Fusion vs. Fission: Why Fusion Serves as the Ethically Preferable Option

Lockheed Martin’s Compact Fusion Reactor

Context: Global warming; One of the most controversial yet pressing topic of discussion, now incorporated as a significant factor in almost every politician’s campaign. The fact is, the world is warming, and the NRDC predicts 2040 to be the year of no return unless greenhouse gas emissions slow down immensely. This timetable gives us 20 years to formulate policies and scientific innovations to ensure the survival of the human race. One of the most significant innovations is nuclear energy and all its potential. So far, there have been numerous nuclear fission plants in operation all across the world. There are approximately 100 reactors in the U.S., and 449 worldwide. Nuclear energy powered 10% of the world’s electricity production in 2016, 20% in the United States. An EIA study describes how nuclear power plants do not release any greenhouse gases during normal use, unlike the coal, oil, and natural gas industries; CO2 emissions from these industries are the “most long-lived ‘forces’ of climate change,” illustrating the immense efficacy of nuclear as an energy source. However, fission does have its drawbacks, both ethically and scientifically; I will discuss the ethical ramifications in the next section but for now, let’s focus on the scientific detriments.

The first and arguably most discussed issue with fission is the prospect of nuclear waste: the waste can last for hundreds of years, and there is no way to reliably get rid of it, resulting in its storage leaving large patches of land uninhabitable for centuries. Furthermore, there is only a set amount of uranium globally, and a Conserve Energy Future study concludes that “with the current rate of consumption of uranium, we have enough for another 70–80 years.” With plans to expand nuclear facilities and investments, it is evident that the supply will run out even sooner, leaving the plants virtually worthless. These problems, however, are solved by using fusion reactors as opposed to fission. Fusion essentially works by merging two hydrogen atoms in a fusion reactor to create helium and a vast amount of energy without generating nuclear waste. China and France are investing heavily in the project, with China’s “Artificial Sun’’ reactor being successfully powered up on December 2, 2020. The United States has yet to demonstrate support for fusion projects; however, numerous private companies such as Lockheed Martin and MIT CFS are working on creating fusion reactors.

Ethics of Nuclear Energy: For this post, we will observe nuclear energy through the prism of Intergenerational Justice, the philosophy of taking into account ramifications for future and past generations when making policy decisions. This form of justice is imperative to consider when discussing renewable energy policy options because a significant benefactor of these policies will be future generations. Additionally, if the wrong decision is made now, it might work for the present but could be catastrophic for future generations. Analyzing the two forms of nuclear energy, it is evident that one abides by the tenants of intergenerational justice while the other violates it. Increasing investment in fission can be detrimental for future generations; while an efficient energy source right now, a dependency on it will increase waste and result in the uranium supply being depleted quickly. Additionally, although fission plants will decrease carbon emissions, the waste is possibly even more destructive to the environment and ecosystem. As the limited source of uranium depletes, the plants will only become more costly to operate, until eventually they are shut down because there is simply no uranium left on Earth, causing significant issues for future generations both financially and environmentally. However, fusion avoids these issues by not generating radioactive waste in energy production and being a renewable source that will presumably be available for as long as it’s needed. By being both the ethically and environmentally superior option, it is clear that nuclear fusion is the future of energy.

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Armaan Khare-Arora

Exploring the moral & ethical dimensions of emerging policy and technology issues.