Nuclear energy has attracted renewed interest in recent years, partly because of its ability to generate electricity while producing only negligible emissions of greenhouse gases. For many developing countries, however, establishing and maintaining a nuclear power sector presents a plethora of challenges. This is especially true for a "least developed country" like Nepal, my own nation. Though Nepal became a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2008, the country's limited human and capital resources make it an unlikely candidate to develop a nuclear energy sector. But because of the global threat of climate change, even nations without power reactors of their own could benefit from a worldwide expansion of nuclear energy. If climate change progresses, Nepal faces threats to its water supply due to Himalayan glacier melt and to its agricultural sector because of potential changes PDF in weather patterns. Nepal therefore has good reason to welcome the further development of nuclear energy in other countries.
But though a nuclear expansion could produce climate-related benefits for a country such as Nepal, it would also introduce new risks. For example, an accident like the one that took place last year at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station -- or, worse yet, an incident similar to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster -- could have terrible consequences within Nepal. Indeed, Nepal happens to be surrounded by two developing nations that are among the world's top candidates for nuclear expansion -- China and India. As Wang Haibin noted in his first Roundtable essay, many people in the developing world regard with skepticism their governments' competence to oversee nuclear power. Such skepticism need not be confined to one's own government.
For Nepal, though, the risks inherent in nuclear expansion involve a security dimension as well. South Asia, a dangerous region because of the enmity between India and Pakistan, has a history of terrorist events like the coordinated attack against Mumbai in 2008. Pakistan has often been accused of lending aid to terrorist groups. In such an environment, all nuclear installations must be considered potential terrorist targets, so an increased number of installations creates a greater risk of attack.
Another issue that makes some Nepalis apprehensive is the 2008 US-India nuclear cooperation agreement. Pakistan, unsurprisingly, reacted to the deal very negatively, but the agreement is also troubling because of what it suggests about US and Indian attitudes toward China. In the words of Shyam Saran, India's former foreign secretary, the agreement "reflects a certain strategic convergence between the United States and India… We have similar concerns and attitudes regarding the emergence of China." And any evidence of tension between India and China must be considered worrisome to Nepal. Nepal's resources are limited -- technologically, scientifically, and financially. The country cannot afford a nuclear sector of its own. But it nonetheless stands to benefit in environmental terms from a nuclear expansion elsewhere, despite the risks outlined above. Someday, perhaps, the risks associated with nuclear energy can be reduced through the development and commercialization of fusion reactors, a technology that could revolutionize the nuclear sector around the world. Until then, however, regional powers must ensure that nuclear energy diminishes risks instead of compounding them.
All participants in this Roundtable recognize the dangers associated with nuclear energy, and have discussed its expansion in terms of manageable risk. We all nonetheless agree that such an expansion is justified by the dangers of climate change. Given the consensus on nuclear energy that has emerged in this Roundtable, in my final essay I would like to explore the ways that a country such as Nepal, which is unlikely to develop a nuclear sector of its own, could contribute to climate change efforts -- and the responsibilities that wealthier countries bear toward Nepal and other least developed nations. Nepal's emissions of carbon dioxide are very low. Statistics from the US Energy Information Administration show that in 2010, on a worldwide basis, more than 31,780 metric tons of carbon dioxide were emitted into the atmosphere as a result of energy consumption. Of this total, Nepal was responsible for a mere 3.36 metric tons. But as I have detailed in my previous essays, climate change presents grave dangers to Nepal, in areas ranging from the productivity of agriculture to the physical safety of Nepalese citizens. In short, the damage that Nepal stands to suffer from climate change is out of proportion to its responsibility for the problem.
Many other least developed countries are situated similarly. Low-lying coastal nations like Bangladesh, island states like Kiribati, and dry countries like Niger whose precipitation levels might fall even lower as climate change progresses -- all are justified in viewing the advance of climate change with alarm. Making matters worse, nations with low levels of development are especially ill equipped to solve the new problems that climate change will present them.
These countries can attempt to influence international behavior on climate issues, for instance through the Least Developed Countries Group, an association of 49 nations within the UN system. Nepal has chaired this group, and has campaigned in that capacity and others for action on climate change. But the political influence of least developed countries is limited. Ultimately, it is the more developed countries that must take the difficult steps necessary to contain the damage of climate change.
Still, even though Nepal's carbon emissions are negligible and its political influence is restricted, the country could make direct contributions to slowing climate change. Nepal, for example, is a good candidate to stage reforestation projects under the Clean Development Mechanism, an element of the Kyoto Protocol that allows industrialized nations to meet their carbon-reduction goals in part by funding emissions-related initiatives in developing countries. Nepal could also help other nations lower their emissions by further developing its own hydropower sector -- as Wang Haibin mentioned in his third Roundtable essay, hydropower is a safe form of electricity generation that does not contribute to global warming. Nepal, with its abundant hydropower potential, couldexport significant amounts of electricity to nearby nations whose carbon emissions are greater than its own.
Initiatives such as these require the participation, financial and otherwise, of wealthier nations. Nepal cannot undertake them alone. But in any case, the heart of the climate-change problem is that countries more developed than Nepal release too much carbon into the atmosphere. I have argued that nuclear power could be an important part of reducing carbon emissions, but it is only one piece of a larger puzzle. And though Nepal can make a contribution to assembling the puzzle, more developed countries must do the bulk of the work.