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Staging Surprises

Nuclear proliferation is difficult to stop and harder to contain. We are racing to nowhere along the edge of a nuclear precipice.

Staging Surprises

North Korea infamously pops up a 'gift' for America and gets in gear the global powers that be about the elusive superweapon. Although President Trump poses to favour a diplomatic solution, his proclamation to respond with "fire and fury" roughly sums up the purpose behind a state's pursuit of a nuclear status internationally. The historic nuclear attack on Japan in 1945, around the end of the Second World War, is analysed to have had a purpose beyond defeating the Japanese. It was to warn the Soviet Union to yield to American wishes to shape the postwar world.

A strategy is devised to dissuade a nation - which will be an adversary - from possibly taking an action (on their own or at the behest of another state). This strategy is deterrence. Such a method of deterrence rose to prominence as a military strategy during the Cold War with regard to nuclear weapons. This strategy connotes that an inferior nuclear power, owing to its capacity for extreme destruction, can deter a more powerful adversary (provided that this force is protected against any surprise attack). North Korea's recent display of nuclear ambition aptly explains the deterrence theory. In the light of such dynamics that come inherent with nuclear capacity, it is expected of nations to remain within certain limits so as to not violate the security of other countries.
Besides 'nuclear winter', other possible repercussions of a nuclear war scenario include extensive damage to the ozone layer. An associated consequence is a 'nuclear famine' – a global famine marked by mass starvation due to disruption in agriculture and system of food production and distribution. A parallel consequence of a local nuclear exchange is breakdown of the scientific facility. A burst (pulse) of electromagnetic radiation (EMP) from nuclear explosions is known to be damaging to electronic equipment. It is estimated that if a single nuclear weapon designed to emit EMP were detonated 250 to 300 miles up over the middle of the country, it would disable the electronics in the entire United States. An extreme hypothesis is that in the event of a massive nuclear conflict, humans will extinct altogether. A popular civil use of nuclear energy is generating clean electricity. Investing in this method of energy generation has an edge over renewable sources as it kills two birds with a stone: supplying domestic power much faster and ensuring an international nuclear status.
There are still many lesser-known applications of nuclear technology. In agriculture, foodstuffs are exposed to gamma rays to kill bacteria that can cause food-borne disease and to increase shelf-life. This has the same benefits as when food is heated, refrigerated, frozen, or treated with chemicals, but without changing the temperature or leaving any residue. Plant mutation breeding is another area whereby the irradiated material is cultivated to generate plantlets which are selected and multiplied if they show desired traits. The use of radiation essentially enhances the natural process of spontaneous genetic mutation, significantly shortening the time it takes. During a period of rapid population growth, the use of nuclear techniques had enabled Bangladesh to achieve food security and improved nutrition. From fertilisers to desalinisation to medicine, gamma rays have vast scope of helpful application.
Electromagnetic radiation from radioactive decay of atomic nuclei is referred to as gamma rays (no matter its energy) so that there is no lower limit to gamma energy derived from radioactive decay. Indeed, a domain of such immense possibilities deserves to be researched and explored for the betterment of ordinary lives. But development in this direction necessarily starts with amassing nuclear fuel (which is naturally available in a fair amount), the process of which starts with mining. Just this first step is riddled with challenges - land acquisition, compensation, rehabilitation, to begin with. The extracted uranium ore is converted into a stable form such as yellowcake. This transported and further processed and enriched. The processed fuel spends typically six years inside a reactor. After still further processing and five years later, the spent fuel is radioactively and thermally cool enough to handle and can be reprocessed. We are then faced with the daunting task of managing and disposing nuclear waste - spent nuclear fuel which is primarily composed of unconverted uranium. The only guaranteed thing about this step is the huge amount of time that radioactive waste will take to disintegrate.
The nuclear disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima brought to highlight the concerns of general safety of people, property, and environment, and how this delicate balance must be carefully maintained while exploiting nuclear energy. As far as making common life easier in keeping with rapidly advancing technology goes, there are still many areas of development waiting to be explored. But having opened a Pandora's box of nuclear energy, it is no longer an option to retract. Nuclear proliferation is difficult to stop and harder to contain. The irony is that every ambitious nation wants to be formidable and nuclear-capable to assert itself over other nations, only to hopefully never use this power. So we race to nowhere along the edge of a nuclear precipice.
(The author is Editorial Consultant and Senior Copy Editor with MPost. Views expressed are strictly personal.)

Kavya Dubey

Kavya Dubey

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