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Nuclear Power and the Promise of Fusion

For many of us, the concept of nuclear power can sound a bit scary. We hear the word ‘nuclear’ and images of mushroom clouds, Chernobyl or other more recent disasters spring to mind. And it’s not a completely irrational response – when thing go wrong with nuclear, they go very wrong. But it got me wondering – might we take a more rounded view of the pros, cons and untapped potential of nuclear power if we had a better understanding of how it works?

We set ourselves the challenge of demystifying nuclear power and exploring its future potential in five minutes. Here's the result:

This all feels particularly relevant now, especially for those of us in the UK. Back in the summer, the UK government approved the building of Sizewell C – a new £20 billion nuclear plant in Suffolk. It could be followed by a further seven new nuclear plants. Along with Hinkley Point C - currently under construction in Somerset - these would be the UK’s first new plants in over 20 years. The Government clearly sees a big future for nuclear power as we wean ourselves off fossil fuels.

It’s almost like we’ve raced off in a DeLorean to the 1950s. Back then, nuclear was being hailed as our ticket to an idyllic future and even Walt Disney was celebrating “Our Friend the Atom”. But of course, quite a bit has changed in the intervening 70 years. The Sizewell C plans were met with significant local opposition and – for all the positives of nuclear – there are very legitimate concerns to be addressed. Chief among these is the radioactive waste left behind – a toxic legacy which needs to be buried away for thousands of years after plants have been decommissioned. This can be fraught with difficulty, and comes with its own risks.

As we explain in the video, this significant downside is a by-product of the atom-splitting process used in nuclear power plants called fission. But what if there was another way to generate electricity from our friend the atom?

"Fission isn’t the only source of nuclear power. Another is fusion: forcing lighter atoms together to make heavier ones."

On 8th August 2021, an experiment in California replicated the process that powers our sun – fusion power – here on Earth.

Three peer-reviewed papers, published 12 months later, confirmed that the experiment was the first ever to achieve ignition – the breakthrough required to prove that controlled nuclear fusion is achievable. The potential implications could be huge.

The brilliantly named Dr Omar Hurricane is chief scientist at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where the experiment took place. Putting the findings into perspective, he said: “We’re operating in a regime that no researchers have accessed since the end of nuclear testing.”

Experiments closer to home are getting closer to similar breakthroughs, with scientists in Oxfordshire setting new records for the amount of energy released in a controlled fusion reaction.

A cartoon image depicting a power plant connected to wind turbines and solar panels.

The attraction of fusion power is easy to see. It produces energy with none of the greenhouse gas emissions of coal and none of the long-lasting radioactive waste produced by nuclear fission. What’s more, its extraordinary power means it is incredibly efficient, giving it an advantage over wind and solar plants. It is estimated that just 1kg of fusion fuel would produce as much energy as 10 million kg of coal, oil or gas. One practical implication of this is that the fusion power plants of the future would only need to be a fraction of the size of coal, fission or renewable-driven equivalents to meet our energy needs.

And if that wasn’t enough of a reason to get excited by fusion, here’s another thing - it’s probably the only feasible way to power our exploration of outer space beyond the immediate vicinity of earth.

“The snag is, it’s unclear how soon it’ll be viable...”

If the promise of a near-infinite supply of carbon-free electricity sounds too good to be true, that’s probably because it is – at least for now. Scientists have spent the past seven decades experimenting with fusion power.

While these recent breakthroughs are encouraging, there are still some sizable obstacles to overcome.

The breakthrough at NIF in California was hugely significant because it proved for the first time that it is actually possible to harness fusion power to create energy in practice – not just in theory. However, the team at NIF are yet to repeat their success achieving ignition in subsequent experiments. Further still, scientists are still trying to achieve the crucial milestone of generating more energy from these experiments than they have to put in. The energy output of the successful ignition at NIF was about 72% of the amount of energy put in by the lasers that powered it. We would need to see fusion generating an output of more than 100 times the energy required for ignition before it becomes feasible to start building fusion power plants.

Another challenge is the availability of resources needed to power fusion. It is fuelled by deuterium - which can be found in seawater - and tritium, which is much harder to come by. Naturally occurring tritium is extremely rare with estimates suggesting there is less than 10kg in total on Earth.

Thankfully, neither of these obstacles are thought to be insurmountable. Tritium can be produced using the much easier-to-come-by element lithium – which is widely used everywhere from medicines to batteries. And with ever more promising results being generated from experiments, reaching that crucial milestone of reliable energy production is surely now only a matter of time.

Leading scientist Greg De Temmerman believes that, at the current rate of progress, we may only be on track for nuclear fusion to producing 1% of global energy demand by 2060. Others, including an emerging industry of nuclear-fusion firms, are far more optimistic and believe we could see an energy revolution within the next decade.

As the author and fusion enthusiast Arthur Turrell notes, a worldwide pandemic provided the impetus and investment needed to take the concept of mRNA vaccines from a wild idea to a practical and world-changing reality. Might the climate emergency do the same for fusion power?

Recommended further reading

  • Nuclear power is not the answer in a time of climate change (aeon): On the other side of the argument, there are distinguished academics who believe that focusing on nuclear is a distraction from greater, cheaper and more immediate gains that could be made by investing in renewable energy instead. “Every dollar spent on nuclear results in one-fifth the energy one would gain with wind or solar [at the same cost], and nuclear energy takes five to 17 years longer before it becomes available. As such, it is impossible for nuclear to help with climate goals of reducing 80 per cent of emissions by 2030.”

  • Nuclear fusion: how excited should we be? (The Conversation): Leading academics Paul Norman and Lee Packer set out why a fusion power breakthrough could be so transformational. “Fusion produces more energy per gram of fuel than any other process that could be achieved on Earth.”

  • The race to give nuclear fusion a role in the climate emergency (The Observer): Arthur Turrell, author of The Star Builders: Nuclear Fusion and the Race to Power the Planet, gives a fascinating account of what needs to happen next if we are to harness fusion power. “Whether commercial fusion energy is ready in time to help with global warming or not depends on us as a society and how badly we want – no, need – star power on our side.”

  • This Twitter Spaces conversation about the energy crisis from Palisades Gold Radio is well worth a listen. I found it quite eye-opening the extent to which our economy is based on energy and how the challenges holding back nuclear project are similar to those related to software development in large projects - a theme we’ve explored in previous iluli videos like the Mythical Man Month explainer. “Until the public has worse problems to deal with than how their energy feels to them in terms of vibes then we’re going to have political constraints on nuclear because they are large complicated projects which require long commitments that can be interrupted by political opposition or new governments coming in and breaking commitments.”

  • Walt Disney’s 1957 film Our Friend the Atom:


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