In recent weeks we’ve been hearing more about the BP oil spill than national security, but Jon Stewart injected into the national consciousness a reminder that the spill and national security are deeply related. In a Daily Show segment, he looked at the bright side of the oil spill, noting that in 2006 oil dependence “only entangled us in two simultaneous wars, but now its gotten us into two wars and a giant spill. That’s the push we needed” to do something about oil dependence.
Stewart has good company in stressing the national security implications of oil. Former CIA director James Woolsey has been a leader in pointing out that eight of the top nine oil exporters are dictatorships, and people living under dictatorship have been instrumental in the rise of Al Qaeda.
But identifying that oil has a big effect on national security is the easy part. The hard part is finding a solution that doesn’t create other problems. Iran, for example, shares our concern about oil dependence, but their solution is an ominous nuclear energy program that has given us one of our other major national security problems.
So, when President Obama spoke about the BP oil spill, the stakes for national security were high. The president, who promised in his inaugural address to “restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders“, seemed to foreshadow that he had an answer. He mentioned that his Secretary of Energy won a Nobel Prize in Physics. He dismissed doubts as to whether we would prevail by noting that “The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon”. One could imagine a 2010 version of JFK’s announcement of the moon program.
What came to mind for me was nuclear reactors based on the element thorium. When the president said “we don’t yet know precisely how we’re going to get there” I wasn’t discouraged; I’m not sure either that thorium reactors will work. But there was no lightning bolt from Thor and no mention of thorium. But the president did say that he’s “happy to look at other ideas and approaches”, and several bills are going through Congress to make a major effort to develop thorium reactors.
Thorium is a radioactive element with some ideal properties as a nuclear fuel. It is plentiful, produces little waste, and reportedly “it would be virtually impossible for the byproducts of a thorium reactor to be used by terrorists or anyone else to make nuclear weapons”. Our nuclear energy efforts turned away from thorium decades ago because “Hyman Rickover, de facto head of the US nuclear program, wanted the plutonium from uranium-powered nuclear plants to make bombs”.
Thorium is the path not taken. It was too clean for an era in which we wanted more bombs. The world is very different today.
If thorium reactors do provide nuclear energy that is safe, clean and inexpensive, we can wean ourselves from oil. The Iranian people, who overwhelmingly back their government’s efforts to modernize through nuclear energy, could be offered the choice to join the new thorium effort, or have their government unmasked as seeking a bomb.
Thorium reactors are an engineering project with an uncertain result, just like the moon project decades ago. But a serious effort in this direction, coupled with an offer to share technology with others, will send two important messages. One message will be to people in countries like Iran, saying that we will help them enter the future that they say they desire. The second message will be to oil producers, warning those who hold back oil that its value may be undercut by our efforts to “wield technology’s wonders”.
Posted: 21 Jun 2010