Public Attitudes Towards Nuclear Fusion – Social Acceptance Of Nuclear Fusion
Nuclear fusion is what powers the stars. The concept of fusion being used as a viable source of energy, has been around since the 1920s. However, there were minimal chances of nuclear fusion materializing into a commercial source of energy. Come 2021, there has been a renewed interest in nuclear fusion in 2021, thanks to an array of technological advancements across the world. UK based JET has smashed its own record for the amount of energy it can extract. Once operational, the ITER is expected to make significant strides. Tokamak Energy has also announced that it has achieved what is by far the highest temperature achieved in a spherical Tokamak and by any privately funded Tokamak. MIT backed start up Commonwealth Fusion Systems announced in late 2021 that they have ramped up a large high temperature superconducting magnet to a field strength of 20 Tesla, a landmark in fusion research. UKAEA’s MAST-U (Mega-Amp Spherical Tokamak- Upgrade) has also shown promising results after being tested for one of the key challenges of fusion, which is minimizing exhaust heat from the hot gas of fusion fuels.
There is rekindled hope in 2022 that nuclear fusion can be the ultimate source of clean, safe, disaster-resilient and cost-effective energy. With this, comes a number of challenges including political, regulatory and social challenges.
To address the challenges because of lack of a legal framework dedicated to fusion, the UK government released a fusion strategy in 2021. Non-nuclear regulation was proposed for nuclear fusion, as opposed to mature nuclear technologies. This is justified considering the fact that existing nuclear law regulations are mostly about the conventional uses of nuclear technology, which is nuclear fission. However, a dedicated regulatory framework for nuclear fusion is also necessary, considering the fact that there is no single way to achieve fusion. A one-size fits all approach when it comes to regulating nuclear fusion is impossible.
Additionally, nuclear fusion faces quite some issues with public acceptance. Author of “The Star Builders”, Arthur Turrell, says that nuclear fusion has the lowest of public support globally, as compared to any other source of energy. An IPSOS poll conducted after the tragedy of Fukushima indicated that some countries are planning on phasing out fission power altogether. Fission admittedly has detriments- radioactive waste, chances of reactor meltdowns, restricted supply of fuel and the potential of proliferation of nuclear weapons. Fusion, mostly, does not. Tritium, a primary element used in the D-T reactor, is radioactive but with a short half-life. This makes it no-where nearly as dangerous as a conventional radioactive fuel. The chances of meltdown are nil and chances of proliferation, very limited. It is hence important that we give fusion a fair chance at commercialization which is possible only if there is substantial public acceptance. There are three aspects to this. First, there needs to be a strict delineation of nuclear fission and fusion. The general public are not always aware of the difference. This is a genuine handicap with countries with lower awareness on nuclear energy. Second, the term “nuclear” adds to the negative branding of fusion. The term “nuclear” is mostly associated with unfortunate incidents like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and this has only added to repulsion of nuclear power as a source of energy, in people’s perception. Public acceptance of any technology is crucial to its commercial success and an important aspect of effective policy-making. The word “nuclear” is also specifically muted from life-saving medical devices including nuclear magnetic resonance imaging devices.
In face of these, it is important that we understand that we understand the state of public acceptance of nuclear fusion. By public, we refer to rank and file customers, governments, NGOs including environmental groups and the public utility commission and it is only through fruitful coordination between these parties and general awareness that nuclear fusion can attain a commercially acceptable position.
About the author– Anwita Mukherjee is an incoming MPP candidate at UChicago and an alumna of the esteemed Queen Mary University of London. Her area of specialization is international law, particularly energy and environmental law. She has an extensive experience with organizations across India, UK and Singapore. She is a partner and one of the founding members of Vidma Consulting Group.