Nuclear fusion can knock nuclear fission out of the water, literally. And not only nuclear-fission power, it could erase the need for fossil fuels and renewables. Why aren’t we hearing more about it? I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it might have something to do with fossil fuels and renewables being big business. Let’s not let business stand between us and nearly unlimited energy created with less waste and impact than even traditional nuclear power.
Something old, something new
The theory behind nuclear power is old. It begins in the 1700s with the discovery that matter can never be created or destroyed; it can only change form. In the 1800s, the same was discovered of energy. It cannot be created or destroyed, only change form. Then came Einstein and his E=mc2, which means, generally, that matter and energy are interchangeable. (Click to hear Einstein himself explain the theory.) It was then only a matter of time before the discovery that changing matter to energy created MUCH more energy than the other way around.
Nuclear fusion is the same process powering the sun. According to Merrium-Webster, it is the fusing of two atomic nuclei to form a heavier nuclei, resulting in the release of an enormous amount of energy. Its opposite of nuclear fission, which is widely used today. Fission is the process of splitting atoms. This splitting releases heat energy that is in turn used to heat water and ultimately to create electricity.
Sitcoms aren’t science
Contrary to popular belief, the nuclear reactors we use now create very little radioactive material. The rods needed for the process can be handled with gloves, and they can be used for five years. The nuclear waste that comes from a reactor isn’t the green sludge seen on The Simpsons. It’s used rods that are buried with little to no environmental impact, not unlike the burial of CO2 in the carbon capture process. Nuclear fusion, however, creates even less waste than this.
Renewable but finite
The amount of energy from nuclear reactions, either fusion or fission, is astronomical compared to the finite energy sources we have today. Renewable energy is limited by more than how many sunny or windy days there are. It is limited because it is based on the kinetic flows of matter in nature. Water, wind and solar have a cap on the amount of energy they are capable of producing; this is why they take up so much land. Hydro-power dams fill entire valleys with water. Wind is less substantial than water, so it eats up even more land. Solar power has the same problem as wind – lots of space is needed for creating small amounts of energy. Fossil fuels can create large amounts of energy, but the earth is said to hold a finite supply.
Nuclear fusion funding
In 1980, Congress passed the Magnetic Fusion Energy Engineering Act, and it was signed by President Carter. The goal was to have demo fusion reactors online by 1995, and functioning reactors providing energy to the grid by 2005. Mysteriously, it never received the funding it needed.
Hope for the future
There is hope. If you are like me, you never heard about the nuclear fusion reactor being built in the south of France. Thirty-three countries have come together to get it built. As of summer 2019, it was 65% complete. It has a target date of 2025 for being turned on. But don’t get too excited, according to a spokesperson for the project, it will take an additional ten years before the reactor is fully functioning. But, considering nuclear fusion’s ability to produce huge amounts of power from simple raw materials and its negligible impact on the environment, it is worth the wait to see the results of this experimental reactor.
Melissa Nichols is the author and illustrator of a children’s book to help parents and children dispel the fears causing widespread climate anxiety and depression. “Don’t Be Afraid of Climate Change” is available on Amazon. Click here to read more about it.