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Is fission the future?

If you’ve ever read my editorials, you may know that my dad is heavily enthusiastic about alternative energy generation. He thinks fusion will be the future of sustainable power, and a driver of the shift away from fossil fuels.

Well, now I might have to admit he’s got something right.

Earlier this week, scientists announced that for the first time, a fusion reaction actually produced more energy than it took to start the reaction.

Scientists studying fusion energy at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have possibly cracked a very important code.

If fusion can be used on a large scale, it could offer an energy source without the pollution and greenhouse gases caused by burning fossil fuels for electricity.

The technology could also remove the dangerous long-lived radioactive waste created by current nuclear power plants, which use the splitting of uranium to produce energy.

The breakthrough sparked public excitement because scientists had talked for decades about how fusion, the nuclear reaction that makes stars shine, could provide a future source of bountiful energy.

At 1.03am on December 5, 192 lasers blasted a small cylinder about the size of a pencil eraser that contained a frozen lump of hydrogen encased in a diamond.

The laser beams entered at the top and bottom of the cylinder, vaporizing it. That generated an inward attack of X-rays that compressed a small fuel pellet of deuterium and tritium, the heavier forms of hydrogen.

The reaction created more energy output than what was put in, but the output need to become about 20 times bigger for fission to become viable for electricity production.

Lawrence Livermore director Kimberly S Budil said the electricity-creating technology could take decades to develop.

“I think it’s moving into the foreground, and probably, with concerted effort and investment, a few decades of research on the underlying technologies could put us in a position to build a power plant.”

However, “a few decades” is significantly better than never.

New York Times climate change reporter Henry Fountain made the point that even if fusion power plants became a reality, it likely would not happen in time to stop the worsening effects of climate change.

“It’s far better, many climate scientists and policymakers say, to focus on currently available renewable energy technologies like solar and wind power to help reach these emissions targets.”

Luckily for Aotearoa, we already have a strong reliance on renewable electricity, with 82.1 per cent of the nation’s electricity coming from renewable sources last year, according to the Ministry of Business Innovation, and Employment.

However, when transport was considered, the percentage was slashed to 40.8 per cent to account for fossil fuel vehicles.

With accelerating technology, a much cleaner future devoid of fossil fuels is possible – but the goal needs to be paramount.

Climate change mitigation can not sit only on the shoulders of consumers, businesses will need to make a consistent effort to change their practices and develop technologies if the world hopes to reach a sustainable future any time soon.

Fission is only one example of this. You’re almost right, dad.

Grace Prior
Grace Prior
Grace Prior is a senior reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with a keen interest in environmental issues. Grace is the paper’s health reporter and regularly covers the rural sector, weather, Greater Wellington Regional Council, and coastal stories.

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