In the previous two articles I have talked about the reasons people bring against private nuclear devices, and how they can (and must) be handled without statist intervention. In this article I am going to talk about why we want these things. First, I highly recommend reading the essay Why Alternative Energy Isn’t, which demolishes a few of the common myths floating around about energy production and distribution, and is useful background material to keep in mind while reading this.
Wealth as a direct correlate of energy
At the foundational level wealth creation involves working against entropy, which requires a net energy input. As evidence, energy production and use has tracked wealth since the industrial revolution, and by the early 20th century the energy production of industrialized countries had eclipsed the total energy production of the world up to that time with corresponding wealth increases. Current energy production and wealth dwarf even that seemingly massive feat. Increased efficiency in the use of that energy is analogous to deflation increasing real purchasing power.
Nuclear power is relevant to this not just because it is an extremely high density energy source, but also because it can completely invert the production and use of certain products, specifically hydrocarbons.
Hydrocarbons are used both as chemical feedstocks (plastics, fertilizer, and a host of others) but also as fuel. With energy and the proper elements, mostly carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, it is possible to synthesize hydrocarbons for both uses. In the case of fuel it makes more sense to think of it as a form of energy storage rather than fuel. This pulls the foundation out from under peak oil theories (as if economics hadn’t already done that) because not only is oil no longer the fuel of civilization, but it can be made to order in whatever quantity desired. The reason that hydrocarbon powered machines would still be used is because of fundamental power to weight ratios (aircraft) and/or minimum size thresholds for a viable power plant (automobile).
Here are a couple examples of peaceful uses of nuclear bombs, leaving out the most obvious one of asteroid deflection:
Mining / Excavation Explosives
Place bomb where you want a hole. Push the detonate button. Create hole. A rather simple process.
It is complicated by the fact that a ground burst will produce a higher fallout than the same device detonated in the air or in a vacuum, but it has already been demonstrated that this can be done with surprisingly little fallout (the Tagia tests mentioned in the previous article).
It probably would not work, and is somewhat insane even if it does work, but consider a large, active volcano, such as Mt. Saint Helens shortly before it blew up. It may be possible to use a chain of warheads to quickly dig massive canals and dikes to contain the lava flows, and maybe even to tap the side of the magma chamber to direct the eruption in the desired direction. This obviously depends on being able to handle or contain the fallout. Definitely insane, but if it would work it demonstrates the advantages of nuclear explosives.
The Orion Drive (aka. Nuclear Pulse Propulsion) is in it’s simplest form a spaceship with a nuclear bomb behind it. Detonate the bomb. The ship moves. Surprising as it may be, this is easily survivable with proper design. A bomb is detonated roughly 100 meters behind the ship, roughly once per second, and a large disc (usually of metal, but some designs used plywood I believe) absorbs the force of the blast. If the disc is sprayed with oil it will not erode in the plasma. Then giant shock absorbers spread the momentum pulse out to give a smooth ride.
Orion is important because it is one of the few propulsion technologies that can be built with current technology (actually with 60’s tech), has enormous thrust so it can be used for surface to orbit launch, and decent specific impulse so it doesn’t need to carry as much reaction mass for a given mission. This makes Orion very well suited to being used for an ultra-heavy surface to orbit launch, asteroid interception, a doomsday arkship, and even medium speed (~10% of c) interstellar travel.
It was actually the Orion Drive that forced me to confront the topic of private nuclear bombs. But Orion is not the only type of nuclear rocket. There are many versions of the nuclear thermal rocket concept that completely contain the radionuclides used, or are simply a reactor used as a power source to run a plasma rocket. Orion is simply the most extreme high thrust capable one.
However, those of us who are blessed with the gift of mad science do not require reasons: Orion is an end in itself.
Scale: why it matters, and what it means to reject it
Many of these arguments are tangled up with the scale of a given society, or the relative scale between two societies. Unfortunately most people have a tendency to ignore this. Applied to nuclear weapons this means that people think that they will always be doomsday devices that can only be trusted in the hands of what we all know to be the most trustworthy entity imaginable: The State.
