Rooting for the Underdog: Small Nations Often Need Atomic Power
It made my day to watch the lowly Florida Marlins beat the 26 time “World Champion” New York Yankees. I nearly wept when the mighty Notre Dame football team kicked a last second field goal to squeak out a victory over Navy for the 39th time in a row. I cheered madly when the American hockey team beat the Soviet Union for the Olympic gold medal in 1980 at a time when the Soviets had dominated that sport for decades. If I had been around at the time, I would have enjoyed watching David use his guile and skill with a sling shot to bring down the mighty Goliath.
In short, I have always favored the little guy in a contest with a bully. In recent years, that philosophy has made it almost difficult to be an American. I am not proud of our attitude and behavior in world politics, especially when it comes to atomic energy issues.
We have been acting too cocky, too demanding, and too inconsiderate of the human ambitions that drive other nations and their people to want a better, less dependent life. Our continuing proclamations of being the “world’s only superpower” almost make me want to root for someone else to take us down a peg or two.
It is hard for me to even consider writing and publishing those words – after all, I have served my country in uniform for more than half of my life. I love America, its people and its ideals and I believe in my oath to “support and defend the Constitution” to the very essence of my being.
We have a country based on three of the greatest and most inspiring documents in the world – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. We do not have to be bullies; we have a distinguished history of fighting oppression, of inspiring humble people to improve their lot, and of reaching down to provide a hand up to people that are simply down on their luck.
One way that we can get back on track is to revise our attitude and our behavior with regard to atomic energy. Almost exactly 50 years ago, President Eisenhower pledged that we would help other nations to develop atomic technology as a way to empower their people and to reduce historic suffering. For a time, we did just that, but our actions during the past 30 or so years have been more selfish.
We have been acting like we own the rights to basic physics, that somehow it was American ingenuity that created the binding energy that holds heavy metal nuclei together and that is released when they are split apart. Like the school yard bully holding the kickball, we have grabbed something that is not ours and declared that others will have to ask our permission to use it. Our current attitude seems to be that little guys need not even bother to ask – the answer will be no. (Don’t worry if you do not get the allusion – I am having a flashback to a barely remembered incident in my elementary school years that apparently shaped my adult feelings toward bullies.)
Our creator put the energy into atomic nuclei; the people that unlocked its secrets just happened to be in America at the time that the energy was released for the first time in a large scale event. Many of the key contributors were not even citizens at the time. Atomic pioneers recognized that the power that they had released had even more potential for benefit than for destruction and they understood that it had the potential to contribute enormous prosperity to a world that had always been hobbled by energy sources that were either too limited, too dirty, too unreliable or too much under the control of wealthy suppliers.
It makes perfect sense to me for tiny nations with limited resources to want to develop nuclear technology. The ground truth is that atomic energy is incredibly cheap – $12 worth of uranium has as much energy stored in it as several hundred thousand dollars worth of oil. It is also easy to move – that $12 worth of uranium can easily fit into the palm of your hand while the oil would fill up 30 tanker trucks.
Though it is not immediately obvious, it is easy to understand why nations endowed with relatively plentiful oil should develop atomic power. It allows them to reduce domestic oil consumption, leaving more to sell more oil to lucrative world markets. If they have a rapidly growing population that is eager to achieve the comforts available in fully developed countries, it is essential that they act while they have spare oil money to develop longer term energy supplies. Oil producers know better than most that oil wells are transient sources of wealth – they do not last very long and the commodity that they produce experiences volatile swings in price that result in wildly varying revenue.
I may be stepping way out on a limb, but it even makes a certain amount of sense for nations with limited resources and threatening neighbors to develop atomic weapons. After all, America itself once made the argument that our atomic arsenal made it possible to reduce our defense expenditures by giving us the ability to deter attack with massive retaliation. A country that is known – or even suspected – to have nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them is treated far more gently by potential aggressors than one that is limited by conventional weapons.
Bullies are often insecure people underneath their bravado. I suspect that there are some decision makers that are worried that America’s prosperity and position would be threatened by easing our grip on atomic knowledge. That will not be a problem if we also allow ourselves to build upon what we already know. We know how to build amazing machines that produce as much power as we want without consuming any fossil fuels and without producing a single gram of air pollution. If we let go and share our “secret” the world will be a cleaner, more prosperous place and Eisenhower’s vision of world peace fueled by atomic power will come closer to reality.