While reading through recent posts over on Nuclear Is Our Future, my thoughts were stimulated by Stewart Peterson’s June 5 Anti-Nuclear Quote of the Day. In that post, Stewart quoted from the Ploughshares Fund web site and talked about how confused he got by their idea that using plutonium for fuel is so dangerous that it must be avoided at all costs.
This is a topic that I have been meaning to write about for quite some time, so I attempted to post a comment on Stewart’s blog. I’ll repeat it here – either I clicked the wrong button or Stewart has enabled comment moderation; my comment did not appear when I went back to look. Yes, I did refresh the page.
The anti plutonium crowd is using the same arguments now that they have used for at least 30-35 years. The idea that they emphasize through repetition is that using the incredible energy available in heavy metal more efficiently – through the use of converter and breeder reactors and by recycling the used fuel – inevitably leads the world into danger.
The problem with their premise is that it presumes that more usable material will lead to more weapons and that more weapons will lead to an increased probability of the use of those weapons in an attack.
Applying formal logic rules, even that scary premise has at least one major hole – the only time that nuclear weapons have been used in war is when there was only one country that had them and that country only had 2 that were available for use. It used both of them.
As soon as there was another country that proved it also had weapons, even “hawks” in political leadership positions became nervous about the possibility of being attacked. The fear of obliteration balanced any desire to impose power on the other country.
That experience shows that there might be real danger if a move to reduce nuclear weapons to zero passes through that same proven instability in the power balance.
As a thought exercise, I wish that people would consider just how unlikely it is that the decision makers in any country or even revolutionary movement would allow the use of weapons that might immediately result in their own death and the death of their families.
Politicians, dictators, and even revolutionary leaders throughout history have demonstrated a very strong desire to protect their own skin. Even those that put themselves at risk by leading from the front in battle took pains to protect their loved ones.
Those same leaders, however, have certainly demonstrated that they have no real worries about sending other people’s children off to remote lands to be killed or maimed. Think about it – would they be so warlike if the country that they were attacking had the capability of inflicting severe harm on them and the people that they care about?
The increased use of heavy metal power does not inevitably lead to nuclear weapons, but it is certainly true that if a group of scientists and engineers truly master the art of using uranium, plutonium and thorium for power production, those same technologists could figure out how to build weapons.
However, atomic power could help to lead the world into a situation where there is so much abundance that there is little need to fight over scarce resources. With abundant energy, you can make turn salt water into fresh, convert waste into useful products, turn arid lands into gardens, and even build floating cities. It is possible that countries would be so busy building and competing to achieve the next big thing that they would not have time to fight.
It would help maintain this peaceful nirvana if leaders had a healthy reluctance to fight because they realized that any potential foe had access to the means for self defense by MAD.
Some might not like living in such a world, but I certainly prefer it to one that is choking on its own fumes, and constantly fighting over increasingly scarce resources.
What I did not mention in the above piece is my typical cynical thought; the people that are living large in the carbon based economy are the ones that are most threatened by the possibility of a plutonium based economy. Abundant atomic energy threatens their wealth and power. It is logical for them to do everything they can, including helping to pay the bills of the vocal opposition, to slow down the implementation of that possibility.