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Climate Collection: The Question of Fusion? Living in Future Tenses

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Opinion Piece

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This opinion piece takes from an essay titled “How do we Solve Climate Change?” submitted to King’s College London by the Author in 2023

In this opening piece for Global Weekly, I set out a line of argument that will span across a ‘Climate Collection’ - which aims to uncover and unearth climatic challenges in society (and the environment) at all scales. Perhaps it is with renewed interest after viewing ‘Oppenheimer’ that I revisit this issue of ‘nuclear politics’ with regards to climate and society - and yet, it stands out as a point of dramatic future change, a factor that is notably quiet amongst futurist talking points, now dominated by the possible impacts of Artificial Intelligence. This requires a way of thinking that combines the vision of the atomic scientist and the shrewdness of the global diplomatic strategist, a not-so-easy task.

To speak of the ‘Fusion Future’ is to enter a hybrid-space of both the ‘real’ and sci-fi. We still exist in the present reality of petrochemical hegemony - our everyday paths are pre-determined by the efficiency/availability of the combustion engine, ‘electrified’ public transport largely powered by the gas-fired plant, and the price of an oil barrel in dollars... or yuan.

Our world is changing. We must turn towards the future - a world dramatically altered through anthropogenic change - both in climate, and in technology that breaks, and remakes, the fundamental building blocks of our very being. The possibility of tomorrow’s fusion reality is no longer a whimsical thought of idealistic physicists; progress in the United States with laser fusion has produced greater output energy than input (which has recently been repeated - a key part of the process from scientific discovery to industrial implementation), and in the last few days Chinese research has produced an ‘artificial sun’ over one million amps in a high-confinement chamber.

Naturally, there is an issue with waiting for this ‘technological fix’ to solve energy, environment, and everything connected. We still live in high-carbon societies - and even with the initial implementation of a fusion reality, only certain states would have the technical and financial ability to build a fusion-powered plant. Even then, the science and practicalities behind a fusion reactor still make it a controversial concept, with the parasitic power drain (the input and maintenance energy versus useful output) at a ratio much higher than any conventional system, engineering and staffing considerations, and also the potential to create plutonium-239 as a by-product (at a weapons-grade quality) - but this depends on the type of the reactor.

Surely, however, such oppositions were mounted onto the fission reactor programmes - albeit naturally on a smaller scale. Indeed, there are now thirty-two countries that operate fission reactors, beginning in the 1950s, leaving us in a very different technological position than before. Fusion offers the chance to limit many of the drawbacks that come with fission power, with lower yields of by-products and the potential to create vast quantities of usable energy. To quantify the potential of this energy source using today’s knowledge and technology is similar to trying to extrapolate the usefulness of the modern Internet based on a 1992 computer - we have just started the process, yet we wade into the sea of discovery, an ever-increasing cone of possible futures reaching out from this event horizon.

On fission, the transformation from theory began with the Manhattan Project, forever changing history. Miniaturised nuclear reactors now power SSBNs in cutting-edge displays of energy technology, and yet ‘land-based’ fission reactors are either ageing, decommissioned or are increasingly opposed to as polluting relics of an ‘Atomic Age’. Will fusion change the tide? Petrochemical interests surely will seek to challenge such a move, and the increased use of fossil fuels, natural gas specifically, as ‘transition elements’ within Germany and other nations should worry Environmentalists worldwide.

Fusion therefore sits in all of the geopolitical ‘realms’ - national, international, and the third which I shall include which sits ‘in’ and ‘above’ the prior two scale-wise: climatic. At each level exists different challenges and opportunities. It would be unwise to not also consider

the labour factors of the energy sector in the national situation - the employment from fossil fuel industries generates key voter and lobbying strongholds (Texas, Alberta and Alaska for example). The creation of higher-paid jobs within the renewables/green sector has always been an argument for increased subsidies. Fusion would be similar - giving a greater effect than current fission.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists considers the necessity to ‘double’ to one thousand permanent staff to run a fusion reactor a negative attribute, versus the five hundred that a regular fission power plant requires (arguing that other power sources - hydro, gas, wind - demand less employment). Why should the creation of one thousand jobs (multiplied by however many stations) be negative? We live in an age where the move to a green energy future has been lobbied against by interests concerned about the loss of jobs (largely in the fossil fuel sector); the inevitable technological rise of AI will only further unemployment. However, if anything it will lower the amount of persons required to manage a fusion reactor. Fusion offers the chance for large infrastructure projects with well-paid construction jobs, and a larger staff pool required for maintenance - all whilst providing near-zero carbon emission (and ultra-low-cost) energy.

