My Nuclear Fantasy

ITER: the world’s largest Tokamak (courtesy ITER
Tyler Shewbert

I have been a proponent of nuclear power, both fission and fusion, since I was very young. I became fascinated with nuclear energy’s potential around age nine when I began to read about physics. Science fiction was the medium that peaked my interest in these subjects. My parents came of age in the 1950s and 60s, and therefore had a mixed view of nuclear energy. They had their concerns as many people did, and still do, about its potential. However, they always allowed me to explore topics independently and develop my own opinions. Within a few years, after reading many of the arguments for and against the use of fission power, my mind was set that this was the energy source that could change human civilization. I accepted that the technical problems with breakeven fusion energy might make it unattainable, but as an optimist I hoped that it would be successful, and that it could revolutionize the world.

Through my teen years and early twenties this idea cemented, but was rarely discussed. I diverged into other interests and rarely looked again at nuclear energy. In the background of my mind, the necessity of providing many terawatt hours of power for the planet’s energy needs was always there, and eventually in my later twenties this brought me back to nuclear energy.

After Fukushima, the growth that the nuclear energy sector had been seeing globally slowed dramatically. This disappointed me. I thought that opinions beginning to swing back in favor of nuclear energy were permanent. It only took one incident to drastically alter those opinions. Plants were shut down in Japan, Germany and many other countries. The anti-nuclear movement caught its breath again against the rising tide of pro-nuclear environmentalists. Once again, my nuclear fantasy was put on hold.

I have envisioned a world where by using nuclear energy air pollution is greatly reduced. Without the need for fossil fuels for energy sources, the air would begin to clear. Nuclear sources mixed in with solar, wind, hydro and other sources would create an energy boom that would lift the developing world out of poverty. As the air cleared, and poverty was reduced, the Earth would become a calmer place.

I know this is a fantasy. Fission produces waste. This can be dealt with somewhat, and as new technologies such as the Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor develop, the waste issue can be dealt with even more effectively. The cost of environmental damage from a meltdown can be catastrophic to a nation. These are rare but with each new reactor the probability of an incident would increase. The most significant risk in developing nuclear energy infrastructure is the chance it will be used to develop weapons. The economics of fission energy are not practical for developing nations.

I will still defend fission. I have come to terms with its downsides and understand that these are problems which can either be solved or mitigated. I know that it is necessary to include fission energy in the energy mix to reduce climate change. It is immoral to ask the people in developing countries to not to use energy on the scale the developed countries do. To be able to provide billions of people with carbon free energy will allow economies to grow, people to come out of poverty and live richer lives. To do this nuclear energy must grow.

Fusion is another topic all together. It is always called the technology that is “twenty years away”. However, there is good news coming out of the organizations researching fusion. If we achieve the coveted breakeven power production, it will still take time to make fusion energy production economical, particularly for the impoverished nations around the world which are in dire need of energy. Yet this is a goal that is worth striving for and I will gladly spend my lifetime working towards it to pass the baton to the next generation which might finally usher in the era of fusion power. With that, I believe everything will change.

This is mostly speculative. I know there is no magic bullet to solving the world’s energy and climate issues. It will take a mixture of solutions and international cooperation that has not been seen in human history. These are the great tasks for the next hundred years. With a damaged climate, civilization will rip apart. Without developing nations providing energy to their populations, global inequality in incomes and standard of livings will tear the world apart. I am an optimist though. I know that humanity is both capable of great terror and beautiful progress, but history seems to tell us the progress typically wins out over the terror. I can only play my role in helping to find solutions to the problems.


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