Nuclear fusion has been a science-fiction fantasy for a long time, the holy grail of energy production. But it’s rapidly moving closer to reality.
The process involves combining multiple atomic nuclei to generate energy, just as the sun does. That’s the opposite of nuclear fission, in which atoms are split.
Canadian and British innovators are bringing this incredible technology to life and, by doing so, could unite warring climate alarmist and climate skeptic factions.
Fusion energy production requires less fuel than fission and that fuel is inexpensive. It’s a long-term and sustainable source of energy, and the nuclear waste seen with typical nuclear fission plants isn’t replicated with fusion plants.
This technology presents an opportunity to finally stop building wind turbines on every natural beauty spot and solar panels in countries that simply don’t see that much sun.
And it could offer welcome relief from the international climate alarmism and extremism of Extinction Rebellion.
Nuclear fission now produces around 10 per cent of global energy. According to EUROfusion, a group of research bodies in European Union states, fusion reaction plants could provide roughly another 10 per cent of the world’s energy needs. In time, that figure could dramatically increase.
After decades of experimentation, including breakthroughs in 2014 that saw scientists generate more energy than they used to create the reaction, researchers believe the technology is ready for prime time.
This summer, scientists in Los Angeles revealed how lasers as large as three football fields were used to generate huge amounts of energy from nuclear fusion reactions. Some 200 laser beams were focused onto one spot to create a burst of energy eight times larger than any experiment in the past.
The United Kingdom – newly independent from the European Union – and Canada are leading the way in adopting fusion and preparing for this energy source of the future.
The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) called for proposals for new sites for a prototype fusion plant in December 2020, and Oxfordshire was selected this year. The plant will be used to prove the viability of a project by Canadian energy company General Fusion.
The plant and companion campus is expected to be completed in 2025 at a cost estimated at US$400 million. It’s a large investment but significantly less than the €20-billion ITER project that’s many years behind schedule.
Canadian innovators plan to use mechanical pressure to contain the gigantic amount of heat and plasma generated during the fusion process, rather than the huge electromagnets other plants will likely experiment with. Mechanical pistons will squeeze the fuel on all sides, creating intense pressure that generates heat.
It could be a huge economic boost for the United Kingdom and Canada. Not only are nuclear fusion experiments creating jobs – with research centres in 26 countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Korea and Japan – but these power stations offer opportunities long into the future.
Well beyond the possibility of uniting climate skeptics and green activists around energy efficiency, nuclear fusion power stations could generate thousands and even millions of jobs globally – from the management and maintenance of these plants to fuel and waste logistics and the manufacturing of the plants themselves.
It’s the kind of win-win scenario the world needs and another great example of how an independent Britain can co-operate well with Canada. It’s greener, cheaper, more efficient and could generate a huge number of jobs. Those are goals that climate alarmists and skeptics can surely unite behind as the world shifts away from fossil fuels to ‘green’ technology that so evidently isn’t ready.
However, the possibility that nuclear fusion technology can unite factions in government, politics and society depends on whether green activists are genuinely willing to concede that solar and wind power just aren’t ready for prime time and that nuclear technology – even with its historical baggage – is the right solution.
Rejection of such potential by politicians or activists who influence the politicians could boil down to green activists’ desire to perpetually protest.
Jack Buckby is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.