The international community's growing concern over climate change has led to renewed efforts to reduce carbon emissions and find more sustainable forms of energy. Nuclear energy presents itself as a prime option by offering what appears to be a sustainable form of power that can also meet growing future energy needs.
Nuclear energy is the energy released during nuclear reactions by either fission or fusion. Nuclear fission involves the splitting of the nucleus of an atom into two or more small cells, which in turn releases a significant amount of energy. Nuclear fusion combines the nuclei of two lightweight atoms, to form a heavier nucleus. Nuclear fusion has the potential to provide limitless energy and is a cleaner source of energy compared to other forms of energy that have proven harmful to the environment. However, the extreme conditions and high temperatures required to complete nuclear fusion pose multiple risks. In a discussion of the potential of nuclear energy with the Council on Foreign Relations, Dr. Kim Budil, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, discusses the process of nuclear fusion and why the study regarding the reproduction of nuclear energy is so imperative.
Process of Nuclear Fusion
For decades the scientific community has searched for a way to study the process of fusion and understand the conditions needed to make the nuclear fusion process sustainable. In his February 2023 State of the Union address, United States President Joe Biden announced his administration’s plan to create a commercial fusion facility within the next ten years, as a part of the U.S.'s transition to clean energy. Harnessing nuclear fusion would provide a carbon-free energy source to supplement commercial and individual power needs. However, there are barriers to using energy generated from nuclear fusion to fuel the United States. First, the fusion process would need to become significantly more efficient to increase its output production to compete with the current energy output from less sustainable sources. Second, the production of fusion power will need to become more robust and cheaper. Incentives must be provided before companies would be willing to build these nuclear factories that can house fusion experiments and also properly contain and store the products of experiments. Lastly, there needs to be a way to contain the energy produced. Material science challenges are the first obstacle to tackle before nuclear energy can be safely produced. The core of a nuclear reactor requires a harsh and intense environment, with utilized materials required to withstand a combination of high temperatures, high stress, radiation fluctuation, and chemical coolants. There are currently no facilities where materials that could withstand the extreme heat and neuron damage produced by nuclear fusion can be tested safely while being contained. Solving material science challenges and determining how to sustain these materials in a high-radiation environment to prevent loss of energy or danger to workers and surrounding life near the factory is essential before nuclear fusion can be considered a viable and competing option.
Breakthroughs in Nuclear Fusion
Dr. Kim Budil, director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, has been leading the way in nuclear fusion, with breakthrough success in December 2022. Sixty years ago, a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researcher by the name of John Nuckolls proposed that lasers be used in the laboratory to generate the conditions needed for nuclear fusion. The laboratory has recently managed to create 2 million joules of laser energy, in turn producing 3.15 million joules of fusion energy. By using lasers to create nuclear fusion and experimenting with conditions and processes of energy production, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is forging forward as a leading research institution to deliver a sustainable and safe source for producing fusion energy. Dr. Budil has been essential in this research on nuclear fusion production. However, Dr. Budil believes that it will require a nationwide approach from the United States with the combination of multiple scientists, research centers, technology, and experiments to achieve commercially viable fusion power.
Support for Energy, Opposition to Risk
Despite scientific and production challenges that accompany nuclear energy, there are serious health concerns related to the production of nuclear energy. Where there is a risk to the population, public opinion on the matter of nuclear energy must be considered. Nuclear fusion and producing energy present large risks the public should be notified of so they are accurately educated on the potential consequences of a nuclear accident. Large-scale nuclear accidents such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima have shown the public that nuclear reactors are unpredictable and serious consequences accompany a potential nuclear accident. If the United States chooses to pursue next-generation nuclear reactors (small modular reactors), the public must be made aware of the risks and benefits, as well as the locations of these facilities that will house nuclear energy and generate nuclear fusion. While spent nuclear fuel is expected to be safe, it is still an extremely hazardous material that requires meticulous measures to manage, transport, and handle safely to protect the people and environment surrounding it from its potential hazards.
Aside from the risks to the population presented by nuclear energy production, the administration must also consider the environmental impacts of nuclear power. The impact on the environment from nuclear reactors includes water use, nuclear waste, uranium mining, waste heat, and radioactive spent fuel. Nuclear energy produced by these reactors is highly effective as a source of clean energy, but the leftover fuel will remain radioactive for centuries. There must be safeguards in place to store this fuel in areas and facilities that would not put the public or environment at risk if disturbed. Conversations surrounding the need to reduce emissions and use nuclear energy as a way to do so tend to ignore the risks posed by waste storage, while the issue of water storage also remains unsolved. Additionally, Fukushima and Chernobyl set a historical precedent that accidents are unavoidable and without safeguards in place, are likely to happen again.
Overall, the future of nuclear energy in the United States and across the globe remains uncertain. Nuclear energy’s ability to reduce carbon emissions while providing a clean source of energy that can produce the level of power needed to fuel an entire country is an undeniable benefit. However, the drawbacks of water storage and nuclear storage safety have caused some countries to reduce their dependence on it, deciding the risks are not worth the benefits. A world powered by nuclear energy is still an attainable goal, but only with extensive research and innovative solutions on how to prevent nuclear risks and properly store and dispose of nuclear waste in the future.