With HBO‘s Chernobyl having conveniently put the dangers of nuclear power and the horrors of radiation poisoning so brilliantly on the radar of TV viewers around the world, now seems like a great time to talk about how hope can spring from even the most unexpected and terrifying of sources.
A few years ago, I went to a focus group. You know the kind of thing I mean: someone literally hands you a small envelope full of cash in exchange for two hours of your consumer feedback on a particular product or, in this case, hot button political topic. I went to this thing with few expectations beyond getting money and maybe a bad sandwich. Very quickly it turned out that our topic was the storage of nuclear waste from a reactor within my immediate voting vicinity.
What was cool about this, of course, was that I learned some new things about fission and radiation. What was vastly less cool was observing the various ways in which the people running the focus group were nudging us all toward a positive opinion about a public policy decision that had, almost certainly, already been made. I concluded rather swiftly that the group doing the focusing didn’t necessarily want to find out our opinions so they could change their plan. No, they wanted to know whether or not they were effectively selling what they’d already decided. Barring a public outcry, the fait was already accomplis.
Here in the present day, remembering this experience makes me wish I could see footage of someone running those same nuclear waste questions past people who’d just seen the HBO miniseries.
It doesn’t take a focus group to tell someone with even a basic grasp of grade school science that nuclear reactors make electricity, and the byproduct of that electricity is dangerous AF for basically ever. Creating nuclear waste has been one of the many devil’s bargains humans have made in exchange for our incredible society. Electricity at this point is demonstrably more important to us than breathable air or food security. In pursuit of it, we burn uranium and create an apparently insoluble problem whose dimensions extend from now to the end of human memory.
One way or another, it has been reasonably safe to assume, for all of my lifetime at least, that all the nuclear waste in the world was going to end up cached in remote holes in economically marginal regions, and left there until such time as somebody forgot about them entirely. At that point, they’d become a toxic gag gift for whatever unlucky beings—sapient raccoons, anyone?—bored down through the concrete vaults, failed to decipher the safety warnings, and uncovered a huge load of future death.
Paradoxically, this problem is now one of the reasons I believe we can have not only hope but real optimism about terraforming the planet so that it remains habitable by humans.
How come? Because physicists have recently worked out that if you take a small amount of radioactive material, make a radioactive diamond out of it, encase it in a second diamond layer to contain the energy and include a couple of wires in the mix, you can make a diamond battery. This is an item that will emit a small amount of power for as long as the battery is radioactive, or at least three millennia.
Using radioactive decay to create electricity isn’t a new idea. It’s a cornerstone of the space program; batteries using radioisotope power systems power Voyager One, and the Mars Rover Curiosity. The latter has been tooling around gathering data for over 2500 days now.
But the diamond batteries could be deployed here on earth. They could could sit in your unprotected hand. They could be embedded in your life-saving pacemaker. And as they did so, they’d be giving off about as much radiation as your average banana.
So take that in for a second. I know, I thought it was a lie, too.
Imagine a future where factories spent however long it took to turn all of that forever poison from all of our reactors into a new source of effectively inexhaustible power.
In my novel Gamechanger, the bugs have been worked out of this system. Product development has had a bit of time to mature, and now this tech is getting deployed in quantity. The goal is to reclaim all the waste. The batteries are being constructed and gathered in stacks. Each one isn’t emitting much power, but collectively, they’re a significant and growing public resource. And since the powersphere is valuable and an obvious target for crime, most of the stones are embedded in permanent structures. In other words, the first deployment of diamond battery tech is in a place called Blingtown, a carbon remediation project that makes beautiful structures on a monumental scale while also ensuring the security and longevity of the power stacks.
This is what science fiction writers do with research. It’s what SF prototyping means. Basically, I decided: if the diamonds are going to last thousands of years, and pyramids last thousands of years, and you can probably in this day and age find a corporate sponsor to make the outsides of monument-scale structures beautiful to boot, why not kill the pollution bird with a massive amount of aesthetically kilned and tourist-friendly stone?
Pie in the sky? For sure. But until recently, remember, we thought that saying yes to a question like “can we do something positive with nuclear waste?” was chirpy fucking nonsense.
When optimists and hopepunkers talk about innovating our way out of the climate crisis we have created, critics point out that the technologies we hope to use to save ourselves are still under development. That some of them are hypothetical. That others might come with insurmountable knock-on effects of their own. (Hank Green, for example, posted a video this summer about the possible need to continue or expand fracking, even as we recognize the need to deal with the horrendous environmental consequences.)
Even when we come up with inventions that do have the potential to make a huge difference, doomcryers say, we may not be able to deploy them before we run out of the very resources we need to scale them up.
All these arguments are totally true. There is validity and an important warning in the too little too late position.
It’s important to remember that—like those anonymous policymakers who were trying to figure out how to spin their plan for containing irradiated Canadian graphite—we have already decided our collective survival will hinge on a cluster of whizbang technological breakthroughs.
No, we have! You and I may not feel personal ownership over the the crappy policies that have cooked our atmosphere, but we’re part of the system… and we’re past blame now. If we were going to globally rein in our oil-burning ways on a scale that would make a difference, we’d have done it decades ago. Letting something happen is a choice and humanity has let this happen. The plan now is to science the living shit out of the human-made atmospheric carbon surplus.
Admittedly, this wasn’t the best idea. Terraforming the earth into a crisis and then trying to terraform it back… this isn’t a scheme that comes with guarantees. The odds on it, though, still seem better than those of plan Move the Rich to Mars! or plan Hope we all Get Lucky in Spite of Ourselves!
The inventiveness, the near-miraculous potential of a technology like diamond batteries, and the paradigm shift it represents, not only provides us with a new option for producing electricity but seriously changes the game on the forever problem that was nuclear waste. This should straight up blow your mind. We didn’t think a single thing could be done. Bury it and look away. That was the answer. And people, we were wrong.
So while we’re at it, here are some other innovations people are exploring. How does artificial photosynthesis grab you? Or gadgets that can convert atmospheric carbon directly to propane? Drones that can survey areas in need of reforestation, and then plant hundreds of thousands of trees in those areas in hours? Pretty exciting, right? Even now there’s a nonprofit based out of Rotterdam working to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch using autonomous robots. And in case you’re curious, the innovator who founded that company, Boyan Slat, was eighteen when he decided he could deal with the problem… within a couple of decades, at that.
Humans are, at core, bogglingly inventive creatures. Diamond batteries and artificial leaves and topsoil generation are not enough to get us back into balance with our ecosystem. They’re starting points, fragile seeds of potential success.
We need solutions to forever problems, and it’s just gonna squash us problems, and there’s no way we can ever manage it problems. And we can find them. The key is celebrating and supporting the scientists and dreamers, the eighteen year old start-up folks and all the people in labs, working together, the unsung heroes who have already embarked on the quest.