Nuclear fusion is considered the most basic form of energy used today. It is produced by a nuclear reaction, where two atoms of similar lightweight elements (usually a hydrogen isotope) combine into one molecule of helium to release energy in the form of photons, which are visible as light. Though this technology promises abundant energy, it also has its downsides. Let us take a look at the pros and cons of nuclear fusion.
List of Pros of Nuclear Fusion
1. It is relatively cost-competitive.
Actually, the initial costs of constructing nuclear power plants are high. Aside from this, other investments are to be made for enriching and processing the fuel, controlling and getting rid of waste, and facility maintenance. However, electric generation in reactors is cheaper than that of oil, gas, and coal plants, so we can say that it is cost-competitive.
2. It produces high energy density.
According to estimates, the amount of energy released in nuclear fusion is 10 million times greater than that in burning fossil fuels. Consequently, the amount of fuel needed in a nuclear plant is much smaller compared with those of other types of power-generating facilities.
3. It causes less pollution.
In terms of the climate crisis, it would be more beneficial to replace other energy-harnessing processes that are being used today with nuclear fusion. The fact is, the environmental impact of this method is relatively light compared to others. However, we should still note that nuclear waste is potentially harmful to both the environment and people.
4. It can be sustainable.
By definition, energy from nuclear fusion is not renewable. However, it can become potentially sustainable by using fusion and breeder reactors. If we can learn how to control atomic fusion similarly to the sun, we can practically have unlimited energy. At this specific point in time, these reactors are still facing serious challenges to be used on a larger scale.
List of Cons of Nuclear Fusion
1. It is extremely difficult to achieve.
In stars, strong gravitational forces and high temperatures naturally create a fusion environment. But here on Earth, we are facing the challenge to make nuclear fuel hot and confined enough to start a self-sustaining ignition.
Imagine trying to contain the plasma (a gaseous mixture of deuterium, tritium atoms and ions, and helium the fusion product) at 100 million degrees celsius. No material can withstand that temperature. So, scientists attempt to keep the plasma (being electrically charged and having a magnetic field of its own) suspended in a magnetic field produced by superconducting magnets around the fusion chamber/vessel. This is similar to how bullet trains float on their tracks at ridiculous speeds. This process is very difficult to achieve (as compared to nuclear FISSION).
2. It produces radioactive waste.
Though nuclear power plants only emit negligible amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, its nuclear fuel chain process does produce radioactive waste.
The radioactive waste produced with fusion is not the same as with fission, and the two are often confused. With a nuclear fission reactor, the radiation is alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma rays (which can penetrate your skin and break apart the bonds in your DNA structure, giving you all kinds of cancer). In contrast, in a nuclear fusion reactor, the vessel wall is the only part that will be bombarded by the high energy neutrons, and if, in the worst case, all the protective layers surrounding the main fusion vessel fail, the neutron radiation will stop as soon as fusion reaction stops. In a fission reactor, the cancer-causing radiation still exists even in the waste materials, which means that extreme measures are needed to burry the waste to keep it as far away as possible from humans. In the case of nuclear fusion, the activated materials (i.e., the metal vessels which have been bombarded by neutrons) can be stored safely for about 100 years, after which the radiation level becomes so low that they can be reused in the fusion reactor again.
3. More research and brainpower is needed to solve its issues.
Different people across the globe have different objectives when it comes to fuel sources. Some people want to build nuclear bombs. Some people want fossil fuel to remain dominant and do not want fusion to provide an alternative. To make fusion work, enough intelligent minds need to cooperate to address and solve its challenges.
4. Its practical energy returns are still quite unreachable.
Existing methods for artificially igniting nuclear fusion still require large amounts of energy input even on a small scale for a brief moment. “Igniting” it means achieving self-sustainable fusion reactions. In fact, the world’s biggest tokamak-type fusion reactor today is studying plasma on a large scale, but is still short of the dimensions needed for a productive fusion reactor.
It is important to remember that there is no perfect energy source, and each of the available power resources in the world has its own pros and cons. So, we should weigh them to know if our chosen energy source would do more good than bad for our society.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.