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⚡ "Will Fusion Power Save Us?"

The Climate Minute

Photo by Jakob Madsen / Unsplash

Host: Ted McIntyre
Category: ⚡ Renewable Energy

Podcast’s Essential Bites:

[0:25] “We're well aware that we need a great deal of clean energy over the coming decades in order to transition society away from fossil fuel and over to sustainable energy sources […]. And because that is such […] an enormous challenge, we ought to be open to new technologies, new ideas, new ways of creating energy, as long as they satisfy the clean requirements that we have. […] That proposition has come up to be tested in a sense recently, because there's been a lot of talk about a technology [that] has returned to conversation in climate circles, a discussion of a way of generating energy that's called […] nuclear fusion.”

[1:55] “Nuclear fusion has popped up because there's a company spinning out of MIT based here in Massachusetts that got […] $1.8 billion of private equity funding to go out and build a fusion reactor with a prototype producing power through the fusion reaction in the year 2025. And the first practical prototypes and first practical production versions being released in the early 2030s.”

[3:24] “There are two major words when you're talking about nuclear power that you have to understand. One is nuclear fission […], where the heavy nuclei like uranium are split and by splitting that uranium atom in two, you release some energy and of course you also end up with radioactive waste. […] That's what your Hiroshima bomb was made out of. […] The other important word is nuclear fusion […]. And the idea of nuclear fusion is that you take two extremely light atoms, essentially two hydrogen, and you press them together with so much force that they […] realize they prefer to […] be close together and they give off some energy and fuse into one thing. […] Fusion is hard to do, because you have to […] take an awful lot of energy […] to push those two hydrogen atoms very, very close to each other, before you get to gain any energy.”

[5:15] “All of these guys from Commonwealth [Fusion Systems] have something called a high temperature superconducting magnet, which […] is another fancy term for essentially a big room sized magnet [that] makes a magnetic field. But it can generate that magnetic field with much lower costs, in terms of the amount of energy and the sophistication of the equipment […] which makes them think […] that they can make a practical fusion reactor in the near term.”

[6:00] “If everything goes swimmingly well and we're able to produce […] fusion reactors by the year 2033, […] it's still a little bit late to the climate party, because we have a deadline imposed by nature coming up in 2030. […] We'd like to have these fusion reactors before 2030, well distributed. It does not look like that's going to happen. But the question comes what value would a fusion reactor have, say in the year 2060? Essentially, the nuclear fusion industry […] is trying to make the case that they should receive a lot of funding to create these fusion power plants, which will help us at some point in the future to generate lots and lots of clean energy cheaply.”

[8:13] ”So where do these things fit into the climate picture? […] I would suggest that if you had practical fusion power, that would be a great way to provide what's called firm power. That is to say, we all know, wind and solar are subject to intermittency. […] But in the presence of lots and lots of fusion reactors, you wouldn't have so much need for this kind of battery backup power in the intermittency of the solar power would be less important because you baseload would all be carried by the fusion plants. […] Flipside, the fusion plants are going to look an awful lot like the nuclear plants, and I think it'd be very expensive, very centralized. They're going to be a source of objection from all the communities around them, because people just don't want them, probably in all likelihood.”

[10:20] “One of the important things that I worry about in building an industry around fusion power is that it's very centralized and very political. In other words, somebody is going to own that fusion power plant. It is not going to be owned by the neighborhood in the way the neighborhood can own a bunch of solar panels […]. The thing is this sort of centralized power requires enormous political machinations. […] I just don't trust that the people who own that power plant are not gonna try to make a financial advantage out of it. I think that the centralized power distribution is also sort of unreliable in the sense that if that goes out, we have big issues compared to heavy infiltration of solar and wind, which is less likely to take the whole system down, because one central point fell up.”

[11:22] “I think perhaps the biggest reason that I'm concerned about the idea of huge amounts of cheap, clean energy from a fusion powered future, […] [is] it allows us to persist in a fantasy that somehow we can live just the way we do now. Except our electricity is green. We can all live in our suburbs, make plastic, drive in and out of the cities in rush hour hell, we all have an EV, electricity is cheap, nothing really changes. I would suggest that that's not the future that we're headed towards.”

Rating: ⚡⚡⚡

🎙️ Full Episode: Apple | Spotify
🕰️ 15 min | 🗓️ 01/02/2022
✅ Time saved: 13 min

Additional Links:
The Massachusetts Climate Action Network
Article: “MIT-designed project achieves major advance toward fusion energy”