The Element That Could Kill Billions but Save Millions

“Many warnings have been uttered by eminent men of science and by authorities in military strategy. None of them will say that the worst results are certain. What they do say is that these results are possible, and no one can be sure that they will not be realized.”

These are some of the words from the Russel-Einstein manifesto [MA1] in July of 1955 aimed at warning the public about the consequences of a nuclear war and urging countries to embrace a peaceful resolution during the height of the Cold War. To an extent, we can say that these warnings were heeded, albeit only partially. Today, there are nearly 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world. That might sound like a lot, until you realize that during the peak of the Cold War, the world possessed a whopping 70,000 nuclear weapons [MA2]. 

And while the decline is certainly a positive trend, one has to bear in mind that the bombs developed more recently are orders of magnitude more powerful than those during nuclear technology’s infancy. Russia’s infamous Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear weapon that has ever been tested, has a blast yield 3,330 times stronger than the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. Worst of all, for all we know, there could still be a bomb more powerful than this that has just never been tested before. 

So, in reality, although we have substantially fewer warheads, we are no farther from total obliteration than we were when we had 70,000 nukes. This threat of nuclear extinction all started when U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt set up the Advisory Committee on Uranium in 1939 in fear that Adolf Hitler had already started developing nuclear weapons in Germany[MA4]. This committee, later renamed the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) in 1941, would eventually create the famous Manhattan Project that would give America its first nuclear weapons. 

The material at the center of its research was, as its original name suggests, uranium [MA5] . Uranium’s explosive potential comes from its fissile nature - meaning that it can be split apart in just the right way that it leads to a chain reaction. A free neutron bumps into a U-235 atom, it splits up and leads to other free neutrons, which in turn bump into other atoms, so on and so forth. Each of these processes releases large quantities of energy, which is where the explosive ability of uranium comes from. 

The more populated your target space is with eager fissile U-235 atoms, the more destructive the reaction’s outcome. This is why nuclear weapons commonly use enriched uranium as opposed to naturally occurring uranium ore. Of course, uranium is not the only fuel for nuclear weapons. The Tsar Bomba was a hydrogen bomb, for example. But the history of nuclear weapons starts with uranium. And the fear of nuclear weapons is not just about the blast itself. 

You see, while Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit with nuclear weapons, larger cities like Tokyo were leveled with conventional weapons [MA6]. In fact, the vast majority of loss of life during the second world war came from regular non-nuclear sources. What makes the nuclear variety so dangerous is the impact they can have after the dust has settled. Nuclear warfare can lead to thermal radiation, ionizing radiation, and electromagnetic impulses. It can usher in nuclear winters, impede food cycles and cause anomalies in fetuses that can manifest in severe medical issues late in life. 

We wouldn’t even need 1% of the reduced nuclear arsenal we have today to disrupt the global climate and threaten the lives of over two billion people [MA7] with starvation. A hypothetical war between the two most powerful nuclear superpowers, the United States and Russia, stands to threaten all ecosystems on which life depends. Nuclear weapons can conceivably kill billions of people.

But what if I told you that it also saves millions of lives?

We stand at a pivotal point in the modern world. The war in Ukraine coupled with the cascading effects of a pandemic have left us all crippled. But not in the way you might think. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has made the entire world attentive and watchful, not only of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, but also of the amount of energy the country produces, and how much of the world is dependent on it. With one of the planet’s biggest gas providers on many countries’ blacklists, fuel prices are skyrocketing all around the globe. The resulting crisis has since become a reality check, with countries like Germany accelerating their transition to renewable energy. 

This winter, Paris will turn off the lights of the Eiffel Tower an hour earlier. Thermostats will be limited to 19 °C  in Spain, and restaurants in Italy have switched to candlelight dining. It’s a positive change, one might think, to not depend on an adversary like Russia for energy. However, we are not quite there with renewables just yet. Renewables can generate a lot of power, sometimes even a bit too much. Elon Musk has said numerous times that the number of solar panels required might actually be surprisingly small given the tremendous amount of energy the Sun sends our way every day. 