A major factor of fusion - the fuel source - has the ability to disrupt global trade and energy diplomacy. Deuterium/Tritium (H2/H3 for the chemists amongst the readers) are, as expressed, isotopes of Hydrogen - and when placed in a Tokamak-type reactor there is no risk of creating fissile materials. That said, international frameworks on nuclear non-proliferation, and the handling of nuclear issues in general through UN and bilateral agreements, could push back on certain nations pursuing a fusion reactor programme. A deuterium-deuterium reaction does have the ability to create Uranium and Plutonium isotopes, and Tritium is a rare material - the largest source being fission reactors.

Therefore, could fission reactors still be required as ‘nuclear factories’ to fuel fusion power plants? As with the automobile electrification movement - lithium is the material of key interest. The metal is required alongside Deuterium to continue the reaction once fusion is achieved inside a Tokamak reactor. Key suppliers of Lithium include Australia (49%) and Chile with a combined control of over 70% of the global market - with China as the third largest (USGS). If fusion, however in the ‘future tense’ it may be, becomes a dominant force in energy then this would disrupt the OPEC nations, alongside Russian gas exports, US and Canadian fossil fuels, and North Sea drilling amongst others - its geopolitical implications can therefore not be ignored.

At the risk of sounding a soothsayer for the new atomic age - capable of staring through the nuclear fire - unsteady predictions can be made as to who will ‘win’ the ‘Fusion Race’ using geopolitical intuition. Although it must be considered that there is an international research consortium on fusion as a power source, unlike the Space Race or ‘race to the bomb’ - yet the claim for global prestige and technological control is constantly pushing national interests. For the United States, whilst California’s innovation and technological edge may pip China to the post, there is the matter of big oil industrial lobbying and the political machinations that would hinder the launch of a successful commercial reactor. Europe as the home of the ITER project, the largest international Tokamak experiment, has diplomatic support, yet there is still the question of France and Germany phasing out their domestic nuclear power programmes.

Whilst Saudi Arabia and the UAE have recently put vast sums into fission research and implementation, one must still consider the wealth that oil has brought upon the OPEC nations - this is entrenched into the very economic fabric of the modern Middle East. The introduction of successful widely-implemented commercial fusion could tip the balance away from OPEC as a major power. Both South Korea and Japan are areas of high research output into fusion, although (both historic and recent) nuclear disasters in Japan are surely to delay more nuclear power in the country.

Therefore, with a continued look to the East, could it be China that drives forward in both technology and engineering? With the pronounced ability to build highways, railways, and new cities even - there is the infrastructural capacity to enable a fusion reactor construction programme. However, perhaps the trend to use up existing coal reserves and therefore be the only major economy to continue to construct coal power plants will disturb this. China, with its statist system and fierce economy, also tends towards the ability to spend on big public infrastructure, rather than requiring international investors (case-and-point necessary Chinese investment in UK Fission power), and thus would have the means to enact fusion power when it inevitably comes.

When fission power was brought into the world in unparalleled flame, Oppenheimer referred to himself as like Vishnu, ‘destroyer of worlds’; now instead Chinese researchers ‘create artificial suns’ that burn in controlled environments. We are on the cusp of utilising fusion - previously exclusively armed as a doomsday tool to annihilate our earthly reality - but as an opportunity to challenge the current economic and energy hegemony, providing vast amounts of clean, low-cost energy. A potential crucial element of fighting climate change, we just need it to hurry up.


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