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I've been thinking about a world in which nuclear power and nuclear weapons were never developed. What kind of mechanism would allow this to be possible?

Nuclear weapons seem the easiest option, with fears of of nuclear proliferation leading to various nations agreeing to dismantle and refuse to build weapons. This was attempted in the early UN via the Baruch Plan, in which it failed due to the Soviets being suspicious of the American dominance of the organization. Had a more equitable balance of power existing among international organizations, such a solution might have been possible.

The harder question is about how to eliminate nuclear power as well. Most disarmament plans feature provisions that allow for well regulated nuclear power. By what mechanism might nuclear power have never been fully developed?

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    $\begingroup$ Does it matter if you also wipe-out electronics, nuclear medicine etc.? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 20:09
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    $\begingroup$ You mean in an alternate world? or you meant on Earth, in an alternative history? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 20:38
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    $\begingroup$ Just make WWII not happen. The Manhattan Project was incredibly expensive; without the war effort providing funding, the research never would've progressed far enough to effect nuclear power or nuclear weapons. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 0:58
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    $\begingroup$ @SomeoneElse37 no, not really. in 2020 dollars the Manhattan project cost about 30 billion. the US military budget in 2020 was 730 billion. In terms of the total cost of WW2, the MP was literally less than pennies on the dollar (1/20 of 1 percent) $\endgroup$
    – eps
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 15:51
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    $\begingroup$ For any year after WW2 ended you could have snuck the cost of it in the military budget and only increased military spending by about a percent. You'd basically have to assume not only WW2 not happening, but also Korea, the Cold war, Vietnam, etc etc. $\endgroup$
    – eps
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 16:00

8 Answers 8

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Just make a world where uranium and friends are really rare.

Nuclear power reactors, and nuclear weapons, need rather somewhat rare and heavy elements, in order for them to be produced, and in other for them to work: thorium, uranium, and a few others.

So, in a world where these elements are either extremely rare, or way too hard to dig, or are simply not there, then these things wouldn't be developed.

Even if there's nuclear physics, even if the scientists understand the math and know how to make a bomb, they would never be able to actually build a nuclear weapon without these materials.

And even if they were persistent and wanted one anyway, it would be way harder to artificially breed these elements in reactors, raising the costs of assembling a nuclear weapon to the point that it is just impractical, and other defense technologies are better.

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    $\begingroup$ Just not having any real concentrated occurences of radioactive material would be enough. That would mean that just discovering of radioactive decay would take far, far longer, delaying the entire field $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 10:28
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    $\begingroup$ This is really the easiest and best way. It's why some early theorists in the field thought nuclear energy wouldn't happen: they didn't know things like uranium existed. They knew you could smash stuff together in particle accelerators and some theorized the possibility of chain reactions but before the discovery of easily fisible material many thought it was a dead end. $\endgroup$
    – eps
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 16:14
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    $\begingroup$ It might also break the world a little bit. Around half of Earth internal heat is generated by radioactive decay. No heat - no plate tectonics - most likely no life $\endgroup$
    – vvotan
    Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 8:14
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    $\begingroup$ "Uranium and Friends" is my futurist/technopop cover band. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 14:12
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    $\begingroup$ @vvotan Also, evidence suggests that the Earth got re-melted and stirred up by a collision with a Mars-sized planet. Without that, heavy elements would be more rare at the surface, and actually more abundant in the core (from whence we cannot extract them). $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 14:49
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Wait a bit longer for for the appropriate sentient species to appear on the scene.

U-235 half life is about 700 million years, so if you wait for an additional 2 billion years before a technological species arises, the natural fraction of U-235 drops from about 0.7% to 0.1% - the first stage of enrichment is the hardest, and this additional reduction in fissile fuel would make developing nuclear power much harder. It is already very difficult and expensive for a nation to enrich uranium. The Manhattan project was about $25 billion in current dollars, with 0.1% U-235 I would expect this to be over 10 times as much because the initial enrichment step would be much harder. Admittedly, this was a crash project with with goal of a bomb, but most of the expense was the cost of enrichment - which is necessary for nuclear power plants too. If you think that this is not expensive enough to prevent a nuclear power consider how much more expensive it would be than other forms of power generation. There is just not much incentive to develop nuclear reactors when it is well-known that they will be more expensive than what you already use. If you are just really stubborn about it, just wait a few more billion years before you start trying to make nukes to make it ludicrously expensive.