We would need around 3.2% of the landmass of the United States to generate enough electricity to power the world [MA9] . While that doesn’t sound too bad, that’s equivalent to New Mexico and Arizona, two of the largest states in the country. It’s also bigger than 121 countries in the world. Furthermore, to harness this power, solar panels need to be placed where the Sun is, wind farms need to be placed where the wind is, and we need a way to store all the energy that’s getting produced for when there is no Sun and there are no winds. 

Battery technology, unfortunately, has not progressed quite as fast as it needs to match with the demands of human life. These are technical reasons why renewables haven’t quite been able to compete with traditional gas and oil. So what then? Are we forced to follow the whims of Russia because renewables can’t satisfy our needs yet? Well, not necessarily. When uranium is broken down into smaller atoms it releases a tremendous amount of energy that can be used to generate power through the process of nuclear fission. Essentially, the same process used to create nuclear bombs could be used to generate energy enough to power the world. 

Before we go on, I feel I need to make one thing clear. Ultimately, the best form of energy is clean, renewable energy. All I want us to discuss is while we wait for the technology to meet up with our demands, is it possible for nuclear fission to act as a stop-gap? The technology has been around for nearly eight decades and the process of nuclear fission is emission-free. It is also a very efficient process. So much so that many of the submarines in the United States Navy are powered by it, and only need to be refueled once every 20 years or so. 

The obvious association with weaponization of this technology is understandable, as I’ve just mentioned, but while the threat of nuclear weapons is ever-present, so is the weakness of a collective reliance on any one country’s supply of fuel. It’s a tremendous vulnerability. Whenever winter comes,  Germany requires gas to heat around half of its homes, gas which it does not have [MA10]. The strong stance it took at the start of the Ukraine war is now in doubt against a burgeoning demand for power. This may eventually amount to lifting or easing certain sanctions against Russia, as has already happened to a smaller degree. 

The effect of the war is being felt even in relatively apolitical developing nations like Bangladesh, where oil prices were recently raised by as much as 51%[MA11]. Bangladesh is now launching a bid to purchase Russian oil. More and more countries will bend to the need for oil and our united opposition to Russia’s aggression may slowly face a materialistic end. The biggest fear for many with nuclear energy is the threat of nuclear war. The reality, as I’ve said expressly, is that uranium has the ability to kill billions. But perhaps there is a different way of thinking about this? One that could potentially save millions of lives.

Every bit of uranium that we use to create clean energy is uranium that cannot be used to create nuclear warheads. In fact, around 10% of the uranium used in the operational nuclear reactors in America were taken from decommissioned warheads [MA12]. The world currently has uranium stores that can last us for a few hundred years. And while it is certainly not a renewable energy source, it can buy us two very important things: Time to get our technology good enough to harness the power of renewables, and alleviation of military leverage by countries like Russia. 

But this is the reality with all forms of energy production, even renewable energy. They all come with risks and issues that need addressing. Solar farms take up huge amounts of space. Wind farms and turbines are oft-maligned for their noise levels and potential dangers to wildlife. These issues will need to be addressed before the world embraces nuclear power as a collective energy source. But if we didn’t take to the skies because we were afraid we’d crash, we would never have made the airplane. Yet we did, and today air travel is now the safest mode of transportation humanity has ever seen.  

The fear of consequence, the same fear that has made airplanes the safest mode of transport, has meant that nuclear power is much safer than we can imagine. In what is now a rather famous statistic, today, fewer people die from nuclear power than they do from solar power per amount of energy produced. To make matters worse, about seven million people die from air pollution every year. When you factor in that solar farms release four times more carbon emissions than nuclear plants, it really puts into context the lack of perspective surrounding this rather old technology. 

Put together, this explains an estimate from one of the leading climate scientists in the U.S, James Hansen, that as of 2013, nuclear power had saved 1.8 million lives that would otherwise have been lost from air pollution or accidents during energy production. Now again, this is not to dunk on solar energy by any stretch of the imagination. It’s only to give a clearer picture, that perhaps while we wait for renewables to get good enough to serve us completely, there might be a stop-gap. 

One that is not only better than the alternatives we currently have, but also has the potential to reduce the number of warheads lurking in every corner of the world. In the end, I find it so fascinating that the same material, the same process can on the one hand completely annihilate humanity, yet on the other be the pillar to its sustenance. 

At least for the time being.