Privately owned nukes

One of the favorite clichés of gun control advocates is to claim that if the Second Amendment really means what the plain English of the text says, then we must all be allowed to have nuclear weapons for personal defense.  This is intended as a reductio ad absurdum, an argument shown to be invalid by drawing it out to its necessary, but absurd conclusion.  But is the idea of privately owned nukes as silly as it sounds on first hearing?

To answer this question takes a consideration of the balance between the purposes to which a person might put a given object and the risks to innocent persons posed by the object’s use.  In other words, size does matter.

A firearm is a personal weapon, used to engage one target at a time.  Despite the fantasy version of guns we see in Hollywood, even so-called high-capacity magazines run dry quickly in rapid fire.  By contrast, a nuclear device is the definition of indiscriminate.  The smallest such bomb that we developed, the Davy Crockett or XM-388, had an explosive force of ten tons of TNT, or a couple of times the energy of the device used in the Oklahoma City bombing.  The radiation effects get added on top of that.  Perhaps I’m suffering from a failure of imagination, but I don’t see how an individual person could use a weapon like that in personal self-defense, especially if we insist that we have to refrain from harming innocents while resisting lethal force used against ourselves.

But speaking of limits on the imagination, let’s recognize that nuclear explosives might be used for purposes other than as weapons.  In the early days of the Nuclear Age, there was work done on the idea of using bombs in civil engineering projects such as the construction of harbors or specifically in enlarging the Panama Canal.  The Russians used a thirty kiloton device to smother a gas-well fire that had been burning for years.  An explosion was also used to test such methods for making water reservoirs, but that latter effort left radioactive readings a hundred times greater than background levels even thirty years afterward.

We’ve learned things since those days of wild optimism.  Even the cleanest nuclear detonations produce unacceptable quantities of radioactive by-products in the atmosphere or water.  But there’s a practical concern as well.  The production of nuclear bombs is an industry that requires lots of money to operate.  A single bomb costs some $20,000,000.  Perhaps devices intended for earth moving could cost less since they wouldn’t be designed for deployment by missile or airplane, but we’re still talking a larger chunk of spare change than most of us have in our couch cushions.

So can we dismiss the flights of fantasy by gun control advocates about private nukes?  Not quite yet.  One potential use remains:  space flight.

In the 50s and 60s, a group of researchers including physicist and futurist Freeman Dyson worked out a proposal to use nuclear explosives to propel a spacecraft.  The idea was that bombs would be shot out the back and detonated behind a pusher plate that would absorb the force and accelerate the vehicle.  This method could have been used to launch a ship of several thousand tons into orbit (though again at some cost of increased radioactivity in the atmosphere) or to send it to the planets of the outer solar system and even to nearby stars within a century of travel time.

Sound crazy?  The best ideas often do.  Tests using conventional explosives showed the potential for this method of propulsion, but the nuclear test-ban treaty killed the project.

At the time this method was being studied, the idea of private companies or persons exploring and using outer space on their own was science fiction.  Robert Heinlein wrote about a colony of pioneers going their own way in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, but going to other bodies out there was something governments made possible, not ordinary people.

Today, with companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic and the private sector group Mars One that seeks to plant a permanent human settlement on the red planet, these speculations are much more in the realm of the possible.

Will we use nukes as personal weapons of self-defense?  That’s highly unlikely, at least until we’re out dodging asteroids in our private spaceships.  But what advocates of control don’t realize—and what we who insist that rights be preserved even out among the stars—is that human potential will find good purposes for our inventions.  Clinging to limits that promise but fail to deliver safety is much like saying hundreds of thousands of years ago that the Great Rift Valley is not such a bad place, after all, so there’s no reason to head out into the broad new world.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of