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    $\begingroup$ It's currently not necessary to enrich uranium to run a nuclear power plant, but just barely so. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 22:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark - I don't believe the CANDU reactor (which requires heavy water to reduce neutron loss) would work without enrichment if the natural concentration was only 0.1% fissile - Were you referring to a different type of reactor that works with 0.7% fissile material? I actually considered mentioning CANDU it's a clever design, but it's no longer economically viable compared to other designs - it is even more capital intensive, though cheaper to fuel. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 5:42
  • $\begingroup$ The RBMK reactors were designed to work on natural uranium -- it's part of what makes them so huge. Actual operation uses low-enriched uranium, since that makes them less unstable. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 21:20
  • $\begingroup$ In 2 bn years earth won't be inhabitable by complex life as we know it. Over half the radius of the core solidifies, photosynthesis goes, magnetic field goes chaotic, multicellular life (and perhaps even unicellular life?) ceases to exist, oxygen and ozone no longer produced, surface water lost, 100C+ surface temps for much of it..... (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Future_of_Earth) $\endgroup$
    – Stilez
    Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 21:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Stilez - perhaps this alternate planet is orbiting a K type star with a lifetime of 50 billion years of so. I know the predictions for our sun are that it will be too hot within a about 700 million years. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 16, 2021 at 4:32
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PhD in energy policy - my dissertation focused on (among other things) the history of how power grids evolved.

Nuclear power is not unique or noteworthy as electrical generation schemes go. It's a basic thermal-to-electrical conversion - the exact same technique that coal/gas/oil/biomass/waste-to-energy generation stations use:

  1. Take hot thing.
  2. Boil (a whole crapton of) water.
  3. Force pressurized steam through a turbine to create rotating mechanical power.
  4. Spin a magnet inside some coils of wire (really honkin' fast).

Step 4 creates electrical current, aka electrical power.

The civilian nuclear power industry is the beneficiary of these treaties not because it's somehow necessary - but instead because it already exists. In policy (and engineering/economics) circles we talk about the "lock-in" effect, aka path dependency. The principle is that once you've decided on a specific scheme, you create further incentives to continue that scheme because the costs of doing so, compared to the costs of switching to another scheme, are lowered by the existence of infrastructure you've already built.

If you never develop nuclear power in the first place, you'd never notice the absence of it.

So the good news is, you don't need anything special to replace it. Coal, gas, oil, anything that makes heat enough to boil water can be used to make electrical power in exactly the same way. If you're wanting something with (near-)zero marginal carbon, solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, and tidal harness are all viable - and if you went that route you'd want a diverse portfolio and to add grid-scale energy storage as well.

As others have observed there's a million reasons to NOT develop nuclear power/weapons, and once that choice is made, you simply use other candidate technologies - of which there's oodles.

My favorite, btw, For power at the same scale, with the same costly investment, and the same (less, really) real estate footprint? Launch your solar power to orbit, beam down with microwaves. Receiving stations replace nuclear reactors, and otherwise you're in the same societal look/feel.

