The Light that Changed the World
Today marks the day, 65 years ago, where we first found the ability to destroy our world. On this day, Allied forces dropped ‘Little Boy‘ on the city of Hiroshima, an unsuspecting industrial town in southern Japan, unleashing upon them a kind of explosion never before seen on our planet. In that one instant of unimaginable brightness, matter was converted into pure energy, which resulted in the intentional death of over 100,000 people. The allies repeated this massive slaughter of innocents 3 days later on Nagasaki, and the rest is history.
The fact that we were able to unlock this power at astounding, considering that 50 years before we hadn’t even discovered the mathematical language to describe what would happen. It took the best scientists in the world years to fabricate the tiny amounts of material necessary for this weapon, and that was with the backing of America’s full wartime industrial capacity. Upon its completion and the first test at Trinity, Dr Oppenheimer said, quoting scripture “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”.
It was this threat that underlined the cold war, but rather than step back from the raw destructive force, the superpowers refined and improved it, depositing radioactive elements like caesium-137 around the entire world. Traces of these man-made radioactive elements are in everything made since the 1940s, including your own body, due to widespread atmospheric testing.
We often think the threat of nuclear apocalypse died with the Soviet Union, but modern conflicts (such as Israel-Iran, or India-Pakistan) would have the potential to cause a global nuclear winter. Thankfully, in all conflicts since the WW2, cooler heads have prevailed, even though we have had some close calls. We have backed away from the edge of annihilation, but we still remain perilously close as we move into the 21st century.
It is profoundly ironic then, that in the nuclear forge we may yet find our salvation.
The power unleashed at Hiroshima works because a small amount of mass makes an incredible amount of energy. You may recognize this as Einstein’s famous equation: E=mc^2. The effect of this is such that 1 kilo (2.2 lbs) of regular Uranium has the equivalent energy of 2600 tons of regular coal. Unlike coal and other fossil fuels, when we use this uranium to produce electricity, it does not generate any carbon dioxide.
Global warming, in part caused by anthropocentric emissions of CO2, is causing massive changes throughout the planet. These emissions can be traced mainly back to our insatiable hunger for electricity, a need which is currently met mainly by coal-fired power plants. If we wish to continue our way life, or provide it to more of the 7 billion other people on the planet, we must find a way to meet these needs without further impact.
Nuclear Power is the obvious solution.
I know what you are saying, naysayers of the world. What about the mounting nuclear waste problem? What about failures of other nuclear plants like Chernobyl?
To address both problems, we must look at the state of technology today, the type of reactors that would be built if we have an ounce of wisdom. The fact is, we could build reactors that run entirely on what we currently call ‘nuclear waste’. Indeed, TerraPower is developing a reactor that could power a small town for 100 years, is physically incapable of the type of ‘meltdown’ experienced by Chernobyl, and runs entirely on nuclear waste. The waste generated by this type of reactor would be used to power other reactors of the same type.
This next generation of small nuclear batteries (for that is what they are in essence) would be ideal for replacing our current generation of power plants. We currently store our nuclear waste in the power plants, and these travelling wave reactors could easily be placed on these same sites, which would minimize unnecessary risk during transportation. The fuel used in these batteries must be extensively processed before it can become weapons grade, further minimizing the constant threat of our own annihilation due to proliferation.
Most promising is the fact that they could be cheaply exported to developing countries, giving them full, self sufficient industrial capacity with zero emissions for hundreds of years.
These and other promising technologies arise from the same furnace that rained so much death upon Hiroshima 65 years ago today. We demonstrated then that we could destroy ourselves. But we have the choice now, today, to show the wisdom that has not yet caught up with our technology, the wisdom to save ourselves and the whole world.
It is, after all, the only one we have got.