Mark Hibbs Thinks Developing Countries Can’t be Trusted with Nuclear Power (Apparently)

Am I the only one who thinks that this article by Mark Hibbs comes across quite condescending and paternalistic? 

“Look at ’em – they can’t even control a fire! How can we trust them with nuclear power plants!?”

I think the lessons of Fukushima can be understood quite diferently to how Mark sees them. Along with the Fukushima accident in Japan, where have the other major nuclear accidents occured? That would be Three Mile Island in the U.S., and Chernobyl in the Soviet Union.  All three powerful, advanced technological countries, with strong governments.  And in each case, the responsible government has been criticized for the way in which it handled the aftermath of the accidents – the worst case of course being Chernobyl, followed by Fukushima. So it seems to me that the technologically advanced countries that have had nuclear power plants for years, have to be a bit careful in quite how high they sit on their proverbial high horses, looking down in disdain upon developing countries, and explaining to them how they’re just not ready to be trusted with nuclear technologies.

This is not to mention how very non – “Atoms for Peace” this view is, and how disharmonious it is with Article IV(2) of the NPT, which obligates supplier states to:

co-operate in contributing alone or together with other States or international organizations to the further development of the applications of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, especially in the territories of non-nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty, with due consideration for the needs of the developing areas of the world.

While I’m writing, I might as well also quickly address Mark’s other recent piece over at Arms Control Wonk. This one is entitled Closing the Iran File, and contains Mark’s prescription for how Iran can normalize its relationship with the IAEA. I honestly don’t see much that is novel in this piece. It seems to just be saying that Iran should do everything the IAEA and UNSC says it should do, and that if they do, in time the IAEA may back off on its scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear program and normalize its safeguards relationship with Iran. The piece doesn’t seriously engage with any of Iran’s objections to the substance or process of IAEA/UNSC actions regarding it, or with Iran’s proposals for normalizing relations with the IAEA. It appears to offer no new insights into how the dispute between Iran and the West can practically be resolved.

It is of course all wrong in its fundamental assumption, upon which the entire piece is based, that the IAEA should be investigating “potential military dimensions” in Iran, or anywhere else for that matter. But I’ve made this point so many times before that I didn’t really see it as worth the time or effort to do so again in comments to this new piece.

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9 Comments on “Mark Hibbs Thinks Developing Countries Can’t be Trusted with Nuclear Power (Apparently)”

  1. Rene says:

    I didn’t feel the condescension that you mention, Dan. In fact, Mark also refers to Japan as “one of the world’s most advanced, technology-driven nations.” And the last paragraph makes clear that he doesn’t oppose erecting nuclear power plants in Asia, only that they must first strengthen the enforcement of proper regulations and invest in the necessary education. One can ask, of course, why he formulates the issue as pertaining to Asia, rather than pertaining to the entire world. But this may be understandable in light of the fact that the recent incidents have happened in Asia, and that it’s the Asian market for nuclear power that’s expected to grow significantly (not the European, Russian, or American markets).

    • yousaf says:

      Indeed I believe nuclear power proliferation (in its current incarnation) should be reconsidered worldwide.

      This, of course, speaks to one of the central pillars of the NPT.

      In my view, what is needed is an NPT 2.0 that tamps down on nuclear energy (in its current flawed state-subsidized form) as well as fuel cycle activities — and nuclear weapons:

      http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/12/18/radioactive_decay?page=full

      • Dan Joyner says:

        I think there is a very healthy debate to be had about the safety of existing nuclear facilities, and the general question of whether proliferation of civilian nuclear power capabilities around the world is a net good thing, in light of safety, environmental, and economic considerations. These are the kinds of very valid points that I think both Rene and Yousaf are raising here. Even though I have my own opinions on these questions, I try to stay out of the fray of these arguments usually – mostly because I don’t have any particular expertise to draw on in analysis. Personally, I suppose I have a generally positive view of civilian nuclear power, and I think that it will likely need to be a significant part of the long term mix of energy production capabilities, not only in the developed world but also in the developing world. I personally tend to see the benefits of nuclear power as exceeding its risks and costs. But again, reasonable people can disagree on these points, and certainly do. In that sense, I think I respectfully disagree with Yousaf that a new “NPT 2.0” should discourage the spread of nuclear energy. I certainly have concerns about nuclear facilities being constructed in unstable parts of the world. I also think that it is important for any country that is going to maintain elements of the nuclear fuel cycle, to do so in accordance with best practices. I suppose I think that the international nuclear industry, under appropriate state regulation of course, can have a key role to play in ensuring high standards of safety for facilities, and also in the maintenance of those standards on a continuing basis where necessary, through long-term management contracts for nuclear facilities.

        In the end, and again in my non-expert capacity on these issues, I always come back to thinking of nuclear energy as one source of energy production among many. And that all energy production methods – be they fossil fuel oriented, nuclear, or renewable – carry with them some inevitable risks that need to be managed. I think about the accidents that have occurred over the years in the process of coal extraction, and oil exploration and transportation, and the terrible loss of life and damage to the environment that has occurred because of them – both in developed and developing countries. And this I think helps to properly contextualize the inevitable risks that do come with nuclear power generation. But again, we don’t stop fossil fuel production because of these risks – we manage the risks. And I think we should essentially see the risks associated with nuclear power production in the same way.

    • yousaf says:

      To be clear: I disfavor the incarnation of nuclear power that has been brought about and perpetuated by long-term state subsidies (explicit and implicit). This incarnation discourages competition from better incarnations of nuclear power.

