Unfair trade-off: Breakthrough puts pressure on science
Scanning the coverage of the nuclear fusion “energy breakthrough” announced by the US National Ignition Facility (NIF) on December 13 has been telling.
Sure, it was exciting news: researchers said they had successfully generated a “net energy gain” using nuclear fusion in a lab — and that had never been done before.
Advocates of nuclear fusion say it is cleaner and safer than nuclear fission — the latter being the process we use in current nuclear power stations.
They can leak life-threatening radiation if destabilized in a war zone, such as Ukraine, or if there’s an accident after a tsunami, such as at Fukushima in 2011, and they generally produce heaps of radioactive waste, which we bury in the ground, hoping the problem — and it is a problem — will magically disappear.
Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, poses little or no meltdown risk, according to its advocates at ITER, a research facility in France, who also say that the reactor materials used in the process can be recycled or reused within 100 to 300 years.
That is well beyond most of our lifetimes, but okay: it was a first, a breakthrough, so the scientists at NIF deserve a round of applause. But reading around, there was a distinct undertone among some observers and experts that we’ll be wiser if we “don’t believe the hype.” There’s this old cliché that “nuclear fusion is the future of energy and always will be.”
And I feel NIF’s experiment has highlighted that idea. The “net energy gain” they produced was, by all accounts, minimal. The news conveniently ignored the costs of development so far, and the fact that scientists have no idea how to build a workable nuclear fusion power station, let alone create enough power from it to light a street of houses.
So, to claim that we’ve achieved a major energy breakthrough — at a time when most of the world is struggling to pay for conventional energy to heat homes, businesses, schools, hospitals or shelters for the homeless — a claim that we’re close to achieving abundant, clean energy made with almost nothing but seawater, is indeed, quite frankly, hype. We are not there yet. Not by a longshot.
You could argue that societies need hype, just like we need hope — if it’s positive hype, it can paint constructive visions of the future and push people to innovate and find new solutions.
Nuclear fusion experts say the technology will one day be part of a sustainable energy mix. And in that sense, the breakthrough is encouraging.
But I do worry about the unrealistic expectations that such small breakthroughs can inspire, including NIF’s nuclear fusion experiment — which, by the way, still needs to be replicated by other researchers before we can truly evaluate its benefit.
Scientists set themselves up for a fall whenever their enthusiasm is left unchecked. Remember CERN’s claim in 2011 that they had observed neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light? Neutrinos are essential in our universe and how it hangs together.
And the speed of light is a basic law in physics that truly dictates our ways of life, certainly in technology. So, CERN’s experiment would have upended everything, if it had been true.
But remember how CERN also had to retract the claim when they discovered that a loose fiber optic cable may have fudged their facts? That’s unchecked enthusiasm for you. I understand why scientists may feel the need for a little bit of hype, especially since the dawn of fake news, Donald Trump’s presidency, and COVID anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists.
But we’d be fools to leave this new found science celebrity itself unchecked. For one, we now all think we understand science like the scientists, but the truth is that we don’t. We’re also in danger of thinking scientists can fix everything in a flash, like COVID. And part of me feels that some scientists think that, too.
This article was provided by Deutsche Welle