In some quarters of the world’s political establishment, there is grave concern over the idea that oil owning nations in the Middle East and elsewhere are displaying an interest in developing nuclear technology. People with this political orientation seem to be only able to think about war; they view the power of the atom as something that should be stuffed back into Pandora’s Box or reserved for the exclusive use of highly developed people like themselves.
Please read that last statement as one that is dripping with sarcasm. I fully adhere to the ideal stated in America’s Declaration of Independence that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
As a guy who has served as an Engineer Officer of a nuclear submarine, I can tell you that atomic power can set many people free from conventional earthly bounds and allow you to go places where no other power source works. It can be used to make dirty or salty water into fresh water, it can operate vapor compressor air conditioning with its “waste hear”, it can provide motive power, and it does all of that without producing any polluting gases at all.
I fully acknowledge that people who study nuclear physics for peaceful purposes learn things that allow them to get closer to being able to produce weapons that have incredible destructive power, but it also gives them insight into a technology that allows incredible prosperity if properly applied. The study effort is pretty intensive; in my experience it attracts people with personal characteristics that make it highly unlikely that they would approve of using their skills and inventions to destroy the world. Bullies and tyrants rarely put in the effort necessary to study technical details, and those that do put systems into place that make it very difficult for the bullies to improperly use their inventions.
Nuclear weapons frighten people – that is their main utility. As a former warrior in the Cold War, I have to tell you that I liked having world leaders so frightened of war that they installed “red phones” and actually talked – a lot – about how to prevent war. War is dirty, nasty, horrible business that should be as painful as possible for the people that decide to start it.
I guess I am a little strange. I LIKE the idea of having lots of neighbors and fellow passengers on my spaceship who are strong enough to know that they have it in their power to build weapons that can destroy the entire ship. It makes for a more polite environment when people have to give each other mutual respect and realize that they are mutually dependent on others for their survival. It helps to moderate the tendency of some people to think that they are somehow better than others through accidents like being born into a patrician family.
However, it is also terribly wasteful to actually build weapons that use so much valuable fuel and require the dedicated efforts of highly trained, expensive and talented people. In 1953, one of the most educated and experienced presidents we have ever had said this about nuclear technology:
The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. That capability, already proved, is here–now–today. Who can doubt, if the entire body of the world’s scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas, that this capability would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient, and economic usage.
Address given by Dwight D. Eisenhower before the General Assembly of the United Nations on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, New York City, December 8, 1953.
Knowledge is a good thing that should rarely be discouraged. I think it would be great for the world’s peace and prosperity if currently cash rich Middle Eastern nations were invited and guided in their quest to gain and use atomic knowledge to develop energy sources that not only will be there after the oil runs out, but will be there in time to help stretch oil resources far into the future where they can aid in keeping the world mobile and prosperous for many future generations. It is wasteful and harmful to the environment for any nation to burn oil in places where fission works better.
The catalyst for the above editorial this morning was an opinion piece published on ChinaPost.com titled Arab nuclear ambitions ignite new fears. The piece is actually quite a bit more balanced than the headline writer indicates – it talks a lot about the logic underpinning the interest in nuclear technology and about the natural synergy between that interest and China’s growing technological expertise in the area. Of course, as we all know, China is developing rapidly and is importing oil for its growing vehicle fleet at an increasing rate.
I have also written on this topic before. Here are some related Atomic Insights entries.