Thursday, 15 October 2009

Nuclear fusion - energy source for our children

As 192 nations prepare to debate What Should Be Done About Climate Change in Copenhagen, the world carries on burning coal, oil and gas and discussing targets that will not be met. Wind, wave and solar dominate the debate on renewables, unsurprising as those are the technologies we are currently working with. The future will need a better mix of energy sources and more creative thinking than we have applied in the past. The future will, however, need other technologies in addition to these renewables in order to replace the vast amounts of hydro-carbon based energy the world currently consumes.

Climate change is a long term issue, as the difficulty of weaning ourselves off carbon-based fuels is proving. It therefore seems only right that replacing the coal, oil and gas (which currently produce most of our electricity) needs a solution commensurate with the problem. France, for example, has low carbon emissions because of their high dependence on nuclear fission reactors. Whilst traditional nuclear power does not pollute the atmosphere with carbon, it does pollute the ground and oceans with radioactive waste that stays radioactive for centuries.

The promising work that is being done in nuclear fusion in the UK and elsewhere promises carbon-free power without the long-lived nuclear waste. It could be an excellent solution to a tricky problem. The only difficulty is that we haven’t got it to work yet – despite successful proof of concept work. The research needed to find answers to a host of practical problems with this difficult technology are proving time consuming and expensive.

Despite all the difficulties, there is a big prize to be scooped by a generation that has done little but use up fossil fuels as fast as they can. And it is a prize that more of us should be fighting for. We owe it to future generations who may not be able to enjoy the cheap energy that we have benefited from all our lives.

So why isn’t nuclear fusion higher on the politicians’ agendas? Why are we not thinking longer term about such important issues? Politicians may be re-elected every 4 years or so, but this beautiful world will still be here in 40, 400 or 4,000 years time. The global nuclear fusion project at Cadarache in the south of France called ITER is in its initial stages and deserves more bullish backing than we are currently giving it.

All managers know that hitting targets requires taking actions that have sufficient chance of being successful to be worth implementing. Nuclear fusion is a strong contender and needs a higher profile, more public debate, and more money.

For those with an interest in all things climate, energy and fusion, the New Scientist is giving away a free poster all about ITER this week. Getting informed about energy and climate change is surely the least we can do for the children who won’t have the vast natural reserves we have used up with hardly a thought.

Today is Blog Action Day where bloggers of the world unite to discuss a single topic and spark debate about issues of global importance. This year’s topic is Climate Change.

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