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Seventy years after commencement of the Manhattan project that developed the atomic bomb, a conscious debate on its socio-political consequences is missing when decisions are reached to adopt nuclear energy, most recently by a number of African countries. Until today, the costly projects draw on the legacy of demonstrating power, couched in language of necessity and accompanied by secrecy.

Late last year, the South African government officially announced that Cabinet had approved plans to proceed with its controversial nuclear procurement programme. As part of these plans, at least six nuclear reactors that will reportedly cost as much as ZAR 1 trillion (1 dollar = ZAR 16) are to be built by 2030. To give readers an inkling of the size of the investment this represents for South Africa, the South African government’s entire national budget for the 2015/16 financial year was approximately ZAR 1.25 trillion. In taking these steps, South Africa joins the ranks of African countries such as Kenya, Egypt and Nigeria that are determined to embark upon nuclear energy programmes and whose plans are in various stages of development. Last year was also the year in which the globe observed the seventieth anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ushered in the Nuclear Age. It was also a year in which news of negotiations surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme dominated newspaper headlines worldwide. The topicality of this story fed speculation on the dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation and ensured much reflection in popular and academic circles on the legacy of the Manhattan Project.

Now that the newsworthiness of this story has been eclipsed and the sentimental fallout associated with seventieth anniversary commemorations has dissipated, it might be an opportune time to examine an aspect of the Manhattan Project’s legacy that might have been overlooked during this period of reflection and introspection: the legacy it bestowed to the civilian nuclear industry. For purposes of illustration, the debate surrounding South Africa’s pending nuclear build programme will be used as a point of reference.

At the outset, clear distinctions can be drawn between nuclear projects for civilian and military purposes. Notwithstanding these differences, it will be argued that the parallels between this pioneering project and subsequent peacetime nuclear projects for non-military purposes are a lot closer and the differences between them a lot smaller than initially appears or that nuclear lobbyists would have the general public believe. This can be traced to the Manhattan Project’s beginnings as, first and foremost, an industrial enterprise that drew upon considerable amounts of scientific, financial, human and technological resources and required close coordination between various stakeholders in the military, political, academic and economic spheres. Plausibly, given these origins and the groundbreaking status of this project, the lessons learnt and the practices observed during its successful rollout could in time have become the benchmarks which were used to set the standards by which the modern civilian nuclear industry operates. If so, exploring the context within which decision-making took place at the inception of the Nuclear Age and how decision-makers on the Manhattan Project responded to these circumstances could possibly yield insights into the operations of the modern nuclear industry.

The first part of this legacy derives from the scale of the undertaking that was necessary to produce the world’s first nuclear weapons. Even in the midst of a total war where all sectors of society were pressed into the service of the homeland, the scale of the Manhattan Project and the extent to which it diverted resources from other uses is staggering. Seventy years later and not much has changed. Nuclear projects remain ambitious, expensive state-led undertakings that require the commitment of significant amounts of resources by current and future generations and the development and maintenance of a vast technological infrastructure. Granted, a society’s tolerance to absorb high costs and devote exorbitant amounts of resources towards a specific enterprise is likely higher in the firmament of war, when the moral calculus used to measure outcomes employs more ghastly metrics. The ability of the state to divert resources from other uses, its capacity to sustain whatever costs might be incurred in the pursuit of this goal and politicians’ willingness to staunchly defend this chosen course of action under any circumstances alludes to an essential factor in the success of any nuclear project: political will.

A related factor upon which the success of the Manhattan Project depended was the necessity of maintaining a strict policy of secrecy throughout the duration of the project and beyond. Experience suggests that the nuclear industry has heeded this lesson well, judging by the political protection and the raft of legislative and regulatory measures which it has sought from governments in order to ensure that its members largely operate in secret and that it survives and thrives in the face of the fiercest criticism. Given this relationship, it is perhaps no coincidence that the most ardent state advocates of nuclear power today can be found in paragons of representative democracy such as Saudi Arabia and China or that a clampdown on opponents of nuclear power has begun in two of our BRICS allies, India and Russia, where norms of openness and public accountability are struggling to take root. It is no coincidence too that the local (South African) nuclear industry was established during the apartheid era, when dissent was tantamount to treachery, and that the true costs of this earlier programme have still to be accounted for. Incidentally, preliminary reports of the manner in which a clique of insiders has conducted dealings related to South Africa’s proposed nuclear reactor building programme and evaded scrutiny of the basis upon which decisions are being made offer indications that any attempts to overturn the status quo and cultivate a culture of transparency and accountability amongst the powers that be in the nuclear sector (broadly defined) are going to be arduous undertakings.

