Sunday, August 31, 2008

Space Solar Power and Iran: a Wild Idea

Space solar power (SSP) could be the solution to our nuclear standoff with Iran. It's a long shot, but consider:

Iran is developing nuclear energy. Unfortunately, some of the hardest problems in developing nuclear weapons can be solved by a nuclear energy program, and there is suspicion that Iran is developing a nuclear bomb. Nuclear weapons would be useful for deterring an American attack and intimidating neighbors (1).

Attempts to convince Iran to abandon their nuclear program have thus far failed, with Iran claiming they need the electric power their program could produce. Accepting enriched fuel from Russia in place of domestic supplies was rejected; Iran pointing out that when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980 America refused to supply spare parts for the Iranian's U.S.-made weapons and they don't want to be dependent on a potentially fickle great power.

What if we agreed to supply Iran with space solar power (at a price of course)? Satellites could be turned over to Iranian control eliminating foreign dependence. SSP is fairly useless as a weapon, and certainly isn't a city killer (2). Developing SSP would put America in the energy production driver's seat and would probably be a lot cheaper than war with Iran (3).

There are a lot of ways to structure the deal: Iran could suspend nuclear work while SSP development was required to meet certain milestones, Iran could continue nuclear work and agree to remove the systems when SSP power became available, or something in between. Obviously, this is a bit on the wild side, but it does indicate the sort of benefits SSP could provide internationally by providing a safe alternative to large-scale emissionless power production.


(1) See Iran's Nuclear Program for an analysis of Iran's motives.

(2) Military lasers could be mounted on an SSP satellite but this would be a major project, is easy to detect, and could only attack relatively small targets. SSP satellites are very large, fragile, and travel in predictable orbits. Any major space power could attack them relatively easily.

(3) Depending on who you believe, the war in Iraq has cost between $500 billion and $1 trillion so far. Iran is much larger than Iraq, the terrain is much more rugged, the population is more than twice as large, and U.S. ground forces are relatively far weaker than when America invaded Iraq.

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