Nuclear fusion energy is a clean, efficient, powerful, and bountiful source of electricity that will revolutionize the world. But you might not have known that—you might have been told that it’s dangerous, it’s wasteful, it’s unnecessary, and worst of all, it’s an impossible pipe dream. But fusion is far from impossible. The whole world receives energy from nuclear fusion every day from our sun, and we’re closer to bringing it down to Earth than ever before.
Nuclear fusion, the same physical process that powers our sun, is the ultimate way to generate electricity. It’s a safe source of energy with a bountiful fuel source that produces no greenhouse gas pollutants. With our current climate crisis and the increasing negative effects of our reliance on fossil fuels, human civilization needs fusion now more than ever. Fortunately, fusion energy is closer to becoming a reality than ever before thanks to the hard work of innovators in the nuclear industry.
But fusion continues to be plagued by misunderstandings regarding its benefits and feasibility. Many misconceptions about nuclear fusion have been perpetuated by pop culture, those who don’t want it to fulfill its promise, and a lack of understanding of the differences between nuclear fusion and nuclear fission. It’s long past time to set the record straight by correcting some of these most pernicious myths about nuclear fusion.
Fusion Myth No. 5: Nuclear fusion and fission are the same thing
The key difference between nuclear fusion and fission is all in the name. Fission is about breaking atoms apart; fusion, on the other hand, is about joining atoms together. Nuclear fusion and fission are physical processes that occur on the atomic level when atoms are either split apart into smaller elements or joined together to form larger elements. In both processes, energy is produced, and we can harness that energy and turn it into electricity.
In nuclear fission, heavy elements such as uranium and plutonium are bombarded with high-energy neutron radiation. As a result, they become unstable and break apart into smaller elements such as barium, krypton, and a smorgasbord of other assorted isotopes. The fission process also expels extra radiation and energy that can be used to boil water, drive steam turbines, and produce electricity. That’s right—nuclear fission is basically steam power with extra steps! Most forms of power, in fact, are steam power with extra steps—which is why it’s more feasible than you might expect to convert a coal power plant into a nuclear plant.
Nuclear fusion is the opposite of nuclear fission. Instead of breaking atoms apart into smaller atoms, a fusion reaction involves light atoms like hydrogen being smashed into each other at such high speeds that they stick to each other and form newer, heavier elements such as helium. The fusion process produces energy that can be harnessed to produce electricity. The sun, for example, is a giant natural fusion reactor that is constantly shoving hydrogen atoms together to form helium, producing massive amounts of heat and light and solar radiation in the fusion process.
Fusion Myth No. 4: Nuclear fusion is not safe
The last half of the twentieth century ingrained the dangers of nuclear power in our collective minds. Everybody knows what happens when fission reactors go bad. We have historical events such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima to look to, as well as a plethora of nuclear disaster tropes in fiction that have followed in their wake. But these very disasters have helped the nuclear industry make nuclear power even safer. Safety has become the primary concern of matters involving the use, transportation, and storage of radioactive material.
However, fission is still dogged by this dark past, and to an extent, this negative reputation enshrined in history and pop culture has carried over to nuclear fusion as well. Today, a nuclear meltdown practically requires an act of god as an inciting factor. You wouldn’t know it, though, looking at popular media where anything so much as resembling a nuclear reactor, fission or fusion, is just moments away from disaster and with a single mis-pressed button Homer Simpson can turn a nuclear power plant into an atomic bomb.
Fusion is even safer, in fact, than fission. Unlike nuclear fission, a fusion reaction is not a chain reaction, removing the concern of runaway reactivity and the need for passive negative feedback in a reactor to limit the reaction. There is nothing that can grow out of control like a snowball rolling down a hill. On top of that, full-scale fusion power plants’ reactors would deal with much lighter and much more benign materials than a fission reactor does. Fission uses and produces radioactive materials that can remain radioactive and dangerous for tens of thousands of years or more. However, the proposed fusion fuel sources use and produce materials that are less radioactive and decay much more quickly.
No form of energy production is perfectly safe. The risks of nuclear meltdowns and of nuclear material leaching into the surrounding environment are quite low today, precisely because history has shown how seriously nuclear power should be taken and how much effort we must put into maintaining a safe environment. Accidents and disasters in the past have given us the most powerful tool of all—experience—for making nuclear power safe. And the most effective way to make nuclear power safe is to make it fusion.
But with all that said, nuclear fusion isn’t actually just a potential source of electricity. Today, nuclear fusion already makes our lives better in a different way. In fact, it can be used to save them! We use nuclear fusion to produce medical radioisotopes critical for diagnosing heart disease, and both detecting and treating some forms of cancer. What’s more, our fusion-driven isotope production process recycles uranium from decommissioned nuclear systems, helping to rid the world of nuclear waste!
Fusion Myth No. 3: Solar and wind energy are better than a fusion power plant
For decades, nuclear energy as a whole, fission and fusion, has been ignored as a carbon-neutral and greenhouse gas-free energy solution compared to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind energy. A common refrain among doubters of nuclear fusion energy has been, “If we have renewable energy, why do we need fusion?” However, nuclear power is needed for a green energy infrastructure capable of meeting the world’s electricity needs without damaging the environment through greenhouse gas emissions. In particular, green energy needs nuclear fusion.
Solar and wind energy are useful and important renewable energy sources, but unlike nuclear energy, they are limited by their environment. Solar panels can only generate electricity when sunlight is available, and wind turbines can only generate electricity when there is sufficient wind; these sources must store electricity in batteries to make up for the inherent downtime in their production methods. Likewise, hydroelectric energy can only be gathered from sites with significant water flow. The advantage nuclear energy has over these renewable energy sources is that it can produce electricity just about anywhere and at any time, wherever you can build a reactor.
