still want to ‘purchase' nuclear technology under the banner of diversifying energy sources and accelerating development. The danger lies in luring some countries into buying ready-made nuclear technology and equipment, under the pretext of a regional balance of power, which may lead to wasting national wealth in an absurd race. This race is not based on developing and owning technology, but on buying ready equipment from ‘international sales representatives', including heads of state, who offer both nuclear reactors and military equipment on the same plate, sometimes as part of so-called peace initiatives.

It seems my answer provoked my interviewer, so he asked: "Are you against Arabs acquiring advanced technology, including nuclear?" Of course I want Arabs to develop and own all technologies, and invest in science, literature and art. But what does buying nuclear reactors mean, when Arab citizens still have to travel to hospitals in Europe and USA for treatment of the simplest injuries or diseases? 

Before we talk of nuclear reactors, what have we achieved in the field of scientific research, whether in medicine, engineering, physics, economics or sociology? The Arab region still ranks amongst the lowest in the world in terms of budget allocation to scientific research. A stark manifestation is that while Arab countries produce 60 percent of desalinated sea water in the world, they continue to fully import desalination technology, equipment and spare parts, and in most cases also foreign scientists, managers, technicians and workers. So we have to ask whether the construction of nuclear reactors should be accorded a priority over building a factory to produce membranes for water desalination, let alone complete desalination plants? Is building a nuclear reactor more important than developing medical services, so that citizens are not forced to travel to foreign hospitals like the Mayo Clinic for surgeries as simple as removing hernia or a gallbladder? And what will be the level of response to potential nuclear disasters, in countries which have still to show capability to adequately respond to a slight excess in rainfall, often flooding their capitals, wiping structures and humans?

Ultimately, is it not more useful to invest in renewable energies, especially sun and wind, which are clean, safe and abundantly available in the Arab region, before seeking to produce nuclear electricity, fully depending on imported equipment, technology, and enriched uranium?

Arabs have the right to develop and own technology, including nuclear, on the condition they identify priorities and applications according to real needs and in compliance with safety and security considerations. We should beware, however, of falling victims to an artificial nuclear race that only serves international salesmen.

 

This commentary has been published in the April 2011 issue of ‘Perspectives', a magazine of the German foundation Heinrich Boll Stiftung.

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