The nuclear martyr: A vision of 2050
In the year 2050 there is an abundance of clean, renewable energy, due to a scientific breakthrough that defied conventional practices. However, the preceding decades faired not as conducive to society’s standards.
An ever-changing climate, with hazardous effects on the Earth and its atmosphere, coupled with a malfunctioning political structure, led to a disastrous energy crisis.
Furthermore, skeptics of these worsening conditions tarnished the previously stellar reputation of leading scientists and engineers around the world. Yet, the altruistic nature of these scientists and engineers allowed for perseverance through these societal and political hindrances, to make way for the silver bullet of the deteriorating energy industry: nuclear fusion.
Since the mid-20th century, nuclear fusion has been a scientific mystery that had the potential to solve the world’s energy crisis. Nuclear fusion is so revolutionary because it utilizes the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen, to produce electricity without any toxic waste byproducts. Fusion technology utilizes the energy emitted from the collision of hydrogen nuclei at high speeds.
Conversely, nuclear fission technology splits atoms of expensive, radioactive, and rare earth elements such as Uranium and Plutonium. While nuclear fission has been utilized extensively, primarily for electricity generation and thermonuclear weapons, sustained nuclear fusion reactions have since alluded scientists.
Due to the extremely high temperatures required to sustain a fusion reaction, as well as other engineering limitations, nuclear fusion fell to the wayside of the cheaper and more abundant coal and natural gas. As the years passed, the energy crisis only became more serious, forcing almost all oil, natural gas, and coal to be mined to power the ever-increasing economy and population.
Alongside the depletion of natural resources, the Earth’s temperature continued to increase, due to greenhouse gas and particulate emissions. The increasing atmospheric temperature continued the melting of polar ice, with decreasing albedo (ice reflectivity) creating a positive feedback loop, resulting in rising sea levels.
Additionally, the particulate emissions from the transportation sector and coal-fired power plants led to health issues for citizens in densely populated areas. Despite how apparent these problems became, many governments around the world failed to respond, whether it be for a lack of resources or a yearning for power. As the human population continued to grow at an exponential rate, these problems were exacerbated. Thus heightening the necessity for a solution to the economic, environmental and energy related crises the Earth was facing.
However dark a picture these issues painted, the scientists and engineers of the world continued their research to find a solution. While advances in solar, wind, and hydropower technologies were important, their life cycle emissions, low efficiencies, and intermittency could not bear the peak load of power that the world continuously demanded. However, after decades of research, came a sustained nuclear fusion reaction that could potentially power a large city. While the scientists knew that the feasibility of nuclear fusion power was low, the energy crisis was not going to solve itself.
Despite political pushback, they continued to lengthen the sustained reactions – improving the feasibility of the project. One issue that could not be hurdled was the high cost of this research. It is estimated that it would cost roughly $4 billion U.S. per year to continue improving fusion technology to a developmental stage. Although this seems too expensive, in a time of economic and environmental crisis, nuclear fusion (when completed) has relatively no fuel or maintenance costs. Unlike any other power source used at the time, a fusion reactor would use roughly enough hydrogen fuel to fit in the bed of a pickup truck, to produce 1,000 MW, and the reactor would operate all year long.
As of 2050, nuclear fusion reactors eliminated the intermittency problems faced with solar and wind power, minimized fuel and maintenance costs, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions dramatically. Yes the upfront costs for research, development, and building of these reactors were large, but they have proven effective. With electrical infrastructure already in place, these reactors can be constructed virtually anywhere, creating clean, renewable power for thousands of structures.
And as for the scientists, engineers, activists, and supporters of clean power for a sustainable future, that did not see their hard work in action, they are the martyrs that solved the energy crisis.
- Fedoruk Centre (2016). Fusion 2030: A Roadmap for Canada. Retrieved from http://www.fedorukcentre.ca/docs/Fusion_2030_roadmap_20160930.pdf