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Fission vs fusion nuclear energy: Which fits market economic principles?
28 December 2022
It is well known that the peaceful use of nuclear energy is difficult to reconcile with the principles of market economies.
One of these principles is that risk and liability should go hand in hand. Anyone who invests should be allowed to keep the benefit from the investment (mainly in the form of profits). However, they should also be liable for the negative consequences of this investment.
If one builds a house, they should be able to keep the rental income if they rent it out. But they is also responsible for the safety of their residents. If they is held accountable in the event of a house collapse, they will ensure that the occupants live in a safe home.
Whoever benefits must also bear the damage. – Only if societies stick to that principle investment decisions that are made in a market economy are for the benefit of all.
The current peaceful use of nuclear energy doesn't fit that principle. For two reasons.
First, in the event of a nuclear accident, the damage could be so extensive that the company operating the nuclear power plant would not be able to pay for the damage (not to mention that the deaths of people cannot be offset with money).
Second, the costs of the final disposal of nuclear waste are written in the stars. Also because costs may arise in the distant future (if, for example, the stored barrels are no longer tight and new types of closures have to be found). But then, hundreds of years from now, the company operating the nuclear power plant will no longer exist. It can no longer be held responsible.
Therefore, the state can only handle the final storage of nuclear waste in a meaningful way. In Germany, for example, this is the case. With a one-off payment of 23 billion euros to the state, the federal government has permanently relieved all nuclear energy companies of their responsibility for the interim and final storage of nuclear waste.
Nobody knows if this amount will be enough.
However, many countries continue to rely on nuclear energy. Because the present cost is relatively low. And because nuclear fission doesn't release carbon dioxide.
Climate change has given new impetus to proponents of nuclear energy. But the disadvantages cannot be ignored.
What could solve the dilemma is a new form of nuclear power: Nuclear fusion energy.
Nuclear fusion is the process by which two light atomic nuclei combine to form a single heavier one while releasing massive amounts of energy (more here).
A breakthrough in this possible form of energy production was announced a few days ago. US scientists were the first to generate a reaction that created more energy than consumed (more here).
The significant advantage of fusion energy is safety. Unlike nuclear fission, nuclear fusion does not create long-lived radioactive waste. Plus: Since fusion does not lend itself to runaway reactions, it might be safer and less expensive.
The disadvantage: Fusion energy doesn‘t help with decarbonisation since it will take decades to establish the new technology.
Sabine Hossenfelder, a German physicist, explains the topic very vividly in the New York Times. I recommend reading her text. It's an investment in your basic knowledge since there is some evidence that generating electricity from fusion nuclear energy is a topic that will keep us busy.
The Strolling Economist