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Opinion A green lifestyle is a nice but trivial gesture – we must focus on nuclear fusion

Is nuclear fusion the answer to the world energy crisis? It might be the only future hope to power our planet.

I’VE ALMOST FULLY switched to energy-saving light bulbs, or at least I use them in all the lamps that I can get by on with a jaundiced low energy glow. I worry about food miles and adjust my shopping list to reflect them. I’m totally on board with recycling and if I get on a plane, I worry that I am possibly killing a penguin. And yet, increasingly, I feel like I’m part of some useless tokenistic game.

Most of the things we have been told to do – like recycling, being mindful of food air miles and travelling less – might make us feel better, but they don’t make much difference to the planet. Having a green lifestyle is a trivial gesture. Meanwhile, experts are increasingly saying that global warming has passed the tipping point. Ice in the western Antarctic is melting at an unstoppable pace. A study published in the journal Science found that Thwaites Glacier’s collapse could increase global sea levels by almost two feet. The study author Ian Joughin, a glaciologist at the University of Washington, said the process could now take as little as 200 years.

British scientist James Lovelock constantly argues that for the midterm, there is no alternative to nuclear power. In The Revenge of Gaia, he writes; “If Kyoto had been influenced more by the pragmatism of scientists and engineers and less by romantic idealism, we might soon have harvested fusion energy.” He also compares so called eco-warriors as like passengers on a transatlantic jet who ask the pilot to turn off the engines midway through the flight so that they can glide down without causing any further environmental damage.

The problems with ‘green’ energy

Harnessing wind, solar or tidal power is either too expensive, too unreliable or too damaging to our countryside. Large-scale hydroelectric power plants destroy habitats and disturbs fish migration. Wind farms blot beautiful wildernesses while killing bird and bat species. Hydroelectric systems are able to make only a marginal contribution. Solar panels can damage historic buildings and overly-insulated homes and offices can cause problems like sick building syndrome. And these methods will slow economic growth while billions of people in the developing world remain energy-starved. We’re never going to get enough power from them to sustain a society like ours.

Nuclear fission is an interim solution but fusion is a radical alternative power source and the holy grail of clean energy. We’re talking about mimicking the process that powers the sun. We know it works – the sun is a burning daily reminder and so fusion is actually the original source of all energy and life on Earth. The process uses only lithium and seawater and produces minimal amounts of waste that remains dangerous for decades rather than the millennia that conventional nuclear fission waste endures. Fusion experts maintain they should be safe to recycle or dispose of conventionally within 100 years.

Besides, the waste produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than that generated by their nuclear counterparts. In fact, the fly ash emitted by a power plant carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy. Is fusion the answer to the world energy crisis? It might be the only future hope to power our planet.

Major breakthrough

US researchers at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California achieved a world-first in February in an ambitious experiment that sought to recreate the conditions at the heart of the sun. They used 192 laser beams to compress a tiny fuel pellet less than half the diameter of a single human hair so that it triggered the net release of energy by nuclear fusion. The fuel, made up of the two hydrogen isotopes tritium and deuterium derived from water, was compressed together under enormous pressures and temperatures for less than a billionth of a second, but this was enough to see more energy coming out of the experiment than actually went into it.

The ultimate goal of producing more energy than the whole experiment consumes remains some way off but it has shown that solid progress is finally being made.

Isn’t it better that we invest in the limitless clean energy fusion promises rather than wasting time, money and resources on piffle?

Lorraine Courtney is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @lorrainecath.

Read: “Unstoppable” melting of Antarctic ice will have major impact on sea level, scientists warn

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