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Published on April 20th, 2016 | by Robyn Purchia

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HBO’s VICE Looks At Our Energy Future

April 20th, 2016 by  

The Future of Energy 1

For years, HBO’s investigative news series, VICE, has given viewers a glimpse of how climate change is impacting the world. From glacier melt in Greenland and Antarctica, to rising seas in Bangladesh, VICE has provided alarming documentation that our planet is, indeed, in trouble. But last Friday, Shane Smith, VICE’s co-founder and CEO, offered viewers some hope for our future: clean energy.

The episode applauds the commitment global leaders made to a clean energy future last December at the climate conference in Paris. It also features interviews with many major players in the field, including former–Secretary of Energy Dr. Steven Chu and cleantech’s wonder boy, Elon Musk. But solar power and electric cars just seem to be stepping stones in the episode. Nuclear energy is the future, according to the VICE crew.

Smith met with Taylor Wilson, the Doogie Howser of the physics world who achieved nuclear fusion in his garage at age 14. At the beginning of the episode, the two are blowing things up in the Nevada desert. Wilson also shows Smith some “yellow cake” he made and takes him on a hunt for ore. Although Smith seems delighted with the young man, he did ask Wilson how nuclear energy could overcome the many environmental challenges it faces, specifically referencing the disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima.

“You design a reactor that are these sealed compacted modular units that produces power from fission, from the splitting of uranium, whether it’s decommissioned weapons, spent nuclear fuel … all the stuff we don’t know what to do with, take it and produce electricity from it,” Wilson answered.

According to VICE, there are 67,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel from power plants and 3 billion tons of uranium waste in the United States. Wilson suggests burning the fuel and waste, instead of spending money to store it. He designed a very small reactor that he says is safe, can eat up the waste, can run for 30 years without refueling, and can power 10,000 homes.

If that sounds good, just wait. The “holy grail” according to Wilson is nuclear fusion. The fuel is virtually limitless and produces no carbon or toxic waste.

“Fusion is where we’re going,” Wilson told Smith outside the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. The lab has advanced both shale oil extraction and nuclear fusion technology. “Fusion is the energy source we need if we’re going to exist thousands of years as a society in the future.”

While scientists make fusion reactions all the time, they don’t have “ignition” or the capability to get more energy out than is being put in. But this could change in coming decades. Smith traveled to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (“ITER”) in Provence, France, where the international community hopes to start fusion experiments in the next 10 years, as well as the Culhalm Centre for Fusion Energy in England, which holds the record for fusion energy produced.

While giving viewers a close look at the work these laboratories are doing, the episode paints a hopeful picture of humanity’s future powered by rings of heated nuclear plasma.

But is nuclear energy really the answer? Are solar plants, Teslas, and battery packs merely stepping stones to a nuclear-powered clean energy future? These questions are actually the subject of a debate that has heated up by those in the field since Paris; specifically, whether we should focus much time, money, and research in nuclear energy or in deploying renewable energy, and which energy source is the stepping stone. (The debate is a refreshing break from the idiocy of debating climate science.)

Check out the recent episode on HBO or on HBO NOW/HBO GO and let us know what you think. Smith also has this short debrief on the episode.


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About the Author

I'm an organic-eating, energy-saving naturalist who composts and tree hugs in her spare time. I have a background in environmental law, lobbying, field work, and most recently writing. Be inspired to connect your spirit to environmentalism on my site Eden Keeper. You can also find me on Twitter, Facebook, and .



  • Solar and (by then) batteries will have most probably already obsoleted the bulky first generation fusion, when it arrives.

    We need developments in laser and quantum tech, to make “fusion on a chip” (safely).

  • Calamity_Jean

    We will have a fusion-powered future! The fusion reactor just needs to be positioned far enough away from populated areas.

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    93 million miles is about right.

    • Solar will have already obsoleted first gen fusion – but “fusion on a chip” is required to clean up the (then) worn down and broken hundreds of thousands of sq miles of “old fashioned” solar arrays, not to mention a real energy intense way of reversing global warming by directly converting excess CO2 into limestone.(It will enable flying autocars, too)! Advancements in laser and quantum tech just might make super mini fusion thee planet saving possibility.

