fusionIn discussing our recent post on nuclear energy in Europe, we received some criticism on Facebook for being too “biased against renewable energies”. Never ones to shy away from debate, we asked our commenter to expand on his criticism so we could take it to an expert for reaction. Here’s what he said:

‘significant technology gains that don’t exist right now’ in the renewables sector are much more likely to occur than revolutionary technology improvements that nuclear technology would need to achieve to keep the triumphalistic rhetoric about chimerical “nuclear fusion” the nuclear lobby has been [spouting]  for last 30 years now.

We took this to Professor Paul Ekins, head of the Environment Group at the Policy Studies Institute, for his comment:

I think I would agree with that because we haven’t just ‘talked’ about fusion and fission, we have spent enormous sums of money on researching them. Overall budgets on research into renewables pale into insignificance when you compare them with the decades of support nuclear has had with fairly modest gains in cost-reduction. In fact, all the evidence suggests fission reactors are more expensive now than before, which is in stark contrast to the progress of renewables.

The UK research council is now saying fusion will only be viable by 2080 – so it’s not even 30 years away, it’s more like 50 or 60. If you look at what fusion and fission have achieved per pound invested, the return on renewables has been very much higher. Furthermore, because renewable technologies are newer, there might still be stones unturned in terms of research. While that’s not impossible with nuclear, the longer one researches a topic without success, the less likely there is something to find.

However, Prof. Ekins also cautioned against ruling out nuclear energy too hastily – especially if there’s nothing in the short-term to replace it with.

There’s probably no worse outcome than no energy in an advanced industrial society. To the extent that countries can meet their energy needs without nuclear, it’s probably a good thing that they do so. Fukushima was a wake-up call that this is a dangerous form of energy, it also confirms that the nuclear industry is not as transparent as the amount of danger it poses warrants. I think it’s very encouraging that Germany – despite being the most important manufacturing-based economy in Europe – believes it can create the energy it needs through renewables. If it succeeds (and I still think there is an ‘if’ about that), then I think that will indeed be a very inspiring example to the rest of Europe.

Italy, on the other hand, has shown much less ability to achieve in terms of moving to renewables, so I think just extrapolating policy for the rest of the continent from expressions of public opinion is a bit dangerous. I think countries will want to ensure they can generate enough energy. If they can do that without nuclear, it’s probably a good thing.

Ekins argues, therefore, that a move away from nuclear would be preferable – with the caveat that not all countries are ready to make the jump in the short-term. As Will Pearson pointed out when we interviewed him, Germany is likely to have to make up its energy shortfall from nuclear with coal and gas and, in addition, an increased reliance on energy imports (including imports of nuclear energy from France).

Is Europe right to reject nuclear energy, then? Do you agree? Disagree? Do you have any better ideas for Europe’s energy policy? Send us in your comments and ideas in the form below and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.

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6 comments Post a commentcomment

    • avatar
      oscar blauman

      the reference cited is without credibility, ther is only a legitimate fusion aiming at energy production which has been peer reviewed and is represented by the ITER experiment

  1. avatar
    Paul Odtaa

    Let’s not confuse fusion with fission.

    Fission is effectively a controlled nuclear bomb which produces deadly pollutants, which have a life expectancy of hundreds of years.

    Fusion to the fusing together of the nuclei of two atoms at very high temperature. It works as that is how the Sun produces light and heat.

    The problem is that fusion requires the technology to control the temperatures of the reaction. When it is made viable it would be able to generate almost unlimited amounts of energy.

    The problem is that the research is very expensive and it is likely to take many decades to become feasible.

    Personally I support the idea of working on the project as when it is successful it would within a short time dramatically reduce the need for carbon fuels and would therefore reduce global warming.

    I just hope that some clever researcher comes up with an idea to speed up its development.

    As the same time it is logical that we work on ways of reducing the production of carbon dioxide. So I’ve just fitted solar panels to my roof and as a family we are considering selling one of our two cars.

  2. avatar

    The reason that nuclear fusion has always remained 50 years away, is because when scientists first started out, they assumed they would be given an according budget to match their time scale.

    As it happened, the money was severely cut. This naturally slowed down the research.

    However, if you look at the progress scientists have made with Tokamak designs given their budget, the advance in the engineering and technology has been a credit to everyone involved.

    And let’s not forget what the challenges are here. Results don’t just happen over night. But just think how rewarding these results will be once they are achieved.

  3. avatar

    I’m doing this debate at school, and it’s also how I found this website.

    I’ve always been for nuclear, and I disagree that Europe should get rid of it. If you look at the numbers of energy produced by nature (wind, solar, etc.) it only comes up to about 10% of energy used in France. Science is advancing at alarming speed and it’ll be quicker and better to just find a way for it to be impossible to have a nuclear disaster all over again. Back to the nuclear disaster point, I think that we should start getting rid of all the nuclear weapons (who are much more devastating than Chernobyl and Fukushima) and then look at our energy problem.

    Knowing that in, how much, 50 years of nuclear, only three major nuclear accidents have occured: three miles island (USA), Chernobyl (Ukraine) and Fukushima (Japan). I think that out of 50 years of this “Horrible energy that will only annihilate us and end the human race” and so on, we’re doing pretty good.

  4. avatar
    Peter Schellinck

    I would argue that Fukushima was not a clear nuclear accident. The accident was a tsunamy which caused damage to the nuclear plant. People did not die from radiation. However, it did expose shortcomings and human failures to make nuclear plants safer, ie protection walls, back up generators in secured rooms, etc. Unfortunatey the moods of Mother Nature are unpredictable and hence our engineers must be extra virgilent to protect and ensure safety and not take anything for granted. Nuclear is still today the best long term source for our energy needs with the lowest negative impact on the environment. Already solar pannels are proving expensive to maintain and performance depleting in short time (25% loss in 10 years). Wind mills are fine as long as you don’t see or hear them. They are very noisy! The nuclear technology is a sustainable platform for the answers of our energy requirements.

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