The Manhattan Project’s legacy can also be detected in the starkness of the choice which supporters of nuclear power are keen to impress upon policymakers and members of the public and the urgency of the need to act that they are keen to emphasise. As with the decisions to build and later deploy the bomb, the decision to ‘go nuclear’ is presented as one born of necessity and the lesser of two evils. This rationale was successfully employed, for instance, to argue in favour of acquiring this weapon of mass destruction ‘before the enemy could’ or to justify the destruction wrought by this weapon in terms of the ‘estimated casualties that would be avoided by not exercising an alternative military option’. Substitute the phrases ‘to ensure energy security’ and ‘need to reduce carbon emissions associated with other sources of power generation’ into the sentence above to get the gist of how this logic has been used to frame the national debate on nuclear power in South Africa. Presenting the choice in this way serves to deflect attention from nuclear power by reducing it to merely an option amongst many. As a result, the perceived need for the development of nuclear power in the first place or the need to interrogate the merits of nuclear power independently rather than in comparison with other power sources is downplayed or avoided altogether. One cannot help but detect a hint of tactical manoeuvring in this approach, where the emphasis is on action rather than critical reflection. Focussing on tactics limits the scope to reflect upon broader issues that are related to the strategic objectives or end-goals which we collectively aim to strive towards as a nation. These include, but are not limited to, questions about the type of society which citizens would like to live in and the implied meaning of value-laden concepts like ‘progress’ and ‘development’ to which politicians and social planners profess to aspire. By their nature, these require input from a broader spectrum of society than technocrats and their political supporters.

During wartime, military prerogatives dictate that tactics and strategy be formulated by the few and that the many execute their orders without question or doubt in deference to their judgment. Democratic participation in the decision-making process by rank and file members, be it with respect to the determination of objectives or decisions regarding how best to pursue them, is not valued or prioritised in this scenario; duty and obedience are. During civilian times, concentrating decision-making power in the hands of a select group whose members believe themselves to know better than the rest of society has implications for the socio-political culture we cultivate and moulds the character of the political system in which we operate. Principally, adherence to this model increases the ability of these actors to dispense patronage to groups whose members enjoy favoured status such as politically-connected members of the elite. By doing so, it provides leverage which may enable them to secure recipients of their largesse’s support and thus retain political power. In military terms, leverage offers a way to maintain discipline and ensure compliance without resorting to threats of court martial or violence, sanctions upon which there are checks and balances during peacetime.

These are but a few of the key elements which constitute the legacy bestowed by the project that marked the beginning of the Nuclear Age. Yes, these characteristics are present in the planning and decision-making process surrounding other types of public investments. This is to be expected; after all, any industry has certain interests which members will seek to protect and advance through many of the same means whilst the steps involved in the planning process are apt to be fairly similar across projects and sectors. Despite these similarities, the long term and irreversible nature of the effects associated with nuclear energy, the scale of the investments required, the immense destructive potential of this technology if things go wrong or if used for non-civilian purposes and the scope of the societal mobilisation necessary to ensure project success distinguish projects in this sector from any other types of public investment.

Drawing these elements together, it is contended that, long after the anxiety wrought by the spectre of mutually assured destruction has receded from public consciousness and been replaced by the hope that mankind will be able to harness its greatest technological achievement for more peaceful purposes, the legacy of the project which was conceived to demonstrate the power of the atom continues to inform the vision of society that is peddled when a nation chooses nuclear power and embarks upon such a large undertaking. How long it will continue to do so, however, is something that we have power over. Now, seventy years since the dawn of the Nuclear Age when a host of African countries are contemplating the building of reactors that will likely only be decommissioned seventy years hence, more than ever may we see fit to use this power wisely.

* Dr Boyce is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.



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