      • Calamity_Jean

        Solar IS fusion. It converts the fusion energy of the sun, pouring onto us from 93 million miles away, into electricity. We won’t have time to develop “fusion on a chip” unless we convert our worldwide power system to renewables quickly.

        • The world demands the equivalent of about 18 terawatts, constantly, and still growing steadily (erasing poverty with infrastructure and some RE). More than 18 terawatts of clean generating capacity at 100% capacity factor will have to be built to replace fossil fuels, to account for growth and energy required to make billions of large batteries and solar, wind, etc. On the bright side, RE does not lose the 60% or so to heat in the steam conversion to electricity, as with fossil fuels. However, their capacity factors are only in the 20 to 30% range. Again, extra power will be needed to make billions of large batteries and the RE and support structures.
          Sticking with “just” 20 terawatts of capacity (and LOTS of efficiency), How much coverage is needed to power the world and its transportation, agricultural, etc (if mostly solar, the source with the most potential)?
          Each sq meter of 20% efficient panel will generate 200 watts in “perfect” conditions. That’s exactly 100,000 square kilometers. Northern latitudes will require even more solar and batteries (or other storage) suggesting that we’ll need double or triple that amount.
          Hopefully, environmentalists DON’T try to stop that kind of necessary solar and battery capacity.
          But they will try because they either don’t know these very simple fundamental energy numbers or downright think that humanity doesn’t deserve a modern lifestyle (except for them)!

          • Calamity_Jean

            I don’t think any nation will ever be entirely powered by solar. The Solutions Project ( http://thesolutionsproject.org/ ) at Stanford University has worked out potential mixes of renewable energy for most nations, and the most solar of any country is Algeria, with about 97% solar. Russia, OTOH, is over 70% wind. In general, nations farther from the equator have less solar and more wind or hydroelectric power.

            “Hopefully, environmentalists DON’T try to stop that kind of necessary solar and battery capacity.

            But they will try because they either don’t know the fundamental energy math or downright think that humanity doesn’t deserve a modern lifestyle (except for them).”

            I don’t know what gives you the impression that environmentalists are opposed to most people having a comfortable lifestyle. Environmentalists are generally opposed to fossil fuel development or extensive use in developing countries because all too often fossil fuels result in a deterioration of people’s lives, not an improvement. Genuine environmentalists almost always regard the installation of renewable energy with enthusiasm.

          • Because they have to also protect the land. Maybe I was getting to rough on them but, in the desert pass in California, they tried to stop “big wind” and also, in the high desert, they are trying to stop “big solar”.

          • I understand that there must a a better way to place solar in the desert. I believe that they are saying “no bull dozing of the land” and object because of that. However, instead of simply saying “NO!, not in my backyard” they should be saying “how can we install hundreds of gigawatts of solar without grading“. The installation process must become as simple as installing a bunch of fence posts.

          • Bob_Wallace

            There are solar farms where metal posts are simply driven into the ground and trackers/panels bolted on top.

          • Calamity_Jean

            By “the desert pass in California”, are you referring to the Altamont Pass Wind Farm? The original version of that wind farm was objectionable for its high rate of bird kills, which happened because of the now-obsolete design of the wind turbines. Those turbines are being (or have been, I’m not up-to-date on the progress) removed and replaced with a smaller number of modern design turbines that both produce much more power and harm many fewer birds. AFAIK, environmentalists that are familiar with the situation at Altamont Pass do not object to the new turbines.

            Regarding “in the high desert, they are trying to stop ‘big solar'”, I believe that some environmentalists objected to solar farms proposed for parts of the desert that were the homes of rare or endangered plants or animals. Essentially what they were saying was, “There’s lots of desert out there, why can’t the solar farms go somewhere that threatened species don’t live?” To me, that doesn’t seem to be an unreasonable question.

          • Bob_Wallace

            The desert pass is Tehancipi, down south not far from LA. Altamont Pass is just east of San Francisco in rolling hills which are covered with grass.

            The most important part of the SW desert federal lands have been excluded for use. No wind farms, no solar farms, no mines, no oil drilling, no cattle grazing, no off road vehicles.