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    $\begingroup$ Launch your solar power to orbit, beam down with microwaves. - you're replacing nuclear bombs with orbital death ray cannons. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 6:40
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    $\begingroup$ @FranzGleichmann Current plans are pretty shitty for that. Power in the beam isn't meant to be higher than direct sunlight, it is just of a narrow wavelength band and available essentially 24/7 (you get in Earth shadow for some days for a short time at equinoxes). So, you end up getting pretty decent power density (W/m2 of used land) without ability to do any meaningful damage. The tiny little issue is the cost of getting stuff up there. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 11:07
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    $\begingroup$ isn't meant to be higher than direct sunlight soooo what's the benefit compared to a single solar panel on earth? if you got lots of power in a concentrated beam, shot from geosynchronous orbit, you've got a death ray cannon. the only difference is how long you have to tinker with it. (and even if you space it over many single sattelites - if they are focused at the same point, you still boil away everything in your way) $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 13:28
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    $\begingroup$ Single-junction solar cells cannot absorb photons with less energy than their band-gap, and waste the energy photons have in excess of their band-gap. With sunlight that limits their theoretical efficiency to ~33%. Multi-junction cells are complicated and expensive, and aren't all that much better. With a single wavelength, 90%+ should be feasible, with cheaper hardware. $\endgroup$
    – AI0867
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ @FranzGleichmann There is no source of power that cannot be weaponized. Coal power is just fire on a massive scale. The existence of power necessarily implies the existence of destructive potential. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 22:30
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I'm going to go somewhere different, make the World War 1 aftermath less costly to Germany and the other Central Powers. The real-world WW2 was so ghastly and desperate that it would not have mattered if some agreement was made in the 1920-1930 period to limit nuclear experimentation ("we better do it because we sure believe they are"). But World War 2 was in great part a reaction to having dumped the costs of WW1 recovery onto the Central Powers, eliminate WW2 and somehow have the League of Nations be a viable force.

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A catastrophic accident

Most real-world opponents would cite the very real possibility of nuclear meltdown. I mean, the word Chernobyl is forever associated with the nuclear reactor explosion that contaminated parts of eastern Europe. To this day, they still don't know how to clean it up. Fukushima is in much the same state.

Had nuclear energy been developed first (and not required such secrecy) the US Army's SL-1 reactor accident might have ended all public support some 18 years prior to the Three Mile Island accident.

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    $\begingroup$ For an accident to occur, nuclear power must already exist, which I'm not sure fits the OP's criteria. I'm also a bit confused by the argument here - you've cited real-world examples of catastrophic accidents that have not lead to the abandonment of nuclear power. This seems like an argument against the notion that even severe accidents would prevent the adoption of nuclear power. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 20:54
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    $\begingroup$ Honestly there were enough lab-accidents involving chain reactions that you don't actually need to have a meltdown for people to go "WTF IS THIS STUFF OH GOD DON'T EVER GO NEAR IT." For this to be plausible, though, you'd need to also erase most Fluorine chemistry for the same reason. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 20:55
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    $\begingroup$ @NuclearHoagie, those accidents haven't lead to total abandonment, but have at least hindered nuclear power. And e.g. Germany decided on abandoning nuclear power after Fukushima... $\endgroup$
    – ilkkachu
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 10:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Machavity's link in the comments led me to thinking about [prompt vs. delayed criticality](en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dollar_(reactivity). Reducing that window of controllability (by reducing the half-lives of fission products) would mean bombs could be built, but not reacors $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 15:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Graham Nobody knows how to remove the melted core material. That's why Europe spent millions building a new container for Chernobyl. It's got stuff that can help disassemble the reactor, but nobody has tried to remove things like corium before (the crazy high radiation wreaks havoc on robots too). So it's much safer near Chernobyl now, but the can has merely been kicked down the road. $\endgroup$
    – Machavity
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 18:27
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The initial estimates about the feasibility of a chain reaction were very different for the Germans and the US. Heisenberg incorrectly assumed that the mean free path for the neutron was much longer than it really was. The initial experiments with graphite as a moderator for chain reactions used graphite that had been synthesized with boron electrodes, and boron is a neutron absorber so the German graphite was contaminated. The US recognized the boron issue and was able to establish a chain reaction using a graphite pile. The US also got better experimental data on the mean free paths, so they thought that a uranium bomb might be feasible, but were still surprised that it took less material than they had thought.

