Nuclear fission vs. nuclear fusion

Nuclear energy seems to be simultaneously headed in opposite directions.  The nuclear fission energy industry appears intent on committing slow-suicide, while the nuclear fusion energy industry is striving to become one of the dominant energy sources for the future. 

What we currently think of as nuclear energy is nuclear fission energy, not nuclear fusion energy.  Since there is no operational nuclear fusion facility, all references to nuclear fission energy in this article will just be nuclear energy; nuclear fusion energy will be identified as such.

There are hundreds of operating nuclear energy facilities around the world, and a number of technically advanced countries generate a significant portion of their electricity from those nuclear facilities.

Large nuclear disasters have occurred at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and, most recently, Fukushima.  The Fukushima disaster has prompted several of the countries with nuclear energy facilities to place a moratorium on new nuclear energy facility construction and/or decide to slowly phase out nuclear energy. 

The U.S. has not yet done that, but the U.S. nuclear energy industry is one large accident away from death.  Public support for expanding nuclear energy is shaky at best, and any new nuclear facility construction faces increased government scrutiny and review.

A practical person might reasonably conclude the nuclear energy industry would be hyper-vigilant about safety, maintenance and repairs of existing facilities to absolutely minimize the possibility of another accident.  NOPE.  Despite operating in an environment where the next big accident will mean the end of the industry, the U.S. nuclear energy industry and the federal agency responsible for over-sight of the nuclear industry seem hell-bent on ensuring the next big accident will occur.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has repeatedly weakened or ignored safety standards to allow old nuclear energy facilities to continue to be operated.  The escalating erosion of safety standards creates an environment where the next nuclear accident becomes a near-certainty.

Unconcerned about safe-guarding the long-term viability of their industry, or perhaps realizing their industry has no real long-term viability, the nuclear energy companies are trying to maximize their short-term profits by squeezing the most they can from the aging, increasingly ill-maintained generating facilities.

Nuclear fusion energy is the stubbornly receding mirage of energy salvation.  It’s the promise of relatively clean, endless energy.  With nuclear fusion energy, there’s no chance of a meltdown and no waste from the fuel.  Tens of billions of dollars and decades of effort by some of the brightest people on the planet have failed to solve the staggeringly complex technological problems associated with nuclear fusion energy. 

However, nuclear fusion energy is the energy equivalent of the lottery.  The odds of success are very long, but the payoff is so huge they have to keep trying.  It is one of the 2 or 3 real game-changers for our energy future.

That’s why governments and private investors are pouring tens of billions of dollars in additional money and hiring thousands of scientists and engineers in an attempt to overcome the technological problems preventing nuclear fusion energy from becoming an unlimited energy source.

One nuclear energy industry is on the way out.  The other nuclear energy industry is not yet here – and has an indeterminate arrival. 

What are we going to do for energy?

About the Author

Mark H. Witte is a strong proponent for energy efficiency and renewable energy, and believes individuals should have more control over how the energy for their homes is produced.