          • Calamity_Jean

            I’ve never been to California, I’m not familiar with its geography.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Some of the best geography in the world…. ;o)

          • The locals in Lucerne Valley seemed to be all opposed because of NIMBY.
            No matter what, there’ll be a species to be concerned about. That’s why they should spend the extra 1% or so to not kill off the entire ground (instead of trying to kill solar projects altogether).
            As for the wind turbines, i was referring to about 400 miles south by San Gorgonio pass by Banning. They were already in the process of building state of the art turbines back then about 15 years ago (but were only about 1/2 to about .7 MW each). I think it was some kind of political thing against the Indians/NIMBY ism. There’s far less birds in this desert region.

            For the most part, environmentalists think that we don’t need much energy. Most think that just rooftop alone can provide all the power for everything, forgetting about industry, transportation and growth.

          • Bob_Wallace

            “For the most part, environmentalists think that we don’t need much energy. Most think that just rooftop alone can provide all the power for everything, forgetting about industry, transportation and growth.”

            That’s simply BS.

          • That was quick!
            It seems most people i talk to on the internet think that’s all we need. Oh, and biofuels but i don’t have much hope for biofuels beyond what we already burn.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I’d guess that 90+% of the people I see talking about ‘solar only’ are pro-nuclear and pro-fossil fuel industry people delivering red herrings.

            There’s a lot more potential for biofuel. I don’t know how much of it we might develop.

            There are plants like switchgrass which grow on land that isn’t of high enough quality for food/fiber production. They grow on ‘burned out’ cotton land, for example. They’re perennial natives of the US so need no watering or fertilizer once established. They can be harvested once or twice a year and used for ethanol. They fix carbon below ground with massive root structures and improve the soil.

            Wheat farmers could grow an oilseed crop between wheat crops when the land typically lies fallow. That would lower topsoil erosion and provide additional income for the farm. Oilseed crops don’t need fertilizer (they grow with what wheat leaves behind) and they help lower runoff into streams.

            Then there is the potential that we could turn algae or duckweed into fuel. Grow them on waste water.

            There may be some niches that are hard to electrify (flying, transoceanic shipping) that might be best covered by biofuels. The trick is to find affordable biofuels which don’t reduce food/fiber production and don’t lower land quality.

          • Thanks for making it clear that biofuels CAN help out. The fact that it makes better soils is something i overlooked.
            I think part of the reason i had doubts is because people (in my past) say there is no need to ship solar electricity via long powerlines, like across oceans and also were against desert solar. I would counter by suggesting that in the winter, it might not be enough to simply over build both the solar and the batteries when HVDC could do the job (depending on overall energy requirements and efficiency loss). Even rooftop could be better utilized when they start generating too much power at one place, it could be shipped overseas where needed, across seasons and from day to night.
            I have given up on nuclear because people can err.
            Thanks.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Overseas, i.e. to/from North America to Europe or Asia, is probably too far. Just not needed.

            Within continents, parts of continents, we should find enough wind, solar and hydro (the ‘big three’ resources) to create grids without drastic overbuilding and storage.

            From Seattle to the AZ border with Mexico is about 1,500 miles. That gives access to SW solar, PNW and Idaho hydro, Wyoming and PHW wind and Nevada geothermal. It wouldn’t take much more to include northwest Mexico wind and solar along with British Columbia hydro. “Everything west of the Rockies” is likely a large enough grid.

            East of the Rockies has excellent wind, hydro and very good solar. Some transmission between East of and West of might make sense.

          • Calamity_Jean

            “For the most part, environmentalists think that we don’t need much energy. Most think that just rooftop alone can provide all the power for everything, forgetting about industry, transportation and growth.”

            This may be true of a few, but MOST of us recognize that rooftop solar alone is not sufficient at this time.

          • I just want to say that i appreciate all the efforts that you guys do to transition from fossil fuels and protect the land and animals.
            Apologies for any remarks against environmentalists from my part.
            Most people don’t seem to have the time (and I’m not professional about it, just a house painter that cares about the best way to collect and store lots of solar energy).
            I’ll always promote solar and try to make possible the realization of how vast it has to be (and how exponential growth can make that happen) however i can.

  • brunurb

    I was disappointed when I watched the episode, they spent so much time talking about fusion, and all the “potential” it has, 10-15 years in the future, with “experimental reactors”, which means commercial availability probably another 10 years after that, IF it works as planned. By that time, it will be too little, too late if we are relying on it for a cleaner grid.

