Ours is an energy-hungry planet, that also happens to be on the brink of global climate disaster. How can we possibly avoid further deterioration of the planet without ignoring developing countries’ needs? Or even more ambitiously, ensure energy security, energy equity and environmental sustainability all at the same time on a global scale?
One promising solution proposed was nuclear energy: Nuclear Fission produces significantly lower rates of emission than fossil fuels, is highly efficient, and has a near-unlimited physical supply and is very domestic (1). For a while, the vision of a Nuclear powered world seemed bright, yet more than half a decade later, nuclear plants are shutting down. Despite the calls of the IAEA for more nuclear power (2), countries are dismantling their nuclear plants, for no other than safety and costs issues, though the number of plants in operation remains stable (3). Following the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011 and the increasing costs of maintaining nuclear plants, it is reasonable to be cautious and seek alternatives.
As public confidence in nuclear fission dissipates, nuclear fusion, a close cousin to the more dangerous fission process, gains more attention, even though the technology has produced little progress in more than 60 years. The current unsolved challenge for fusion is to produce a net positive energy output. ITER is currently seen as the most promising international joint venture, yet it has continually been plagued with setbacks and increasing costs from 5 billion to 16 billion + euros (4) – the US had to double its funding in 2018 to avoid missing a deadline and 45% of the funding still falls on the EU (5).
Increasing media attention has focused on the threat of Chinese fusion advancements, however, as it currently stands, this new “edge” is no more than a waiting game where the dominant strategy is to contribute as little as possible and once a viable technology is found, to snag it from ITER.
Even if fusion energy miraculously produces more energy than it costs to operate it, is it really a good energy source? There is first the economic viability to consider: its high construction and maintenance costs (6). Then, there is the threat of nuclear technology proliferation, and the increasing risk of nuclear terrorism (7). Third, though Uranium geographical supplies are near limitless, they still have to come from somewhere, and that somewhere also happens to be in countries like Kazakhstan with plenty of geopolitical instabilities (8).
There is however, an alternative proposed in hybrid nuclear energies (9). However, in the end, nuclear energy might end up always being just one more year expected till completion”, even if technologies deliver. Yet despite a rather pessimistic outlook for Nuclear, nuclear fission is going to stay with us just a while longer in countries with heavy reliance on energy imports seeking a smoother transition, such as the Gas-relying countries of the EU.