There is a better Iran deal we should be making.
This is not a political statement per se. It’s an example of technology solving intractable problems; or in this case, at least of technology revealing the truth of a situation. In either case, innovation could completely change the terms of what otherwise seems a long, inevitable slide toward something awful.
Iran claims it needs nuclear power. That may seem counterintuitive: Iran is one of the world’s leading oil producers and has immense reserves of natural gas. Still, those are resources it wants to export for cash, not burn at home.
To be fair, Iran started its nuclear power program in the 1960s, under the Shah. The United States helped it, under Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace initiative.
Before the Ayatollahs, that made sense. Maybe it still does.
There’s a way to find out.
Throughout the world, commercial nuclear plants use uranium. This is because both the United States and the Soviet Union developed the technology in part to support bomb making. That made perfect sense in the 1940s and 50s.
But a nuclear plant doesn’t have to use uranium. It can use thorium.
Thorium contains no fissile isotopes. It cannot be weaponized, and can only be used to support a weapons program with great difficulty. It is much cheaper than uranium, and much more abundant: as common as graphite, it is estimated that there’s enough thorium in the world to supply all of our current energy needs for a million years.
Just one ton of thorium generates the same amount of power as 200 tons of uranium. It provides 20 million times the energy of an equal amount of coal.
It gets better.
A thorium reactor would produce less than 1 percent of the radioactive waste produced by current reactors: indeed, it could burn up most of the nuclear waste that already exists. A runaway thorium reaction is impossible, for the same reason that thorium can’t be weaponized. A meltdown such as took place at Chernobyl or Fukushima is likewise impossible. And because it can operate at normal air pressure, a thorium reactor could be much more compact and a quarter of the cost of current plants.
How compact? One company – Laser Power Systems – has designed a thorium powered automobile engine. Good luck getting that past regulators, but that’s not the point.
Thorium could change everything: abundant cheap power without the dangers. And it’s not just theoretical. China is pursuing the technology – pioneered and abandoned in the United States in the 1960s – vigorously. India and Norway are rushing ahead as well. Companies like Lightbridge (NASDAQ:LTBR) and Bill Gates’ TerraPower are in the hunt.
Iran says it needs nuclear power. Iran claims it doesn’t want the bomb because possessing a nuclear weapon “is a sin.”
So let’s call their bluff.
Rather than going forward with the deal just concluded, the right move would have been – and could yet be – to offer Iran all the thorium plants it can use, absolutely free. We will happily build them all of the electrical capacity they could ever want, transforming Iran. In return, all they have to do is what Libya did in Fall 2003: ship their whole uranium-based nuclear program to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. We’ll even pay for that.
This would be an enormous win-win. Yes, it would be expensive, but not as expensive as the missile defenses, the forward deployments, and all the other costs associated with defending against a nuclear-armed Iran; nor as expensive as a glow-in-the-dark Israel and a second Holocaust. Plus, we’d more than make up that cost as Iran flooded the world with oil and began shipping Europe all the natural gas it could produce. Cheap energy helps everyone; Iran competing instead of cooperating with Russia does too.
Of course, if Iran refused the deal, we’d know: that “the need for nuclear power” was always a lie, and that their program is and always has been about building the bomb.
Oh, we know that already?
Well yes, I suppose we do.
But it might not matter. The offer would put Iran in a difficult position. The threat of force against them is very real, from Israel and Saudi Arabia if not from the United States. For Iran to confess its true intentions prematurely invites unilateral catastrophe.
Moreover, accepting this deal might seem better than getting the bomb. Greatly increased oil and gas exports would alleviate most of the regime’s domestic problems and flood its treasury with cash. Unlimited, safe electrical power would rapidly propel Iran toward a first world economy, without the cost of creating the infrastructure. These things together would integrate Iran with the West in ways that would make attacking them virtually unthinkable.
There’s a lot of security and influence in all of that.
If Iran wants the Bomb for deterrence – as Ron Paul once suggested – this solution would likely be better. If Iran wants the bomb to use it – and perhaps it does – this deal would provide an alternative so game-changing as to force it to question that goal.
It might just be an offer they can’t refuse.
Such a deal would be impossible apart from the exponentially increasing possibilities innovation provides. Indeed, technological advance – almost always the result of free minds working in free markets – solves most problems, from poverty to pollution to polio.
Now, if only our governments could be so creative.
Rod D. Martin, founder and CEO of The Martin Organization, is a technology entrepreneur, futurist, hedge fund manager, and professor. Fox Business News calls him a “tech guru”, Britain’s Guardian labeled him a “philosopher-capitalist”, and Gawker describes him as a “brilliant nonconformist.” He was a senior member of PayPal’s pre-IPO startup team and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Council for National Policy.