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Betting on Fusion Energy Shows Our Children We Care About Them

Richard Black, a former BBC correspondent, cautioned on Twitter that generating power from nuclear fusion, even if technically feasible, “might prove prohibitively expensive.” By the time the technology is ripe for commercial application, he said, “many countries will already have virtually removed fossil fuels from their power system. And there will be no point, 15 years after that, in replacing clean and extremely cheap renewables with clean and probably expensive fusion.”

The possibility that we will have mostly decarbonized our economies by the time nuclear fusion becomes commercially viable is not a given. The solar and wind projects we’re building now must be accompanied by sufficient energy storage, and we are nowhere near the capacity we need to scale up these energy sources. It’s also possible that nations will choose to invest more in nuclear fission, which is used in today’s nuclear power plants, to phase out fossil fuels.

Neither nuclear fusion nor fission release carbon dioxide. Both can produce vast amounts of energy from small volumes of fuel. But unlike fission, fusion does not create long-lived radioactive waste. Since fusion does not lend itself to runaway reactions or nuclear proliferation, it is reasonable to expect that it will be less expensive than nuclear fission power, once the technology is mature.

Material science, computing and artificial intelligence are all contributing to making nuclear fusion more energy efficient. Much like how robots can suddenly walk after toppling over for decades, it will become practical not because of one big breakthrough, but by countless incremental improvements.

In the weeks to come, scientists will want to know whether NIF’s success was a one-shot miracle or can be reliably reproduced. But we now have a vibrant, international community of researchers, engineers and investors who are pushing nuclear fusion technology forward.

Investing in nuclear fusion now will not make the next decades of accelerating climate crisis any easier. But after all the damage that our short-term thinking has done to this planet, let us think past 2050, and show our children that we care.

Sabine Hossenfelder is a physicist, an author and a producer of the YouTube channel Science Without the Gobbledygook. She works at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy.

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