So given the massive efforts it to took for the US to develop the bomb, for story writing purposes it might be reasonable to assume that US killed the project because it was assumed not to be feasible. Then after the war, it might be assumed that for political reasons that bomb making was not desired.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1. I assume you're referring to the Trinity test, which was predicted to yield 5 to 10 kilotons of TNT, but surprised everyone by producing a total yield of 24.8 kilotons of TNT. $\endgroup$
    – David Cary
    Commented Dec 16, 2021 at 19:49
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    $\begingroup$ More generally in 1938-1940 physicists around the world were of the opinion that a chain reaction or bomb wasn't feasible. The Frisch–Peierls memorandum in March 1940 indicated it was possible and feasible with kilograms of material instead of tonnes of uranium oxide. It also pointed out diffusion could be used to obtain the pure metal. The Maud report completed in 1941 by the British convinced the US that a major effort was worthwhile. In general though, yield was also underestimated for a variety bombs. Also plutonium as an alternative started being explored. $\endgroup$
    – UVphoton
    Commented Dec 16, 2021 at 22:43
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidCary - "The original design was for a spherical pile, but as work proceeded, it became clear that this would not be necessary. The new graphite was purer, and 6 short tons (5.4 t) of very pure metallic uranium began to arrive from the Ames Project" : "The major problem was impurities in the uranium oxide". Which is removed chemically at small scales until you build enough calutrons using "'Six thousand tons.'" of silver. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Dec 17, 2021 at 13:57
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, 13,300 tonnes. And only "1/3,600,000th was lost" and not returned to the Treasury. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Dec 17, 2021 at 14:02
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Nuclear physics delayed until nuclear engineering not needed

For whatever reason, solid-state physics on this world developed faster than it did on Earth, and nuclear physics more slowly. They had silicon solar panels and Rare Earth magnets and power semiconductors, (thence wind turbines), while they still thought atoms were indivisible.

Possibly, different plate tectonics or evolution (earlier fungi, so no Carboniferous era, no abundant coal) means that the industrial revolution couldn't happen until the above were scientifically understood. Then it happened based around intermittent renewable electricity, with a lower density of energy usage than our world.

Also, maybe they aren't as warlike as we are, so there's no weapons motivation for developing nuclear technologies once they finally work out that it's a possibility. In many animal species, combat is ritualized and takes place between individuals not groups. Unfortunately(?) H. Sapiens is not one of those species.

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  • $\begingroup$ I actually like this answer. You don't even need semiconductors for this. Reflector-tower solar can be built without any really special technology, and things like molten-salt storage can even generate power at night. If this technology was well-established before nuclear physics developed, there would be little need for comparatively messy nuclear power. Nuclear weapons are still an issue, although it should be pointed out that we only developed those during a war on the scale of WWII which made such research economically justifiable. Without a world war it might never have happened. $\endgroup$
    – Foogod
    Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 20:36
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Make U-235 non-fissile or less-fissile

To have nuclear power or nuclear weapons, you need fissile material (fusion power and pure-fusion weapons are both still well in the future, even today). To have fissile material, you have to either make it or mine it. Only one fissile nuclide, uranium-235, occurs naturally in significant quantities; all the other types of fissile material (transuranics - primarily plutonium, and especially Pu-239 - and U-233) have to be manufactured by bombarding certain actinides with neutrons to transmute them into the desired nuclides. The only source of neutrons that produces enough neutrons quickly and cheaply enough to do this economically is a nuclear-fission chain reaction - which, at least at first, requires a naturally-occurring fissile nuclide to produce the chain reaction manufacturing the neutrons for the first batches of transmutation.

Translation: in order to have nuclear power or nuclear weapons, you need to be able to light off a U-235 chain reaction.

Uranium-235 is fissile because, when it fissions, it produces enough neutrons with the right energy spectra for it to be possible for each fission event to trigger, on average, at least one more fission event (and so on, and so on), even with neutrons being lost to non-fission captures (and, for less-than-100%-pure U-235, to absorption by impurities in the uranium, and, for less-than-infinite quantities of U-235, to escaping from the surface of the fuel mass). If we reduce the number of neutrons released by a fissioning U-235 nucleus enough, or we increase the capture cross-section of U-235 enough at the expense of the fission cross-section, we can make U-235 unable to sustain a chain reaction, making nuclear power and weapons physically impossible. If we reduce the neutron production or the fission cross-section by a lesser amount, we can make it so that U-235 may well still be fissile, but requires prohibitively-large amounts in prohibitively-high concentrations to go critical and start a chain reaction, making nuclear power impractical and nuclear weapons impractical to impossible.

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