Nuclear fusion will change energy forever

It appears that American scientists have managed to produce a nuclear fusion reaction that produces a net energy gain

Inside the facility where scientists claim to have made the breakthrough. AP
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Former American president Ronald Reagan used a simple image to make the case for investing in nuclear power: "All the waste in a year from a nuclear power plant can be stored under a desk."

Admittedly, it would need to be a large desk. According to the World Nuclear Association, electricity generated from a typical 1,000-megawatt nuclear power station – that size typically supplies the needs of more than a million people – produces only three cubic metres of high-level waste a year. A 1,000-megawatt coal-fired station produces more than 6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

But, for an industry so productive and reliable, which also creates many high-quality jobs, the proponents of nuclear energy have always come up against strong opposition. Accidents such as those at the Chernobyl and Fukushima plants are world famous. And it is true that nuclear waste from energy production poses a manageable but still notable challenge. It takes about 50 years of storage before the highest-level waste associated with power stations is safe to dispose of. But the plants of today are nonetheless so secure that the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency describes them as "among the safest and most secure facilities in the world".

And historic news this week means that giving up on nuclear energy now would squander even more potential. It appears that researchers at the Energy Department's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the US have produced for the first time a nuclear fusion reaction that makes a net energy gain. Tests usually require huge amounts of power.

In terms of the science, fusion happens when two atoms fuse, which releases huge amounts of energy and no waste. Fission, the current process used in generating nuclear energy, creates power by splitting atoms, which also creates radioactive waste.

If the former becomes an option, it means the world might be on its way to creating carbon-free electricity on a mass, renewable and reliable scale. Achieving waste-free nuclear energy could be one of the most important moments in the transition to green energy.

It could also come with interesting economic consequences. So much of today's instability in energy prices comes down to intra-state dynamics, whether it be international sanctions on key producers or delays in the supply chain. Renewable technologies could eliminate some of these challenges by giving countries the opportunity to do more of their energy production at home, creating sophisticated industries and cutting the environmental effects of transporting energy from abroad. Shipping, a key form of transportation in the oil industry, accounts for 3 per cent of carbon emissions, for example.

But it would take many years and a great deal of investment to develop these technologies and the domestic industries that would use them. In the meantime, particularly in today's geopolitical and economic situation, the world needs stable energy supplies.

That is why hydrocarbons are crucial. They remain by far the biggest source of the world's energy. accounting for 80 per cent of consumption. While they might still produce emissions, investment in new technology will lead to improvements on decarbonisation. That would mean greatly reducing their harm in the short to medium term, while waiting for viable renewable forms of energy, and now potentially sources from nuclear fusion.

If this week is the moment such a journey begins, science might be witnessing one of its most important moments in the 21st century, perhaps of all time.

Published: December 13, 2022, 6:00 PM