Nuclear energy is a renewable resource that, unlike wind and solar, is not dependent upon the weather. So why is nuclear so little used, and so much maligned?
Michael Shellenberger, cofounder of Breakthrough Institute and one of Time’s “heroes of the environment,” notes that the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima proved the relative SAFETY – not relative danger – of nuclear energy. No one died from radiation releases from TMI or Fukushima, and even dirty Chernobyl has been blamed for fewer than 50 lives after 30 years.
Shellenberger’s explanation: “Instead of encouraging the public to stay calm and carry on, governments freaked out.”
Meanwhile, new generations of nuclear FISSION reactors are even safer and more versatile than their older counterparts (no surprise, given that modern automobiles are too). Yet the true promise of nuclear energy may well be nuclear FUSION.
The British-based company General Fusion touts nuclear fusion as having the unique capability to provide utility-scale energy on-demand wherever it is needed, making it an excellent complement for intermittent renewables and battery storage. Combined, the company boasts, “These technologies make for a practical energy portfolio that mitigates climate change while driving economic prosperity.”
General Fusion further explains that the technology, once harnessed, offers multiple advantages over existing energy sources, even renewables. First, it is inherently safe, as it produces zero greenhouse gas emissions (emitting only helium as exhaust – and the helium can be recycled). Moreover, there is zero possibility of a meltdown scenario or of long-lived radioactive waste.
Fusion, says the company, can produce energy on-demand and is not affected by weather. Fusion reactors require a fraction of the land needed for other renewable technologies and can be sited near population centers and tied into the existing power grid. Best of all, there is enough fusion fuel – deuterium and tritium, isotopes that can be extracted from seawater and derived from lithium – to power the Earth for hundreds of millions of years.
Indeed, the promises are so great and the challenges even greater – but are we actually on the threshold of ending energy poverty? Well, maybe.
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) consortium – whose members include China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States – for the past 35 years has been working to build and operate an experimental device that will bring fusion to the point where a demonstration fusion reactor can be designed.
The focus is on a tokamak, a magnetic fusion device that has been designed to prove the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free source of energy based on the same principle that powers our Sun and stars.
But as recently as 2012, Geoff Brumhiel, a senior editor and correspondent on NPR’s science desk, described the woes of the ITER, which was already under construction in Cadarche, France, in an article in Scientific American. His pessimistic outlook on the prospects for nuclear fusion led biochemistry professor William Reville of the Union of Concerned Scientists to proclaim that fusion – while promising cheap, clean, and virtually unlimited energy – was “still a pipe dream.”
But, as David Szondy reported in New Atlas (fka GizMag), China’s Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak in 2016 maintained superheated plasma for a record 102 seconds, then in 2018 hit internal temperatures of 100 million degrees C and a heating power of 10 MW. Achieving temperatures in excess of 100 million degrees Celsius – even if only for around 10 seconds – proves that it is possible to reach the temperatures required for nuclear fusion.
And in May 2017, the UK’s Tokamak Energy announced that its ST40 fusion reactor had already managed to achieve ‘first plasma’ – successfully generating “a scorching blob of electrically charged gas (or plasma)” within its core at temperatures of 15 million degrees C.
This led an ecstatic CEO David Kingham to state that, “Today is an important day for fusion energy development in the UK and the world. We are unveiling the first world-class controlled fusion device to have been designed, built, and operated by a private venture. This will allow fusion power to be achieved in years, not decades.”
Last November, Nick Lavars reported in New Atlas that, “The structure that will house one of the largest and most ambitious energy experiments in history is now complete.” Lavars added. “Nine years in the making, the facility is built to host the type of super-hot, high-speed reactions that take place inside the Sun, and hopefully advance our decades-long pursuit of clean and inexhaustible nuclear fusion energy.”
ITER intends to host streams of plasma 10 times thicker than the largest tokamak in action today and to achieve 500 megawatts of output. Compare that with the 16 MW record output achieved in 1997 by the UK’s Joint European Torus tokamak.
Just days later, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory discovered that injecting insulating boron and boron nitride particulates (rather than hydrogen-containing diborane gas) into the plasma can aid in keeping the plasma free of impurities that reduce the efficiency of the reactions that produce heat that generates electricity. Initial results improved energy confinement by 10 to 20 percent while improving safety.
Caroline Delbert, writing in Popular Mechanics, says this discovery could “rescue” nuclear fusion. As she explains, plasma is volatile, and particles that escape the superheated plasma stream can leach tungsten out of the tokamak walls into the plasma, cooling the plasma particles and stopping or slowing the fusion reactions. Lead scientist Dr. Robert Lunsford said in a Princeton press release, “This is one way to get to a steady-state fusion machine.” In other words, says Delbert, this is a step toward the energy holy grail.
Does this suggest that once fusion is harnessed, the world will collaborate to provide cheap, reliable, and safe energy to all its people? We will have to wait and see, but while fission – the splitting of atoms – reminds us we are a divided humanity, fusion – the fusing of atoms – holds forth the promise of a world in harmony and full of blessings.
Nuclear fusion: Pipe dream or tomorrow’s clean energy?