The other effect of ignoring scale is the endless droning of variants of this:
“Nuclear devices are too expensive for individuals to own and maintain”
To anyone who has studied economics this is utterly ridiculous on the face of it. True enough, they probably are too expensive right now, although even that is doubtful. But any increase in wealth levels will reduce the cost in real terms, easily making them affordable. And that does not even take into account any technological advances that make it cheaper to produce them.
The line of reasoning exhibited in the above quote is almost completely ignorant of how wealthy the average person in a first world country is compared not only to the pre-industrial age, but even to a few decades ago. That ignorance leads to further error in assuming that something being expensive now means that it will always and forever be so. Or maybe this is just another example of people thinking that it is better to have one’s head in the sand rather than face a possibly ugly reality.
For an extreme example of scale and why it matters consider a 50kt warhead detonated 250 meters above a medieval village. There is no village afterwards. Contrast that with the same warhead detonated 250 meters away from an O’Neil Cylinder. If constructed from aluminum the bomb will vaporize about 1cm of material from the hull. If constructed from titanium that reduces to about 6mm. Any fragile equipment on the outside of the cylinder on the same side as the warhead will be destroyed as well, but everything else is intact and the people inside are almost certainly unharmed.
The argument will be made that nuclear weapons make mass murder and destruction easy, but all increases in available energy make this easier, for the same reasons that an increase in usable energy allows greater wealth. The overarching effect of increasing scale is to make things that would have been extinction level events into minor annoyances: what can wipe out a small hunter-gatherer tribe will not even be noticed by a modern city, what can wipe that out will not do much damage to a global but planet bound civilization. Planetary annihilation level disasters are survivable by a civilization spread across a solar system, and an interstellar civilization can survive even a supernova.
Understanding scale also provides the counter to another argument:
“If one person has a nuclear weapon they can dictate terms to everyone else because they are so much more powerful.”
The problem here is not that one person has a great deal of energy at their command. It is that they are using it to dominate others. Some may think this to be an argument for distributing energy/wealth equally, but this can only be done with extreme levels of force, utterly destroying the moral pedestal the equalizers thought they were standing on. And then there is the problem of it being theft. Actually following out this logic leads to the crab bucket: anyone who tries to do better is pulled back into egalitarian poverty and conformity.
Aside from those problems let us look at the historical record: people who have developed greater energy sources have almost always developed and used them for peaceful purposes to produce wealth, with the one glaring exception of the atomic bomb, which was developed during a time of war by State-sponsored scientists.
On a practical level the best way to deal with this problem (using the term loosely), is to continue technological development making it possible for everyone to have access to greater amounts of energy. Which is exactly what people naturally do, and have done for the last 200 or so years.
Our civilization has gone through an energy jump before. During the 19th century, when coal replaced wood as the dominant energy source, one effect of this was to allow the environment to recover after widespread deforestation. A second energy jump occurred when oil became the dominant energy source.
These jumps have not resulted in an increase of individuals killing each other because it is easier for them to do so. Rather, the increased wealth created opportunities which have allowed people to live who would have died before, and to be able to do what they want while they are alive.
The only way private nuclear devices can be prevented from becoming a reality is to completely halt technological and scientific progress. And for what? So we can feel virtuous that we stopped the evil of nuclear weapons as we die of starvation because we have forced a Malthusian horror on ourselves via a totalitarian State?
All the problems (the real ones that is) that are caused by nuclear power and weapons can be mitigated, often with methods enabled by the very devices that supposedly cause nothing but harm. And this holds for any problem that is capable of being solved, because larger quantities of energy imply more options to deal with problems. It even applies to environmental matters, because it is only the wealthy who have the luxury of choosing what resources they use, and of spending resources to maintain “natural” beauty, or even long term survival.
But in the end it doesn’t really matter what everyone else thinks. Those who reject nuclear technology will be out competed by those who don’t. The ones who use it will inherit the stars. Those who don’t will be left to scratch out an existence on a single rock until something wipes it clean. And nuclear reactors are only one step on the way to power sources like Dyson bubbles, and matter to energy converters based on black hole Hawking radiation.