South Asia is home to nearly 1.75 billion people residing in the eight countries that constitute the region. This massive threshold of the population is an untapped reservoir that could steer the developmental determinants of South Asia on an upward trajectory.
Many South Asian states have faced numerous problems, where the shortfall of energy is one of them. This shortfall direly affects their overall economic as well as day to day activity. As a result, a greater proportion of the population has to suffer.
Apart from dealing with the energy sector, nuclear power plays its seminal role in other sectors as well. This includes medicine, agriculture, desalination of water etc.
Emerging Civilian Nuclear Use
Pakistan which struggled with energy woes in the past decade has gradually improved power shortages. The country presently faces a shortfall of 3000 MW. Whereas, Sri Lanka has a maximum demand of 2543 MW.
Pakistan recently commissioned its largest nuclear reactor, which has the capability to produce 1100MW. This was Pakistan’s sixth nuclear plant.
Previously four nuclear plants at Chasma and one at Karachi added power to the national grid. The country’s seventh power plant is expected to enter the construction phase in 2022.
India has the 5th largest electricity generating capacity. It is also the 6th largest energy consumer amounting to around 3.4 % of global energy consumption. The country produces a staggering 6700 MW from its 22 nuclear reactors.
Bangladesh, which has a high population density of approximately 166.3 million also ventured into the nuclear energy realm when it initiated the construction of the 2160 MW Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant.
Bangladesh has even managed to triple its rice production using nuclear techniques in the last few decades.
Even Sri Lanka is expected to have a nuclear power plant by 2030 which presently relies majorly on diesel power for energy requirements.
Nuclear Energy in Context of International Law
Apart from the massive advantages, civilian use of nuclear power holds, the fears of proliferation and nuclear war exist in reciprocity.
The fears always loom around how nuclear-related processes can be weaponized to create lethal weapons that could have devastating effects.
For this purpose, many international organizations exist that frame as well as ensure adherence to guidelines pertaining to the use of nuclear resources. The International Atomic Energy Agency is at the forefront of encouraging civilian nuclear use.
IAEA articles aptly elucidate the criteria of nuclear safety. For example, article 3 empowers the IAEA to adopt standards of safety; for the protection of health and the minimization of danger to life and property. The regulations include the safety of radioactive materials and the nuclear power plants; specifying safe quantities of sensitive nuclear material as well as notifying in case of any unfortunate circumstance involving nuclear materials.
Photo Credits: IAEA
Numerous instruments such as; the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS), Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident and Convention on Assistance in the Case of Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency, Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM), Radioactive Waste Safety Standards (RADWASS) and many others enshrine that a regulatory framework is present by which safe nuclear use is ensured.
Nuclear Use and UN Sustainable Development Goals
The UN SDGs aims at reducing poverty, providing sustainable and clean energy along building sustainable communities. Clean nuclear energy would help in achieving the 17 goals entailed in the SGDs. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2030 Agenda), adopted by all United Nations Member States in the year 2015, provided a framework for sustainable development. Unfortunately, its 2020 goals could not be materialized as the world was gripped by the Covid pandemic at the end of 2019.
Nuclear power unlike fuel and coal power production has a very diminished carbon imprint. Large scale utilization of nuclear power in the 1970s and 1980s has made it a key contributor to low carbon electricity worldwide.
Nuclear power has been attributed to have saved 1.5–2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions every year since 1990, or about 60 billion tons since 1970. Hence nuclear energy directly supports SDG 7 which calls for affordable and clean energy.
Achieving the SDGs includes climate change mitigation, protection of ecosystems on land and in water, and avoiding the depletion of resources. Nuclear power, along with hydro and wind power, emits the lowest quantity of GHGs per unit of electricity. On the contrary, GHG emissions are significantly higher for fossil fuel energy production.
Even the land footprint of any nuclear power plant is way less than thermal, coal or biomass power production facilities. This directly proportionate to the following SDGs 14 and 15.
