The N word: A useful omnibus with informed views on nuclear arms and energy

The N word: A useful omnibus with informed views on nuclear arms and energy

Updated: 2 months, 18 days, 4 hours, 32 minutes, 16 seconds ago

The word ‘nuclear’ often brings to mind the apocalyptic destruction that the world witnessed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 and ever since, this sword of Damocles hangs uneasily over the world. While the nuclear taboo has not been breached for the last 77 years, the normative commitment not to take recourse to the nuclear option is occasionally jolted—as witnessed recently in the war in Ukraine. However, the nuclear domain is also leavened with many positive attributes, such as the vast energy potential it represents (the 2011 Fukushima tragedy notwithstanding), which may be one option to deal with the enormity of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.

The volume under review is aptly titled and deftly edited by Manpreet Sethi, a scholar of repute who has been working on matters nuclear for many years. Structuring an edited volume is a critical factor and given that there are many individual chapter authors, the editor has to organise the content in a cohesive and seamless manner—and Sethi is to be commended for the elegant form and comprehensive content of ‘the global nuclear landscape’.

Identifying the three main constituents of the nuclear domain as nuclear energy, non-proliferation and disarmament, the editor identifies the focus for the volume as: “Each of them (constituents) has been visited by phases of cautious optimism, deep scepticism and outright pessimism over just the last two decades. This book offers a bird’s eye view on all the three, even as the individual authors offer a worm’s eye view on each specific topic within the larger ambit.”

Divided into three sections totalling 15 chapters, the section on nuclear non-proliferation has seven chapters, while energy and disarmament have four chapters each. The author mix is judicious, and as Sethi adds, “A conscious attempt has been made to ensure diversity of gender and age amongst the contributors” with an almost equal distribution of the determinants—gender and professional experience. Almost half the contributors are women, and this is to be both noted and encouraged.

This book went into print in June 2022 and to the credit of the author, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has also been reviewed in the very last chapter authored by Sethi. The author makes an earnest recommendation apropos the opaque Russian reference to the use of nuclear weapons if pushed to the wall, where it is opined: “From the experience of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, it is also clear that an undertaking of security assurances that commit the NWS to come to the rescue of nation(s) that are threatened with such use. There should be an undertaking that any country using or threatening to use nuclear weapons shall face commensurate retribution and a total boycott by all the countries of the world. This would make nuclear weapons significantly impotent and useless…. a total ban on the use of nuclear weapons would directly strike at the very root of their utility.”

However desirable such a formulation is, the NFU (no-first use) commitment when tested on the anvil of realpolitik compulsions remains elusive. Specific to the Ukraine crisis, the intractable geopolitical impasse within the UN Security Council which has the US and its western allies—UK and France pitted against Russia and China poses is illustrative. But Sethi is right in cautioning that “mankind cannot hope to live indefinitely with nuclear weapons and remain safe from their use”.

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But the southern Asian region continues to remain mired in a stubborn impasse between three nuclear armed neighbours, where India has to contend with China and Pakistan that are in tandem, and this chapter (Prakash Menon) is lucid.

The nuclear energy section is a useful introduction to the challenges and opportunities that the civil use of nuclear capability can offer and the chapter on the emergence of small modular reactors (Sethi and Zoya Akhter) and the need to involve ‘private players’ has valuable policy relevance.

The non-proliferation section covers a number of current challenges and the chapterisation is both taut and lucid. The Iran nuclear imbroglio (Sheel Kant Sharma), the AUKUS deal and its impact on east Asia (Jagannath Panda), the state of the NPT and the challenges ahead (Kanica Rakhra) and the threat of nuclear terrorism (Sitakanta Mahapatra), among other themes, provide a useful summary of the complexities that abound in relation to nuclear non-proliferation.

Nuclear disarmament remains the receding holy grail for the global community and the current state of play is ably reviewed (Swaran Singh and Reshmi Kazi), but it is difficult to share the conclusion that “the current state of play in nuclear disarmament can at best be termed cautiously optimistic”. It may be a jaundiced view but this reviewer’s assessment is more bleak, alas.

In summary, this is a very useful omnibus that combines the informed views of both the bird and the worm and CAPS (Centre for Air Power Studies) is to be complimented for nurturing this level of sustained scholarship and rigour in the nuclear domain. It is evident that India needs more ‘nuclear nerds’ and this kind of institutional support is praiseworthy.

C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies

The Global Nuclear Landscape: Energy, Non-proliferation and Disarmament

Dr Manpreet Sethi

KW Publishers

Pp 277, Rs 1,360

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