Our Atomic Future

I remember well Our Atomic Future. After The Bomb, it was the promise of peaceful uses. Uranium would power our homes, factories, and business. No more smelly oil or coal, no more air pollution, just pellets of enriched earth silently and invisibly glowing, making steam from the heat and making electricity from the steam. Then shit happened. First came a probing jab with the left hand, easily fended off, but ominously named: Three Mile Island. The right cross that followed was a doozy: Chernobyl. Our Atomic Future, now staggered, was no match for the left hook: Fukushima. Down it went.

I miss Our Atomic Future. I wish I could still believe in it, but futures that never happened don’t seem belief-worthy. Our gigantic carbon experiment will continue even if we revolutionize ground transportation with electric cars and biofuels. Diesel engines running on heavy fuel oils power our shipping fleets; kerosene-based fuels power our commercial aircraft. We’ll be sucking on our hydrocarbon-rich basins for many years to come, don’t you worry, we love blasting the ancient reservoirs of fossilized life into the sky for all to enjoy.

The sun and wind make up our new dreams. It’s very cool to imagine such a thing: Our Renewable Future. That future crowded out Our Atomic Future to the point where only a handful of adherents remain. Yet the atom was split to save all mankind and no one is going to take that away. A new nuclear age is an easy one to envision thanks to that noted futurist, Steve Jobs. This fellow made everything pocket-sized, and slick to boot. Cool look and feel, solid performance, cutting-edge features. Design was paramount, tech became the new aesthetic. Our Atomic Age could never be revived in such a marketplace. Nuclear power plants are just slicker versions of the old-style power plants. They weren’t new so much as improved. And everyone knows that Americans expect new and improved.

Imagine Steve Jobs redesigning Our Atomic Future and setting in motion our new nuclear age. Palm-sized devices for extreme places. Suitcase-sized power plants for running a village. Generators the size of beer coolers giving communities off-the-grid energy. All of them smooth, silvery-surfaced, with simple and intuitive interfaces. Hell, a child could run one. Or perhaps that other mythologist— George Lucas—could chip in with atomic cars and boats and planes that have friendly personalities and colorful appearances. In fact I think we should build an AI of those two consciousnesses and have it spew out possible nuclear futures.

Everyone could have their own personal nuclear pile, like a key fob. It could run all sorts of things. You wouldn’t have to be tethered to the nearest AC plug to keep your phone or laptop charged. Just charge it up with the little atomic box. Forgot to pay the power bill? It will keep the fridge running and the water heater going until you can scratch the cash together. That’s real energy independence.

I suppose folks might be squeamish about all that fission. But big problems need big answers. When we are all living in vast beehives in the currently uninhabitable parts of our globe, or in enormous termite mounds in earth orbit or on the moon, we’ll need lots of energy. Something will have to supplement the sunshine. Maybe by then we’ll have unlocked the secret of the sun—fusion. It worked in Back to the Future, right?


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