Rebecca Schembri, Harvard University Extension School, March 24, 2021
It is because of the terrific, yet possible, deployment of nuclear bombs that scientist Frank Bernardy has spoken out. Heeding his duty to educate the public on the danger of using nuclear power for fuel, the anti-proliferation expert thinks of his grandchildren as he explains the technology is “inseparable” from nuclear war and could cause the extinction of humankind. But in 2026, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration intends to install a nuclear reactor on the moon, testing the limits of international law by upsetting the standard for a weapons-free commons in outer space. NASA’s plan differs little from nuclear armament on Earth: while the administration insists the highly-enriched uranium to be made on the moon is intended solely for fuel, it will be the same ingredient used to make nuclear weapons. Is this legal? Is it safe? Perhaps not, but it is worth it. Although the world risks its life entrusting humans with the materials for mass destruction, nuclear energy is necessary for the next step in humankind’s survival. With nuclear-dependent technology ripe for space exploration, landing on other planets is more than a ‘giant leap for mankind’—it is one of the protective measures responsible leaders need to ensure the posterity of their constituents. Scientists agree that Earth is turning into a dangerous place; a reminder that all species of life have either gone extinct or will likely do so. Humans can escape this, endowed with advanced intelligence; they can rise to the threat, diverting their fate with science, innovation, and responsible politics. In the age of supercomputers, life off-Earth has been conceived and will push spacetravel to fruition with nuclear power, the only technology humans have for such missions, as its driving force.
Scientific research coupled with artificial intelligence has brought clarity to the dangers of modern life on Earth—as technology grows, the urgent call for putting humans into outer space does also. For example, in six years, an asteroid large enough to obliterate half the world will approach Earth. Although calculations do not predict impact, warnings like these are common, as NASA has been asked by Congress to identify over 1 million Near Earth Objects orbiting the sun. Since NEOs can change course unexpectedly due to their asymmetric shape and build—comets, for instance, break apart upon nearing the sun as icy gases within their rocky bodies burn and crumble the hard parts into tail pieces, forming meteors—they are unpredictable and largely unmappable by Earth’s scientists. Today, NASA has identified 3,697 comets in orbit, and estimates that billions more exist. Although Earth’s atmosphere burns up many incoming space objects, it would only take a rock the size of a football field to cause mass extinction on Earth. After the initial impact, dust from the collision would block out sunlight worldwide, causing a perpetual winter, and Earth’s animals and crops would die within a year, leaving survivors to starve as surpluses wane. This is what extinguished the dinosaurs, when an inbound asteroid, albeit larger, crashed into Earth, forming the Gulf of Mexico and leading to 75% of Earth’s life vanishing forever.
Extinction is a twisted truth to the miracle of life, an unspoken end that humans tend to not consider as the kind of thing they should worry about. That is, until it begins to happen. Climate change is coming, and is here, with myriads of scientists going public to support utter fear for a future in which the global warming beast comes hand in hand with overpopulation—the U.N. estimates a billion people are to become refugees or die from intense weather and starvation over the next three decades. Just as sobering, worldwide infection could also end humanity. Some viruses cause widespread death, as seen in the global and regional health crises of the past millennium, in which a third of Europe was wiped out from the bubonic plague, 90% of native Americans died from smallpox, and COVID-19 took more human lives worldwide than Americans lost in the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Vietnam War, The Korean War, and the September 11 attack, combined. Late astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who built and expanded on the work of Albert Einstein, warned, “I don’t think we will survive another 1,000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet.” Humans are eggs in one delicate basket, susceptible to spreading disease to one another and subject to the revenge of a changing Earth; and of something as simple as getting hit in the head with a giant space rock—the mathematical probability that human extinction will one day occur, if nothing changes, is vivid.
In a concerted effort to provide humanity with options, spacefaring countries are looking beyond today for help. With scientists this decade discovering over 8,000 planets outside Earth’s solar system, they estimate some may be habitable: rocky, Earth-like planets warmed by their own star and which have a protective atmosphere. Currently NASA has active missions to the moon, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter, and seeks to begin off-Earth enrichment of uranium for a nuclear-powered lunar base to be used for launching nuclear dependent deep-space exploration jobs. A result of Einstein’s calculations under the Nazi war threat, this powerful technology has been replicated in laboratories for the past 70 years, leading to grave concerns about its potential for weapons of mass destruction, and to intense fascination with its free, renewable energy. The desire for highly-enriched uranium is clear, says NASA: until technology advances, strong nuclear power is the only way to approach Space—by splitting atoms, nuclear fission produces heat energy which is converted into electricity, allowing for long-term power and propulsion and the possibility of settling on other celestial bodies, and of finding new worlds. A clean energy for the environment, nuclear power saves millions of lives per year when used responsibly. Although the horrific scares from nuclear meltdowns at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima have shown the tragic results of widespread radiation poisoning, the power source can be contained and kept safe, especially on the moon. The United States has reported advances in safety protocols from the UN-backed Safety Framework recommended for all nations, showing that America publicly judges the use of nuclear energy as necessary and accepts responsibility for its caretaking; NASA is complying with the recommendations of world agencies and has been given the political nod to move forward.
