By The Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre)
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)
Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore
The peaceful uses of nuclear technology have time and time again risen up to address the world’s pressing and complex challenges, including non-traditional security issues. Access to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, science and technology is a core benefit of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). However, this aspect has been underappreciated as a key achievement of the NPT over the past 50 years. The inalienable right of States to peaceful uses institutionalised by Article IV of the NPT has reinforced their efforts to meet their national development goals and attain many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including enhancing food security, providing clean water, combatting zoonotic diseases, interventions focused on climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts, natural resource management, and environmental protection.
Preparing for zoonotic disease outbreaks
Most recently, nuclear science and technology are being utilised to address two key relevant issues that affect all countries, including Southeast Asian nations: zoonotic diseases and marine plastic pollution. The obvious lesson from the pandemic is the lack of global preparedness to respond early to the outbreak of zoonotic diseases. In this regard, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) launched its COVID-19 response that involves the deployment of real-time RT-PCR test equipment, a nuclear-derived technique widely used during this pandemic, to more than 120 countries. Further to its pandemic response, the IAEA has started helping countries boost their detection capability to prevent future zoonotic disease outbreaks using nuclear-derived techniques, under its Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC) initiative.
Reducing marine plastic pollution
Another area where nuclear technology can make an impact is marine environmental protection. The IAEA is at the forefront of deploying nuclear science and technology to address plastic pollution through its new initiative, the Nuclear Technology for Controlling Plastic Pollution (NUTEC Plastic), which aims to explore and rapidly expand the use of nuclear technology to combat ocean plastic pollution and reduce plastic waste globally. Nuclear techniques can contribute to the assessment of the dimension of the plastic pollution as well as to the recycling of plastic through radiation techniques.
Southeast Asian countries strongly support and intend to participate in these two initiatives, banking on their decades-long experience in utilising nuclear technology and fruitful cooperation with the IAEA. The integration of the NUTEC Plastic project with their plastic waste control programmes will certainly enhance their respective action plans which all promote the deployment of innovative scientific solutions. The ZODIAC Initiative can certainly equip them with a new tool in preventing, preparing for and responding to zoonotic diseases.
Strengthening climate change adaptation
While ongoing debates on the critical role of nuclear power plants in achieving the goals established in the 2015 Paris Agreement remain unsettled, the role of other peaceful applications of nuclear technology in climate change adaptation has been expanding in recent years, including in Southeast Asia.
Nuclear technology has helped farmers grow rice that can cope with the diverse effects of climate change. Recent innovations from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines， Thailand and Vietnam showed how farmers have boosted rice production in harsh climate conditions in the past five years with the help of nuclear techniques. In the past years, the IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organization have been helping local scientists use nuclear technology to develop climate-smart agricultural practices and improve water management.
Addressing fears and misconceptions
There are still challenges to the expansion of the peaceful uses due to misconceptions or concerns about nuclear energy and technology. There is a need to reframe nuclear issues as one that links nuclear technology with SDGs. The misconceptions emanating from issues of nuclear weapons proliferation, nuclear accidents such as in Fukushima and Chernobyl, and radioactive contamination can be addressed by how nuclear technology actually help countries achieve several of the SDGs.
Regional cooperation would significantly help expand the use of nuclear technology in Southeast Asia. Building on the growing regional cooperation in nuclear safety and security, countries can explore innovative solutions to many of the complex challenges, from disease detection, climate adaptation to reducing plastic pollution with safe, secure, and peaceful uses of nuclear technology.