Megatons to Megamoon
By Madeline Ashby

Lunar Base Prepares to Draw Nuclear Power from Decommissioned Warheads
18 May 2095

A controversial plan to send fissile material from decommissioned nuclear warheads from the United States and the Federated Municipality of Sebastopol to the Moon via rocket just reached another stage in its development, with a launch schedule to be announced in the coming months.

“Really, it’s about time,” says Carmine Browder, the new chief engineer at the MPWR Luna micro-nuclear power plant. MPWR is an organization focused on bringing long-term energy solutions to isolated communities. “Luna has gone about as far as it can with solar. We’ve seen serious improvements in battery storage, and I don’t want to downplay that. But the more we grow, the more lunar dust we kick up, and in a low-gravity environment that dust settles in all the worst places, like our solar panels. So in the end there’s just no substitute for constant, reliable energy. Especially if we’re going to make this a year-round habitat.”

Browder is talking about MPWR Luna’s growing base on the lunar surface, located inside the Shackleton Crater. The base is an experimental design space where multiple groups can test out everything from urban planning ideas to new materials meant for space travel to new systems of decision-making and community-led governance. “Think of it like EPCOT for the 22nd century,” says Browder. “I mean as Walt Disney first imagined it over a century ago, as an ‘Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.’ It was supposed to be a place to try new things. It was supposed to be a community.”

Their wife, logistics director Ashera Odhiambo, agrees that year-round habitation is part of the vision. “If we are serious about the Moon, then we have to be serious about making it a long-term habitat. And that means a consistent supply of power. With the warhead material, we have that power.”

Odhiambo is referring to a recently built small-scale reactor that can supply nuclear energy to multiple habitats across the lunar surface. Although actual warheads aren’t going up to the Moon–and the highly enriched uranium that once fueled those warheads has been converted to the low enriched uranium used to create nuclear power reactor fuel–the presence of fissile material on a rocket is giving others on Earth pause.

“They can run all the simulations they want. I’m not letting that rocket take off anywhere near my home,” says Rory Knudsen, founder of Moms Against Aerial Megatons, or MAAM. The group has chapters in Texas, Florida, California, and other launch sites throughout the world. Knudsen says that growing up in North Dakota near missile silos (many of which are now empty) gave her an understanding of the stakes of play in a nuclear scenario.

“I left there to get away from all that,” she says. “I don’t want more rockets going up where I live. Not if they’re carrying that kind of material. What if a Challenger situation happens? All it takes is one mistake, and suddenly we’re in a Chernobyl kind of thing. I don’t think anything is worth taking that risk.”

Knudsen lives within fallout range of her local nuclear power plant. “That’s different,” she says. “The safety measures are in place. There are drills. There’s a proven track record. We’re shooting nuclear material into the air on top of a big thick blasting cap that is essentially an old submarine, and acting like it’s okay. But it’s not okay. Life is not anime.”

But researchers at the Shackelton base remain confident. They’re excited to get back to work. The new energy plants will free up solar-powered batteries to be transitioned to mobile probe status. As modular, mobile installations, these batteries can travel in formation with fleets of research drones and human crews. The drones can then continue their research unencumbered, and human crews no longer have to wait for a “jump” from nearby stations or vehicles if their own batteries run down.

Eventually, these mobile power stations will expand the lunar network and infrastructure. This way, bases can share resources if one does not receive its regular shipments, or if their lunar agriculture plan falls behind schedule. If successful, this “boron plus batteries” plan could be adapted for Mars, Deimos, and Titan. And someday, they may be an integral part of milestone markers that are sent into deep space ahead of possible colonization efforts.

Earthside, the decommissioning of warheads globally has already made nuclear medicine much cheaper and more broadly available, as tons of weapons grade uranium get reprocessed and redeployed. The use of radioactive isotopes in medicine was once a costly proposition, both financially and in terms of time spent. In the twentieth century, isotope shortages could delay specialized medical tests on the heart, bones, and blood vessels, as well as critical treatments for certain cancers. Even then, not every country could guarantee access to that kind of medicine. Now the availability of nuclear medicine has expanded greatly, with hospitals in remote, rural, and other underserved areas able to deliver the kind of care that was once limited to urban centers in wealthy nations.

MPWR’s plan for the large-scale repurposing of highly enriched uranium, made possible by the global decommissioning of nuclear weapons in the 2050s, drew inspiration from the late twentieth century “Megatons to Megawatts” program, when Russia converted 500 metric tons of weapons-grade uranium into 15,000 tons of low enriched uranium that was purchased by the United States for use in its nuclear power plants. But MPWR had a much different idea for how to put this new abundance of uranium to use, a plan driven by the mandate to bring energy to justice, and justice to energy.

In the 2060s, MPWR was able to deliver new energy solutions to the places from which uranium had been mined: northern Canada, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Determined to heal the wounds left by extractive industry and policy, MPWR raised seed capital to begin construction on small local reactors in former mining towns. These reactors provided communities–often with histories of colonization, war, and neglect–with jobs, energy, and resources that could be shared as they saw fit. In 2086, after three such projects, MPRW took on its greatest challenge yet: fueling innovation on the moon.

“MPRW Luna strives to prove once and for all that peace IS prosperity,” says Browder. “Our wildest dreams are only possible when we let go of our deepest fears.”

Copyright © 2024, Madeline Ashby. This work is made available under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

Artist Statement

When I first heard about the Megatons to Megawatts program, I couldn’t believe that someone had actually tried an idea that occurs to everyday people roughly…every day. I was fascinated by the simplicity of the concept, and the complexity of actualizing it in reality. When I thought about resurrecting it, I realized it needed something inspirational, something that would make people pay attention and remember the “big country does big things for big reasons” model, akin to what Neal Stephenson calls a Hieroglyph. And so, I did what I thought would get the generations holding power today excited: I put the story on the Moon.

About Madeline Ashby

Madeline Ashby graduated from the first cohort of the master’s programme in strategic foresight and innovation at OCADU in 2011. It was her second master’s degree. (Her first, in interdisciplinary studies, focused on cyborg theory, fan culture, and Japanese animation!) Since 2011, she has been a freelance consulting futurist specializing in scenario development and science fiction prototypes. She is also the author of the Machine Dynasty series from Angry Robot books, and Glass Houses and Company Town from Tor Books, and a contributor to How To Future: Leading and Sense-making in an Age of Hyperchange, with Scott Smith. She is a member of the AI Policy Futures Group at the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination, and the XPRIZE Sci-Fi Advisory Council. Her work has appeared in BoingBoing, Slate, MIT Technology Review, WIRED, The Atlantic, and elsewhere.

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