Siding with Dr. Bernardy, opponents to nuclear proliferation say absolutely not—there is no ‘political nod’ to the manufacture of highly-enriched uranium, only on low-enriched uranium. NASA seeks to make enough material to create 12 nuclear bombs on its lunar base, they cry, sounding alarmist and well-intentioned fears: in a time when countries have worked tirelessly to prevent the manufacture of HEU, seeking to declare the radioactive material abolished, if nations bring in even more, humanity will be backtracking and asserting its own doom. Making a nuclear bomb “is so simple that even schoolkids could do it,” warns Bernardy. “This is a grave concern because if someone could get a hold of highly-enriched uranium…one shudders to think what could happen.” With the shelf life of HEU exceeding human lifetimes, Dr. Bernardy has reason for concern—one day, not this decade and perhaps not in the next, but many decades from now, the material could be used for evil. An alternate fuel source is recommended, say the organizations comprised of scholar and industry experts, as they plead with leaders for a non-nuclear world: “It is desirable to replace [it] with other materials and thus cease all HEU production forever.” They inherently oppose nuclear power on Earth and in Space, recognizing that although going nuclear-free could slow the advent of space exploration by many years, the U.S, in allowing the manufacture of HEU, even if it is on the moon, would be rewinding 40 years of domestic and international non-proliferation policy stemming from the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was poised for a nuclear attack, and vice versa. Also, international law—the United Nations Outer Space Treaty ratified by 110 nations and stemming from the potential horrors of nuclear proliferation in the 1960’s, reinforces the intention of nations to maintain peace and global opposition to the use of nuclear weapons, particularly in off-Earth operations. Nuclear weapons are banned in outer space, and that alludes to the ingredients for their manufacture. Allowing NASA to follow through with its nuclear space program will set a precedent for HEU production, with other countries following suit.
These traditionalists have a point, but the truth is: outer space is an environment that will boil blood in under a second, cause terminal cancer within months, and plummet spaceships with icy rocks that flame burning gas as they orbit at 17,000 miles per hour. Humans will die trying to save mankind and every effort to help them succeed is the inherent obligation of spacefaring nations around the world. Yes, nuclear war is horrific, but humans already live with that risk, along with the threat of extinction by scientifically-predicted acts of Nature. The U.S. has an obligation to its citizens to act in their best interest, reevaluating old policies based on new information which includes greater threats than that of nuclear war. Safety measures backed by the U.N. Working Group and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the latter which monitors uranium used for weapons, can be put in place to prevent nuclear missiles from being made in Space. Although it pushes the boundaries of the agreement, there is not a clear violation to the Outer Space Treaty because highly-enriched uranium is not a nuclear weapon, it is simply radioactive nuclear “material”, and the reactor placed on the moon will be a “nuclear device”; a generator of energy; a power plant.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson chides that “dinosaurs are extinct today because they lacked…the brainpower to build a space program.” He argues that humans can take action before it is too late. He is not alone: hundreds of years ago the ancient astronomers predicted humans would need to make it to Space one day. Had they been faced with the dilemma of nuclear energy, they would have vehemently debated the question, which is not if Earthlings should be permitted to manipulate the power of the cosmos, using it for fuel, the byproduct being provisions for weaponry so terrifying in wartime they could cause the extinction of the human race, but must they? It is a hard decision, and yes—they must. Dr. Frank Bernardy is correct—nuclear weapons pose a huge risk to Earth’s people—but the risks of not doing anything outweigh them. Expanding into outer space is a solution for humans; a light in the darkness that will, at great costs and at great risks, ensure that humanity does not die, but carries on, continuing to respect, and thrive by, the miracle of life. Perhaps there is a safer energy source than nuclear energy. Perhaps in the future it will be discovered, and humans can grow toward a more utopian society that does not include the threat of war. For today, the sentiment of support for outer space exploration is required by all peoples of Earth, perhaps not for themselves, but for their children’s children. The world’s leaders have a chance to save myriads of lives as humankind steps into the possibility of sustained life, both on, and off of, Earth. Godspeed.
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