Many of the greatest revolutions that mankind has experienced have been linked to the innovation or exploration of new energy sources. Coal allowed us to leave the Dark Ages behind and step into the Industrial Revolution. The automobile revolution, driven by oil, continued that revolution. But we are now standing on the brink of a new step, a new revolution. The question is, will we dare to seize the moment?
Our use of fossil fuels is simply not sustainable, from either an environmental or an economic perspective. These sources of energy are finite and as the twenty-first century progresses it is clear that energy security will become more and more important across the world. In the future, energy will not only be providing electricity and heat to our homes, but it will become one of the potential flash points for conflict between nations. We must act proactively to ensure that we leave a better world, a safer and cleaner world, behind for generations to come. For this to happen, we must be courageous and break the vicious cycle of short-termed thinking that seems to have gripped the political establishment across the world.
There are several approaches to this issue, but most of them are nuclear in one way or another. The approach I propose is two-way. Firstly, we need to implement nuclear fission, but with a twist. Instead of using uranium, we should seek to use thorium with a reactor, which in turn would potentially solve the waste management issues surrounding our current use of nuclear power. Secondly, we need to make use of fusion, a method that holds the key to the future of mankind’s energy need. Together, these methods can lead the revolution into a new era.
Thorium nuclear power is not a new concept; a lot of research took place into its feasibility in the 1950s. However, uranium was chosen instead of thorium because uranium-fuelled reactors can create weaponised fuel for nuclear weapons, whilst the thorium-fuelled ones cannot. That was a battle that was won by the US Armed Forces, and thorium research was then sent to collect dust in the archives of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Thereafter, only a small dedicated core of scientists that continued research into the field. Thankfully, this has now changed: India and China have started to pay a lot of attention to thorium as a nuclear fuel and realised its potential. We are falling behind – and at a rapid pace.
Thorium is much more abundant in the Earth’s crust than uranium but is just as potent as nuclear fuel. The proposed reactor designs for thorium involve a passive security feature that would avoid any risk of contamination in the event of an accident, without any human involvement. Furthermore, one of the greatest long-term benefits of thorium is the fact that it produces significantly less highly radioactive waste with waste that decays quicker. It can also recycle some of the most radioactive waste (including plutonium) from our conventional, uranium-fuelled, power plants. Furthermore, the thorium fuel cycle does not create any of the waste that requires 100,000 years or more of storage. All this is possible – and we certainly have the expertise to achieve industrial thorium-fuelled nuclear power. What we will need is the political will to look beyond the next general election and ensure the funding to make this happen.
Fusion is regarded by many as the holy grail of energy policy, but equally as unattainable. This is a dangerous misconception. Fusion is an inherently safe approach to nuclear energy, thanks to its design. Moreover, as the world’s attention is currently drawn to the climate change talks in Lima, it is worth pointing out that fusion would not have any climate-changing emissions. Britain is a world-leading nation in terms of its nuclear fusion research. Indeed, we host the Joint European Torus (JET) project outside the village of Culham, Oxfordshire, where fusion takes place at regular intervals.
In conclusion, the potential gains of fusion are significant and cannot be underestimated. A small bath of water and the lithium in a standard laptop battery contains the same amount of energy as 40 tonnes of coal. This first generation of fusion power would provide enough fuel for roughly 4000 years, whilst the second generation would only use deuterium. The potential is astounding. With generation-two fusion reactors, we would potentially have enough fuel to last until the end of mankind. Fusion has, however, been constantly starved of funding. It might be expensive, but if we do not mean business, fusion will forever be an unattainable dream. My message is that its potential is so great that we cannot ignore it and discussion of it should re-enter the political debate.
We cannot be complacent. Inaction will cost more than investing into future energy sources and the need for energy is ever growing. Many parts of the world have only experienced industrialisation properly in the relatively recent past, which means that energy consumption will continue to increase at an ever-faster rate. Coal, gas and oil will not remain cheap forever and we must prepare for the day that happens. In order for us to truly deal with the threat of climate change and economic stagnation, the West must once again seize the leadership role in research and development. Renewable sources may play an important role, however it is important to recognise that wind, tidal or solar can never provide base load. Only nuclear can do that if we truly want to move away from fossil fuels. Britain has many times in the past been the great powerhouse of Europe. It is high time we, with our allies across the world, show some faith in our scientists. Starving essential projects of funding is not the answer. Let’s seize the moment and take the leap into the future.