      There may be incarnations of nuclear power that can better solve the hard problems of waste disposal, safety and security. Not sure, but there could be.

      I think conservation and efficiency can make a large dent in energy requirements. For example, simply pricing energy correctly (without subsidies) will make it expensive enough that people would use less.

      Houses that used 60 amps of power not long ago, now “need” 400 amps. As long as energy costs are subsidized and effects socialized we will continue to waste energy and look to flawed solutions like the state-subsidized incarnation of nuclear energy.

  2. People like Mark Hibbs and David Albright try to cover their prejudice toward countries like Iran by seemingly reasonable arguments, but once one digs a little deeper, one sees the shallowness of their arguments. Look at what Hibbs says: “How can WE trust them….” as if nuclear technology is owned by “US,” we have exclusive rights for deciding who can and cannot have access to the technology, and we are in a position that what we say goes.

    According to Hibbs himself, Iran tried to get the IAEA help to set up a nuclear fuel production program. Had the U.S. not intervened, it would have been set up in full transparency, under the IAEA supervision, and Iran’s engineers and scientists would have been fully trained. But, U.S. prevented that. So, what is Iran to do? Forgo everything? Why? Because Hibbs, Albright, and the U.S. political establishment do not like it?

  3. Denis says:

    Hibbs starts off noting fires in Sumatra and says “But Indonesia has long failed to effectively manage this threat.” And this is the basis for his conclusion that Indonesians are not ready for nuke power. According to Hibbs, if you ain’t smart enough to prevent forest fires, then you sure ain’t smart enough to regulate the nuke industry. I am like, WTF??

    Hibbs is saying, as I see it, that if a country doesn’t have the motivation and wherewithal to stop forest fires, how in hell can they regulate something as complex and powerful as the nuclear industry?

    This should be called the Smokey the Bear Nuclear Readiness Test. Could the US pass it? Well, let’s have a look at recent history:

    Sep1970 – the Laguna Canyon fire. 175,425 acres, 382 structures, hundreds of millions of $$
    Aug1988 – Yellowstone fire – 1.2 million acres.
    Jun1990 – Santa Barbara fire – 4,900 acres, 541 structures.
    Oct1991 – Oakland fire – 3,000 homes, 24 dead, $1.5 billion up in smoke.
    Apr2000 – Los Alamos fire – 47,000 acres, 235 structures, 20,000 evacuations.
    2000 spring/summer Western fires – 14 million acres over 12 states. [14 million!!!]
    Oct2003 – S. Calif fires – 1 million acres, 800K evacuations, >24 dead, >4000 homes burned.
    Jul2004 – Alaska fires – 5 million acres
    Mar2006 – Texas fires – 191,000 acres, 10,000 head of livestock burned.
    Oct2007 – S. Calif fires – 500,000 acres, 500,000 evacuated, 1300 homes burned.
    May2012 – Gila Natl Forest fire – 300,000 acres.
    Jun2012 – Colorado fires – 244,000 acres, 600 homes, 6 dead.
    Jun2013 – Yarnell fire – 19 members of the Granite Mtn Hotshots burned alive.

    Source: http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0778688.html

    Look at all those fires in S. California, where I used to live. Is that indicative of how qualified S. Calif. is to safely run nuke reactors? Well, if you’ve been following the SONGS debacle, ya’ gotta’ wonder if Hibbs doesn’t have a point. This from Surfer Magazine:

    Good news for surfers, and indeed anyone that lives anywhere remotely close to San Onofre State Beach, is that the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (S.O.N.G.S) will not be coming back online. Ever.

    Southern California Edison announced that it will permanently shutter the troubled plant that looms over the popular surfing break of San Onofre. “The continuing uncertainty about when or if SONGS might return to service was not good for our customers, our investors, or the need to plan for our region’s long-term electricity needs,” said Ted Craver, Chairman and CEO of Edison International.

    The plant has been inactive since January of 2012 when a radioactive gas leak prompted a shutdown of the plant. Surfers and activists have been calling for the plant’s closure citing safety concerns and the facility’s history of operational issues.

    Yeah, Mark, after a fleeting moment of incredulity, I see what you mean. Any country that can’t prevent forest fires has no business running nuke reactors.

  4. Johnboy says:

    Dan, I’m reading the comments in Mark’s post at armscontrolwonk, and one of his statements left me puzzled.

    This comment in reply to Cyrus:
    “The Board of Governors made a big mistake in not responding to the IAEA’s 2003 findings of 18 years of systematic deception by Iran, by passing a resolution stating clearly and without further ado, in 2003, that Iran was in non-compliance with its safeguards obligations and then ordering Iran to suspend sensitive nuclear activities pending clarification of outstanding issues related to the non-compliance finding”

    That the Board can pass a resolution declaring that based on the “IAEA’s 2003 findings” that Iran is guilty of non-compliance with its safeguards is not something that I dispute.

    It’s the “and then ordering Iran” bit that leaves me puzzled, because I can’t see where the Board of Governors has the authority to order anyone to pull the pin on their uranium enrichment plant.

    It does rather suggest that Mark thinks that the Board has the authority to be judge, jury and executioner which – to say the least – is a level of unaccountable power that is Somewhat Open To Abuse.

    Maybe I’ve missed something.

    Maybe the Board of Governors does have the power to “order” a country to “suspend sensitive nuclear activities pending clarification of outstanding issues”.

    What’s your take?


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