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.)