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The Green Life: The New Face of Nuclear Power?

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July 14, 2011

The New Face of Nuclear Power?

IStock_ReactorIn the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster and subsequent radioactivity scares, the term "nuclear power" has become significantly more shudder-worthy. Both Germany and Japan are planning to phase out nuclear power entirely, and the United States is starting to question the overall safety of its reactors as well. 

And while nuclear power is becoming increasingly associated with radioactive contamination and Chernobyl-esque wastelands in the public psyche (or atomic zombie apocalypses in the 13-year-old male psyche), the term may be too broad to be synonymous with potential for danger. 

Nuclear fission, which entails splitting the atomic nuclei of heavy elements like uranium, is responsible for powering all of the world's nuclear reactors. It is also responsible for catastrophic meltdowns, potential contamination from radioactive waste, and a slew of comic book fantasies about glowing rats and superpowers. But some believe that another favorite topic of science fiction writers, fusion power, may be a safe way to sate our growing energy appetite despite the reputation of its punier cousin.  

Scientists believe that nuclear fusion, in which the nuclei of light elements like hydrogen are shoved together to produce massive amounts of energy, may be a feasible way to generate most of our nation's electricity within a half-century or less. Current plans propose using gargantuan magnets or high powered lasers to contain fusion reactions, with the resultant heat being used rotate steam turbines, just like in modern fission reactors. The difference is that while current fission reactors require the unsustainable mining of rare, radioactive, and incredibly dangerous elements like plutonium for fuel, fusion reactors would require only hydrogen isotopes that could be readily extracted from our essentially inexhaustible reserves of seawater, scientists claim. And according to a New York Times article, we could expect to see the first working fusion reactor in just 20 years at an investment of $30 billion. Though that's a considerable amount of money, many believe that it's small price to pay for a sustainable technology that could supply massive amounts of power for the world's swelling population and alleviate our worries about mutant shark people for good.

The foremost fusion power research group, ITER, is currently working on a magnetic fusion reactor. If you are interested in the technology, stare at this diagram for a while and nod your head in understanding.

--Colin Griffin

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