With the first operational power plant only a decade away, can nuclear fusion live up to its promise of green power?
Within the climate movement of recent years there is much debate about the way forward. Some have looked towards exciting technologies to change capitalism from a carbon-based economy to a Green one. One of the most notable is nuclear fusion, an idea that has attracted scientists and venture capitalists for decades. But what are nuclear fusion technologies?
Can it be an energy solution for the future? To understand what nuclear fusion is we need to have an idea of what happens in the sun. The sun is primarily Hydrogen (91.2 percent) and Helium (8.7 percent). In the extreme conditions at the centre of the sun — 15 million degrees Celsius and unbelievable pressures — heavy hydrogen and helium nuclei combine. As they do, phenomenal amounts of energy are released in the form of light and after travelling 150 million miles, it reflects off your copy of Socialist Review and into your eye.
Nuclear fusion reactors seek to recreate the cataclysmic conditions at the heart of the sun here on Earth. Nuclear fusion is different to nuclear fission, the reaction in current nuclear reactors. In fission, heavy nuclei are made to split into lighter by-products, releasing energy. Radiation from modern reactors’ waste takes tens of thousands of years to decay down to natural levels. This poses a danger to future generations who will be forced to take on the upkeep of these facilities. A worrying figure from the World Nuclear Association is that only 90 percent of nuclear waste is stored adequately. It is an indictment of nuclear firms’ callousness that enormous profits continue despite this. Governments happily allow this dangerous short term approach purely because it is cheaper. The dangers of nuclear disasters should not be understated.
The story of Chernobyl is a cautionary tale. Though the official death toll still sits at an unbelievable 31, mostly made up of engineers and managers at the plant, the real figure is somewhere over 25,000. Still, 34 years later, Pripyat, the city in Ukraine following the disaster, is uninhabitable and will continue this way for over 25,000 years. The critically acclaimed TV show Chernobyl highlighted the horrendous ways people were affected as a result of the nuclear meltdown. As socialists we must have a hard-line stance on the nuclear question. Fusion reactors, on the other hand, would be safer than fission reactors, but still come with many drawbacks.
For example, they would be better at producing weapons grade Plutonium. Nuclear fusion reactors would also still produce radioactive material. Due to high energy radiation from a nuclear fusion reactor, the casing would need to be replenished every century. Although it would be significantly lower than fission reactors waste materials would still be produced and take time to deplete. As well as this, in terms of fusion being an alternative energy source, a working fusion reactor is well over a decade away. A fusion reactor would look like a donut shaped device encasing a plasma at 150 million degrees Celsius. Keeping the plasma at this temperature means using the world’s strongest magnets to stop it touching its container, adding to its energy cost.
Though it seems in many ways a continuation of the nuclear project there are still important advantages to fusion reactors. In fusion, if the plasma touches the sides, the temperature drops and reactions cease immediately, preventing the risk of a catastrophic chain reaction. The fuel of a reactor is simply heavy water, breaking the need to mine precious elements such as Uranium. Currently globally around $2bn is invested in fusion, a relatively small amount compared to current fission nuclear power investment of $67M. The most ambitious project to run a fusion reactor is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). ITER is the next step on the path to a commercial reactor. It is funded collaboratively by seven powerful member states including the EU and the US, using public money.
Numerous private companies are bidding to run the first commercial fusion reactor. The danger of privatisating nuclear energy in this way are plain to see. Energy will be produced for profit, with all the attended dangers in terms of poor safety, poor regulation and profiteering. As with many other technological developments throughout the history of capitalism, fusion-driven energy represents a great opportunity for human society, if properly developed and democratically controlled. Any new fusion technologies should be in the hands of working people, allowing for the democratic ownership of production to ensure safe, clean energy.