Discovery Channel Magazine, March 2015
It is a holy grail of science. It promises non-polluting, safe energy from a fuel source that would last us millions of years. It could solve the world’s energy problems, end carbon-fuelled climate change, and bring about political stability and social equality. And yet it always seems to be tantalisingly out of reach.
It is nuclear fusion.
“Fusion offers this unbelievable promise of millions of years of carbon-free, safe, compact energy sources,” says Professor Steven Cowley, Director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy and chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, a man who has devoted his professional life to the subject and will continue to do so as long as he has the capacity to work. “It doesn’t produce any long-term radioactive isotopes, so you don’t have to have geological disposal of your waste. It doesn’t have any accident scenarios that would require evacuating people around power stations. It’s an absolutely perfect way to make energy, except for one thing: it’s bloody hard to do.”
There is a standing joke among energy experts that nuclear fusion is “always 30 years away.” In the post-war environment of atomic energy exploration – chiefly for the military – nuclear fusion was understood as a theory, and early pioneers like Enrico Fermi were talking about something like a fusion reactor back in 1945. We’re still, today, probably 30 years away from a commercially viable, operating nuclear fusion reactor providing electricity. But there is growing belief that it might really be possible, and that within our lifetimes we could finally see electricity produced in a way that neither throttles nor endangers our planet. “In terms of the history of science, it’s going to be an amazing moment,” says Cowley. “To be able to say: we’ve done it.”
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