  • We don’t need anything nuclear. If something has to be mined, then it is
    by definition not renewable. Here’s the solar energy map that shows how
    we could get all the energy that we use from solar alone. Renewable
    energy is the solution, not nuclear.

    • Does this account for the area needed for mining the materials for the large scale structures required for RE only in a still developing world? Does this account for the (RE) energy required to make RE and its storage (and planet spanning HVDC lines, which I think would be really cool)? The laws of physics state that we can’t continue to use fossil fuels to make RE collection and storage systems forever. Consider a “local only” approach to solar energy: In the wintertime, there will not be enough sun to power the energy needed to make enough panels to charge up a few hours of sun into enough energy to make itself, and the many multiples of that amount of energy generation into battery storage. There are fundamental limits which boundaries are defined by Energy Returned on Energy Invested, and, in the case with RE, Energy Stored on energy Invested.
      You see, RE will be eventually be required to recycle many thousands of sq mi (if not hundreds of thousands) of “old fashioned” solar panels, too.

      I’m not saying that RE isn’t possible without oil subsidy, I’m just saying, it’s not possible without global coverage (to instantly provide winter areas with “summer” sunlight, necessary to get the ERoEI and ESOI to higher, more affordable levels).

      The real action is in miniature fusion (because solar probably already obsoleted first gen fusion)!

      • Nuclear is not needed.

        Yes, it accounts for the energy needed to make RE technology.
        Wintertime is not a problem. Storage is not a problem.

        Neutral (in fact negative) energy buildings are possible now.
        Solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, wave energy is all that’s needed using current technology.

        • Yes, we need solar on every sunny roof, between freeway corridors, above all parking lots, etc, as tidal and wave doesn’t offer nearly as much potential as wind and solar. Wind might have to deploy “bird herding drones”, if at all possible in the future.
          I’m sure we can do it without nuclear. However, people have to realize that the world will demand MORE energy despite of whatever efficiency improvements in the future.
          As for long distance, there is nothing wrong with powerlines, especially since not all residences could obtain their own RE. If it costs less to ship the power (like we “ship images on the net, today) than to build the extra panels and batteries, then – why not?

  • We don’t need anything nuclear. If something has to be mined, then it is by definition not renewable. Here’s the wind energy map that shows how we could get all the energy that we use from wind alone. Renewable energy is the solution, not nuclear.

  • fiddie

    Great to see a major series like Vice looking at the energy sector without rose coloured glasses. Several Small Modular Reactor designs will be commercialized by 2030, which could mean one SMR coming online each day. Just in time, too.

    • Bob_Wallace

      You fantasize that SMRs will ever make it to the real world.

      Please keep your nuclear fantasies off this site. It attracts the wrong kind of people….

      • This is probably the only comment section of this site that asked for nuclear comments?
        Nevertheless, I stand with the idea of printing solar and solid state batteries, after the solid electrolyte is fully developed, because they can charge in freezing temps and can handle the almost boiling temps of being placed in close proximity together in an EV pack. Nowadays, EV’s still need water cooling…(which will eventually cause problems like old water cooling systems do now in gas cars). Solid batteries will thus reduce weight, too.
        What will really kick off RE storage is that StarShot deal where the cool billionaires want to propel miniature phone like craft to two tenths the speed of light to the Alpha Centauri system using a whopping 100 gigawatts within just two minutes. This ability, if developed, could make it possible for supercapcitors to become the dominant source of electrical storage, at least to be able to capture all (EV) breaking energy and for stationary storage.
        Also, this feat requires that lasers might have to improve a bit, too. If so, we might develop lasers that can initiate fusion reactions. Speculation from there suggests that we’ll be able to eventually create fusion on a chip, which is about the only way fusion will obsolete solar. First gen fusion will be as (or more) bulky than any fission we could come up with today, hence it, too, will already be obsoleted by solar and battery tech!
        Only fusion on a chip will be able to obsolete solar, provide a means to REALLY clean up our present adolescent mess, clean up them hundreds of thousands of square miles of (future) solar coverage (and provide then present autocars, the means to fly)!

  • nakedChimp

    Humans need fusion when they want/need to leave the planet.. currently we “just” need to exist here and RE can deliver all the power we could possibly want RIGHT NOW so we can turn off the FF burning to make it into a future where we need/want fusion.

    Do RE now, keep fusion for later.

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