The critical contemporary dilemma
In New York, as the top leadership of India, Pakistan and the US met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, the complex linkage of three decisive contemporary issues, energy security, nuclear technologies and terrorism, have come to the fore in the conflicting perspectives of each of the engaging parties. On each of these the outcome is, at this stage, ambivalent, but it is abundantly clear that the geopolitics of oil, nuclear energy and terrorism will dominate the international agenda in the coming decades to a far greater extent even than the enormous significance that has been attributed to these in recent years.
As international oil prices spiral to unprecedented levels, starving the world's growing economies of the life-blood of development, there is now increasing appreciation of the fact that oil profits have long been channelled into terrorism - and while these flows have undergone some diminution since the 9/11 attacks in the US, they are still far from exhausted. More significantly, the oligopolistic control of a few notoriously unstable oil-producing nations jeopardises and destabilises the trajectory of global progress in perpetuity, and it is now crucial that this cartel should be effectively challenged.
Regrettably, known global oil reserves are disproportionately concentrated in the world's most volatile region - the West Asia, where nearly two-thirds of known reserves are located; a quarter of global oil reserves are controlled by Saudi Arabia alone, the country long linked to Islamist radicalisation and regarded as a primary source of international terrorist finance. International apprehensions on energy security are thus more than justified, since oil is central to the dynamic of the 'world energy order' and, indeed, to the balance of global power - which is why the geopolitical projections of the world's leading nations are so obsessively focused on the geopolitics of energy and the quest for uninterrupted supplies of 'cheap oil'.
Experts note that the degree of this dependence is demonstrated by the fact that six of the last seven global recessions have been preceded by dramatic oil price hikes and, as one commentator notes, "in today's growth-dependent and energy-intensive global economy, oil price volatility itself may eventually pose more risks to prosperity and stability and mere survival than terrorism or even war."
India is not exempt from this perverse dynamic, and is, indeed, peculiarly vulnerable at this critical stage of its developmental history. India's dependency is acute: The country imports nearly 70 per cent of its oil and will need enormous increases in supply to meet its currently targeted growth rates of seven to eight per cent per annum. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has, consequently, rightly described energy security as being "second only in our scheme of things to food security". Absent a dramatic augmentation of supply, India's ambitious growth projections would fall into jeopardy.
India has already initiated some efforts to restructure the existing global energy regime, and has given a call for the creation of an "Asian Oil Market" and of a pan-Asian gas grid which would, in Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar's words, end the "wretched Western dominance". India has also sought to invest in, and cement the stability of, the infant Central Asian republics, which sit on substantial resources of oil and natural gases. Nevertheless, given the gargantuan and growing global appetite for oil, these efforts are mere tinkering.
Any effective challenge to the disruptive power of the existing energy cartel, and any adequate measures to meet burgeoning global demands, would require an enormous diversification and augmentation of global energy sources. This brings nuclear energy to the centre-stage of the global developmental paradigm. There is simply no way that fossil fuels can meet projected global demands with any measure of equity, providing sufficient opportunities to the developing nations of the world to meet the aspirations of their people. Nor, indeed, given current technological projections, can the various speculative non-conventional sources of energy - solar, wind, water, etc., - hold out an adequate and immediate promise. The benefits of science, and consequently of nuclear energy, cannot be restricted to a few privileged countries, and, in an increasingly globalised world, need to be shared by everyone
This, then, is the critical contemporary dilemma. Nuclear power lies at the core of the legitimate aspirations of all nation states that seek to engage productively in a rapidly globalizing economy. But nuclear technologies, once acquired for civilian purposes, lend themselves to relatively simple processes of weaponisation, and consequently constitute a major international security risk, particularly in politically unstable countries, and in countries where the culture of extremism and terrorism have taken firm root. Political stability and a country's willingness to conduct its affairs within the parameters of civilised international intercourse, are inescapable pre-requisites if the world is to concede a particular nation-state the right to pursue its independent nuclear aspirations.
A more promising, albeit radical, possibility is, however, the creation of a more rational global energy regime, based on the creation of conventional and nuclear energy grids spanning regions. Clearly, nuclear technologies cannot be shared with, and nuclear reactors cannot be located in, countries suspected of terrorism - though some of these countries have already acquired, or have advanced significantly in their quest for, nuclear capabilities - or in states that are visibly prone to instability or bellicosity.
But the possibility of the relatively cheap transmission of power across vast distances offers a solution. Even as we speak of linking the world through a grid of transnational highways, greater air travel, and the increasing and freer movement of people, goods, services and technologies across borders, we must realise the potential of transmitting nuclear energy from relatively stable and safe countries, under a sufficient and reliable security regime, where capacities for generation may be concentrated, to wider regions where energy deficits exist. Such a regime of regional energy grids would also benefit smaller countries which have no nuclear ambitions, or that lack the technological and financial muscle to develop nuclear capabilities.
This does not, of course, mean that the rational management and distribution of fossil fuels is immediately irrelevant. A handful of countries cannot be allowed to abuse their monopolies over oil to impose unbearable strains on the international economy, and to spread terror. Immediate steps to rationalise patterns of energy consumption, informed by conservation goals and by the containment of habitually wasteful patterns of use, need to be advanced, even as significant investment is committed to research to find alternatives to the internal combustion engine.
The late 1990s had seen enormous focus on alternative sources of energy, but these efforts appear to be flagging, with commercial viability remaining out of reach. Science has provided solutions to many of the world's crises in the past (though it has, equally, created many of its problems), and the rising crisis of energy in a rapidly industrialised and urbanised world order will have to be addressed by the scientific community.
Till other alternatives are defined, however, our approach to nuclear energy will have to be reassessed. The experience of countries such as France and Japan has demonstrated the long-term and positive potential of this limitless resource, and is crucial in addressing our many and legitimate fears regarding this technology.
The issue of nuclear energy and of global energy security now demands global policies. If we are approaching an integrated 'one-world' economy, we will need a 'one-world' energy sector. The creation of integrated nuclear energy resources - which simultaneously meet legitimate global security anxieties - cannot, for long, lie outside the sphere of current global concerns.
(Published in The Pioneer, September 17, 2005)