Photo Credits: UN
CERN Relationship with South Asia
South Asian states particularly India have played an important role in experimental nuclear endeavours around the globe. The European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, is a European research organization that operates the most sophisticated particle physics laboratory in the world. Pakistan became a member in 2015 while India officially became a CERN member in January 2017.
Only Pakistan and India are full CERN members while Bangladesh is a non-member with cooperation agreements. Similarly, Sri Lanka has scientific contacts with the organization. When it comes to Nepal, an international cooperation agreement was signed in 2017 which postulates future possibilities of closer cooperation.
However, the Indian working partnership with CERN dates back to 1991. Indian high energy physicists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research had been participating in CERN experiments since the 1960s. The Indian Atomic energy commission agreed to take part in the construction of the Large Hadron Collider in 1996.
CERN signed an agreement with AEC in 1991 for ten years period with an aim to increase the pace of accelerator development in India along with providing an opportunity to the Indian High Energy Physics (HEP) community in the most advanced area of research.
Moreover, many Indian scientists are working at CERN in many research and development projects and the accelerator for the future.
Pakistan has also contributed to the ambitious large Hadron Collider of CERN, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. The country has played its part in the experiment by manufacturing 14000 tons of heavy shields required by the Hadron Collider at Heavy Industries complex, Taxila.
Sustainability for South Asia
Multiple problems mar the South Asian region. Resultantly, this gravely has an impact on its populace. According to World Bank data, the region accounted for 29% of the people living in extreme poverty worldwide (216 million extreme poor in South Asia out of the estimated 736 million extreme poor worldwide).
However, the environmental profile of South Asia paints a more dismal picture. Bangladesh produces 0.21 per cent of global GHGs while Pakistan’s global share is 0.51 per cent. India meanwhile overshadows all of South Asia by a staggering 7 per cent contribution in global CO2 emissions.
What is alarming is that despite contributing so little to global carbon emissions, many states of South Asia are at the forefront of bearing the consequences of climate change, brought about by global warming.
Maplecroft’s (2011) Index of vulnerability to climate change ranks Pakistan 16th among 170 nations of the world. In 2010, the country’s vulnerability index was rater 29th. Since then, it has only moved up. The 2012 Global Climate Risk Index of German Watch ranks Pakistan eighth among over 180 nations of the world while it ranked Pakistan first in 2010.
It has been estimated that by 2050, up to 18 million people may have to move because of sea-level rise alone. A significant proportion of Bangladesh resides in coastal areas. Under given circumstances, the residents will face displacement. This is possible due to the possible desalination and the non-availability of land.
With such alarming figures depicting a gloomy picture for South Asia; these states cannot afford to rely on energy sources that would alter their carbon signatures, utilize more resources and aggravate the climate change process. This in turn would affect every single determinant that affects daily lives.
Nuclear Safety in South Asia
Prospects of civilian nuclear use outweigh the military aspects of nuclear usage, this is something South Asia has been in the spotlight for due to contentions between India and Pakistan. Therefore, it is equally necessary that nuclear safety protocols are strictly adhered to as any lapse could have disastrous effects.
The incidents of Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear plants remains a stark reminder that a promising source of energy can become an even greater problem with few remedies.
India which presently is the largest producer of nuclear energy in South Asia has a fair number of instances where nuclear security lapses were evident. This includes, from smuggling of Uranium to fears of potential fallout, India’s nuclear safety protocols depict a debatable posture.
Read Here: Indian Uranium Leak and its Implications for the Region
India pursues the buildup of its nuclear energy infrastructure. However, its nuclear stockpile would be susceptible to leaks; considering that it does not take the required safety measures seriously. In absence of any expertise in handling radioactive materials, any unfortunate event can occur which can jeopardize the pursuit of nuclear energy as a whole.
Civilian nuclear use holds advantageous potential for South Asian states. If nuclear safety protocols concerning nonproliferation are followed in the true sense, nuclear power can not only be harnessed for power requirements only. It is also beneficial for; health care, reducing food shortage for large populations and providing clean energy that encourages a sustainable lifestyle.