May 27, 2021
Previously published on Forbes.com
In recent weeks, the Western Telegraph of Pembrokeshire, a county in southwestern Wales, has provided news coverage on an unexpected topic: fusion energy. The Pembrokeshire County Council plans to nominate the county for a prototype fusion energy plant being developed by the UK Atomic Energy Authority. This fusion technology, says one of the articles, “could offer a virtually limitless source of clean electricity by copying the processes that powers the sun.”
That is, unless misinformation defeats it. The greatest threat to fusion energy, the “Holy Grail” of clean power, is no longer underfunding or engineering challenges. The greatest barrier is misunderstanding about two types of nuclear reactions: fission and fusion.
Beneath the Western Telegraph articles, the comment sections—rarely a hospitable place for facts or nuance—reflect this misunderstanding.
“If it’s so safe why don’t they put it in central London? That is where most of the energy is used, after all, in the overcrowded south-east,” wrote one reader.
“And if (when?) there is an accident it would affect a huge area, rather like a hydrogen bomb. What price jobs then? Get some detailed facts before you vote for this,” said another.
“Pembrokeshire people don’t matter as much as Londoners,” said a jaded reader. “If there’s a leak of radiation and people start dying with leukemia or other cancers or heaven forbid an explosion ………..”
Let me be clear: these fears are all unfounded. However, to dismiss the comment section as harmless rambling would be a grave mistake.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed how equally baseless misinformation can lead people to reject masks and vaccinations, resulting in preventable deaths. The social media platforms that spread COVID-19 lies are just comment sections with global reach.
As such, innovation alone will not solve global challenges like climate change. Innovators of complex, misunderstood technologies like fusion must also win the war for public opinion before comment sections and social media hijack the conversation.
Because fusion is a nuclear technology and sounds a lot like fission—the technology in Cold War-era nuclear plants—this battle will be especially difficult.
In nuclear fission, a uranium isotope is split to start a chain reaction that is very difficult to stop. Fission plants come with the risk of meltdowns, fissile material can be weaponized and the long-lived radioactive waste has a half-life of over 200,000 years.
A fusion plant replicates the process that occurs in stars like our Sun. Estimates suggest that one kilogram of fusion fuel, sourced from seawater, could heat and power 10,000 homes for a year.
Fusion systems cannot meltdown like fission reactors. The process stops when the power input is switched off. The trace amounts of radioactive waste produced in fusion have a half-life of less than 200 years, which is quite manageable. Fusion checks the carbon-zero box like solar and wind but without their physical space requirements, and it also produces the baseload power we need to retire coal- and gas-fired power plants.
The public in western democracies has turned against nuclear fission. From the United States and Japan to Germany and France, nuclear power plants are being shuttered over fears about radioactive waste, meltdowns and terrorism. No one wants a fission plant in their backyard.
Is the public then ready for fusion energy, which could supply the world with affordable, abundant, safe and clean baseload power? If the Western Telegraph is any indication, fusion has a severe awareness problem. Moreover, promoters of hydrogen, fission, wind and solar are happy to feed the confusion. Nuclear is nuclear, these competitors say. If they succeed in keeping fusion in the same regulatory file as fission, they will delay its path to market.
Although fusion is now near commercialization, even the well-known energy advisors who shape policymaking and business strategy are not talking about it yet. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has not factored fusion into its predictions about future energy consumption. McKinsey, BloombergNEF and BCG have yet to predict how fusion might impact emissions and energy markets. Thus, we rarely hear about a future in which fusion energy powers our cars, trains, ships, homes, data centers and heavy industries.
Yet, to keep global warming below 1.5° C, we need to treat the fusion option seriously and identify sites like in Pembrokeshire now. To reach net-zero emissions by 2050, we’ll need to start opening commercial fusion plants by the early 2030s. An additional decade of regulatory humdrum would cost humanity dearly.
This brings me back to the Western Telegraph. The campaign for fusion energy cannot stay cloistered in business magazines, scientific journals and investment conferences. Fusion is a local issue. The plants must exist in someone’s backyard.
Therefore, the future of fusion energy will be fought in local government and comment sections. The same forces that have undermined public health over the last year could undermine fusion, which is the closest thing we have to a “vaccine” for climate change.
We need to get ahead of the problem. The campaign to educate the public about fusion must start now. The general public needs to understand that fusion energy is truly the holy grail of clean energy and will provide safe, affordable, clean energy everywhere, forever.