Like renewable energy, nuclear fusion energy does not directly produce greenhouse gases. Fusion also produces only low-level nuclear waste, if any. This makes it perfect for an environmentally conscious energy solution. Like renewable energy, fusion reactions also use a plentiful fuel source. Solar panels have the sun, wind turbines have the air, hydroelectric dams have rivers; likewise, fusion has the sea. One front-runner candidate for fusion reactor fuel is the combination of deuterium and tritium, two isotopes of hydrogen. Deuterium is extremely plentiful in our oceans. In fact, a single spoonful of seawater has so much deuterium in it that it can provide as much energy as a barrel of oil—it’s simply a matter of properly extracting that energy. Other proposed forms of fuel for fusion power include hydrogen and boron and other enablers of aneutronic fusion.
Fusion Myth No. 2: A nuclear fusion reactor will create too much waste
Nuclear energy in general has a reputation for creating waste in the form of dangerous radioactive byproducts. Fission waste consists of a wide variety of radioactive materials with half-lives on the scale of up to hundreds of thousands of years. These materials, considered high-level waste, must be carefully handled and stored until they decay. However, a nuclear fusion reaction, unlike fission, produces no highly radioactive byproducts. Rather, proposed fusion reactor designs produce low-level radioactive material (if any at all).
In fact, it might surprise you to find out that fission energy alone produces surprisingly little waste—if all the United States’ electricity came from nuclear fission, for example, we would generate only 39.5 grams of nuclear waste per person per year, less than the weight of two AA batteries, which is nothing compared to the pollution output of coal and oil—pollution which unlike nuclear waste does not decay over time.
The reason why this number is so low is because far more nuclear waste is recycled in some way or another—in France, for example, radioactive residue from uranium and plutonium extraction is made into harmless glass in a process called vitrification—and nuclear fusion technology not only produces even less waste, but can be used to remove highly radioactive waste produced by fission from the world.
By volume, nuclear fusion power plants would actually involve more waste byproducts than a fission reactor. However, low-level nuclear waste is shorter-lived, less harmful to health, and easier to store and handle since it decays on a far less geologic timescale. While many investigations into fusion energy are working with deuterium and tritium, many other fusion fuel sources are being looked into as well, and advanced fuel cycles may eliminate the majority of any waste a fusion reactor produces altogether.
Fossil fuel sources, on the other hand, produce far, far more waste than either fission or fusion—and unlike low or high-level nuclear waste, carbon lasts forever. In fact, burning coal releases more radioactive waste into our environment than nuclear fission does, in addition to the damage it causes otherwise!
Nuclear fusion technology could also be used not only to develop nuclear fusion power plants for energy production, but also to transform the radioactive waste products from fission reactors into less harmful and easier-to-store materials, or even useful materials such as medical radioisotopes. This is done through a process called nuclear waste transmutation. Nuclear fusion reactions don’t just produce energy—they also produce neutron radiation, and through the natural phenomenon of neutron activation, this can be used to transmute highly radioactive waste into safer materials, much like the ancient myth of alchemists being able to turn lead into gold.
By carefully controlling a complex series of neutron activation processes, a fusion reactor could take nuclear waste that would have remained highly radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years and transmute it into material that will only remain radioactive on a scale of a hundred years. This nuclear waste transmutation process may not only make waste easier to store, but could also recycle this waste into useful isotopes.
Fusion Myth No. 1: Fusion energy is 30 years away
The common refrain of nuclear fusion’s proponents and critics alike has been: “Nuclear fusion energy is thirty years away.” Fusion reactions were first discovered in the 1930s almost 90 years ago, soon after the discovery of the neutron by James Chadwick in 1932. Work has been ongoing to produce fusion energy since after the end of World War II, when atomic scientists first developed reactor designs such as the tokamak. However long we’ve worked on achieving it, fusion energy has seemed to be perpetually just around the corner, making it seem to critics as little more than a pipe dream.
Phoenix Nuclear Labs Greg Pieffer Sept. 15, 2010
(Photo @ Andy Manis)
This misconception of fusion energy as a dead end for nuclear research is mainly a result of funding. Since the 1950s, funding for fusion research by governments and private entities has followed a “boom-and-bust” model, with gluts of funding initially spurring research and subsequently drying up, stalling and hampering fusion research projects. Funding initiatives have failed time and time again to provide enough financial capital to meet the unique challenges of replicating the sun’s power on Earth. However, that is changing lately with a renewed sense of urgency in finding powerful and environmentally sound energy sources breathing new life into the fusion community.
Fusion reactions have been achieved in laboratory settings as far back as 1997, but these reactions have required more energy to induce and maintain than they have generated—in other words, they are net-negative. A net-positive fusion reaction—fusion devices that produce more electricity than it takes to get the reaction going—is closer than ever, though. The growth of new startups looking into fusion technology and public-private partnerships akin to the NASA and SpaceX collaboration are bringing new sources of funding, new blood, and new diverse, innovative ways of thinking into the fusion community. The conditions are finally right for net-positive fusion energy to be attained sooner rather than later.
Fusion energy is the most valuable technology we can develop in the coming decades, promising a bright future of abundant, low-pollution energy. SHINE has developed a four-phase pathway to realize this long sought-after technology. By developing fusion technology to address today’s problems, we’re making the technological breakthroughs that will realize the awesome potential of nuclear fusion energy production to power our world, clean up our planet, and even propel us to the stars.
Learn more about SHINE’s vision and the path we’re taking toward the fusion-driven future: