Yeah yeah, I know. Nuclear energy is way more complicated than Hollywood would have us believe. According to movies and the Department of Homeland Security, nuclear energy can be used to do just about anything, and your average ten year-old is fully capable of building one of those nifty Soviet-era suitcase nukes out of nothing more than a smidge of plutonium, a Meccano set and an Easy-Bake Oven.
Scaremongering aside, nuclear energy is actually pretty cool. Splitting atoms creates mass amounts of heat (basically a controlled explosion if I understand it correctly) that turns water into steam, driving turbines that create electricity – kind of like the big turbines at Niagara Falls, only motivated by the power of fire, which I think we can all agree is awesome.
Obviously a process that large and involved currently requires a huge infrastructure in order to be safe and efficient, which is why we’re not all running our own personal Mr. Fusion generators out of our garages, but if there’s one thing science fiction is really good at, it’s ignoring the real-world applicability of technology in favour of really cool shit. What follows are my favourite five nuclear-powered technologies that would redefine the way we live – if only they were real.
DeLorean Time Machine
One point twenty-one gigawatts? GREAT SCOTT. Much as time travel physics and quantum paradoxes make my head hurt, I think we can all agree that the ability to travel through time would be pretty cool, and potentially a lot of fun. Think of the good we could do with technology like that: in one fell swoop we could end thousands of years of religious conflict by heading back to the very beginning and solving that tired debate once and for all. What else could we solve? Did Hitler really kill himself? Yup, watched him eat the business end of a Luger. Who shot JFK? Hang out on the grassy knoll and see for yourself. Did aliens help build the pyramids? The giant flying saucers hanging out over Egypt might be a clue. (It always confused me why Doc Brown didn’t think of any of this: all he wanted to do was visit the “far future” of 2015. Where’s my goddamn hoverboard, by the way?) All you need is a little weapons-grade plutonium, though I’d suggest you find an alternative to duping Libyan terrorists out of their nuclear material. ‘Cause, you know, they don’t take kindly to that. Also, word to the wise: you’d do well to invest in some decent lead shielding for your flux capacitor, or you might wind up contracting some terrible affliction. Like Parkinsons. In unrelated news, I am going straight to hell.
Any of you not old enough to remember the classic 60s era television show performed entirely by marionettes needs to go to Youtube right now and – oh hell, you won’t do that. Here, just watch this.
That is the coolest thing you’re going to see today, so you’re welcome. I did a little research for this article, believe it or not, and it turns out Thunderbird 1 – the silver rocket-propelled plane at the beginning – was based on a real-life military initiative called Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft (or NEPA for short). Conducted by the U.S. Air Force from 1946 into the early 60s, when Eisenhower cut funding to the program, NEPA was the logical progression of the nuclear weapon craze that began when the Enola Gay flattened Hiroshima. Everybody figured nuclear energy was the way of the future, and nobody capitalized more on its potential than the military, who wanted absolutely everything run on the power of the atom – even their airplanes. The X program was the foundation of nuclear aircraft design, but despite spawning amazing advances in plane technology (like the Bell X-1, the first plane to breach the sound barrier), the nuclear plane program never really got off the ground – so to speak. Thanks to Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson, the masses got their superpowered aircraft in the form of Thunderbird 1, which ran on nuclear fission and could achieve speeds of Mach 22. For the unaware, that’s twenty-two thousand kilometers an hour, or Toronto to Melbourne, Australia in about 45 minutes. Who wouldn’t want to go that fast, seriously?
Remember “Aliens”? This movie is better known as the career highlight for both Sigourney Weaver and Bill “Game Over Man” Paxton, and is easily the best instalment in the series. If you need a refresher, a recently-thawed Ellen Ripley gets picked up by a team of hot-shot space marines to find out what happened to the outpost on the alien planet from the first movie. Despite her continued warnings the Big Bad Company wants to harness the power of the Xenomorphs for their own nefarious ends, and as a result almost everybody winds up in bite-sized pieces, with the exception of Ripley, some little British girl and Lieutenant Meathead. Ripley dukes it out with the Alien queen in what might be the best action scene ever to grace the screen, and they wind up taking off to nuke the colony from orbit. But the best part is they don’t need nukes to do it, because the colonists were foolishly trying to terraform the alien planet, and apparently terraforming requires huge nuclear reactors. For some reason. If it had worked, terraforming is a pretty cool idea – if a mite terrifying, given it would allow us to gallivant around the galaxy, essentially erasing all life on a planet and replace it with fat Americans, endless miles of suburbs, and Starbucks franchises. In this case the terraforming obviously failed, but at least there was a ready-made timebomb sitting right there that allowed Ripley to destroy the alien threat by detonating the entire area from the comfort of her spaceship. Now if only somebody had done the same to 20th Century Fox before they released the shitty sequel. Because, you know, it’s the only way to be sure.
Okay, I know this isn’t exactly “technology”, but if I didn’t mention this most amazing of nuclear energy properties (bestowing superpowers) they’d revoke my Nerd License. Of all the fictional uses of nuclear energy, the superpower effect is probably the most egregious, overreaching, blatantly false depiction of what atomic power is all about. Fun fact: people exposed to nuclear radiation or other offshoots thereof typically die horribly, or else their kids are born with flippers and third arms and extra eyes on their shoulders. Nowhere in the history of nuclear energy has there ever been a case in which someone’s life has been improved by direct exposure to radiation, and yet Hollywood and comic books would have us believe sitting around at Ground Zero of an A-bomb test is a fast-track to spandex outfits, stylish capes and your own personal insignia. Think about it. Spider Man: nerdy high school kid gets bitten by radioactive spider, ends up fucking Kirsten Dunst. Dr. Manhattan: nerdy professor type gets caught in an “intrinsic field subtractor”, gains the power to manipulate the space-time continuum and walk around naked. The Incredible Hulk: nerdy physicist gets doused with gamma rays, turns into Lou Ferrigno in green makeup and purple pants. Captain Atom: nerdy scientist gets “atomized” in an experiment, turns into Superman without the wacky alien back story. Leaving aside the obvious pattern I can only assume comes from the fact that people who write comics are as nerdy as their protagonists and they like to live vicariously through them, the comic industry has probably done more for nuclear positivity than anybody else, ever. Of course, it’s not all good press: just ask the Japanese. As if Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren’t bad enough, they also had to deal with a certain irradiated dragon-thing with an appetite for Japanese culture that would make the most devout otaku blush. Those poor people.
Ultimate Space Defense
Unlike superpowers, this application of nuclear energy is actually based firmly in the realm of science fact. In the 1980s then-president Ronald Reagan instituted the Strategic Defense Initiative, a program designed to protect the United States from nuclear missiles using a variety of ground- and space-based weaponry including lasers, particle beams and rail guns. It wouldn’t take a great deal of imagination to realize space-based weapons platforms might also possibly, maybe, feasibly be used as launch platforms for US nuclear weapons. The so-called “Star Wars” project was eventually shitcanned, mostly because it was a spectacularly stupid waste of resources, but the idea of space-based weaponry didn’t die with it – Hollywood absolutely loves justifying the existence of nuclear weapons by featuring nukes prominently in Earth’s last-ditch efforts to defend itself from marauding aliens and giant rocks. Granted, tactical nukes proved ineffective against the giant flying saucers of Independence Day fame (though they were curiously vulnerable to late ’90s computer viruses, apparently), but Bruce Willis proved the effectiveness of nuclear weapons against Texas-sized asteroids beyond the shadow of a doubt in Armageddon. Okay, they had to go through the highly-dubious scenario of landing on the rock and actually burrowing into its core, blah blah you saw that stupid movie too, but ultimately the nuclear defense was a success and Earth was saved just in time for Aerosmith to release quite possibly the worst song in their repertoire. I personally think the whole thing would have resolved itself much more quickly if we didn’t let Steve Buscemi run amok with a Gatling gun and a dune buggy, and instead used Reagan’s hypothetical satellite defense system to launch every nuke ever directly at the big rock, which is why I think this technology could be really cool if it was ever put into use. Unfortunately the potential is far more likely for governments to use orbital weapon platforms on one another than on the Body Snatchers of Planet X or the Armageddon Rock, so perhaps in retrospect this wouldn’t be so cool after all.
What Did We Learn?
I think it’s fair to say there’s good and bad to nuclear energy. It’s all in how we choose to utilize it. Using it to provide limitless energy to the whole world? Good Idea. Using it to lay waste to cities and ensuring generations of frog-children? Bad Idea. While the chances are slim that you’ll ever see me flying around in my super-fast Nuke Plane / Time Machine, shooting webs out of my wrists and venturing into space to terraform planets and do battle with aliens and big rocks, I still think nuclear energy is a valuable resource and one that bears consideration. In the meantime, I’m going to go X-ray myself eight or nine hundred times and hope for wings.
POST SCRIPT: I was once again featured on Turning Down The Suck…go check out my guest blog and share in the misery of a man who was turned down by every girl he asked to dance, ever.