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From Fission to Fusion: The Future of Nuclear (Part 1)

FEI LU, HOST: And now onto another form of clean energy. Nuclear energy is carbon-free and constant, meaning it doesn’t rely on sun or wind. And Governor Cuomo is calling for increased investment in clean energy, but some New Yorkers can be wary of nuclear power. Indian Point, one of the state’s four nuclear power plants, is set to close this month. In the first of our two part series, Kate Stockrahm reports on the move away from nuclear fission and the new energy source that might replace it.

KATE STOCKRAHM, BYLINE: Nuclear fission, a reaction which splits apart atoms to release energy, is responsible for around a third of New York state’s power supply. But fission plants are closing after years of being priced out by cheaper options, like natural gas, and tax incentives for renewables, like wind and solar. Plus, some, like Governor Cuomo, consider nuclear plants dangerous.

GOVERNOR CUOMO: And we will take bold steps to make us safer. New York City sits 30 miles from a ticking time bomb: the Indian Point Power Plant.

STOCKRAHM: But while nuclear fission is on its way out fusion may be on its way in. Tyler Ellis is a scientific advisor to a fusion development company. He says fusion, as the name suggests, involves combining atoms rather than splitting them. It creates more energy than the sources which have priced out fission.

TYLER ELLIS: If you were to burn a methane atom -- natural gas -- or just kind of a small carbon atom of coal it releases two electron volts worth of energy.

STOCKRAHM: For reference, a trillion electron volts is about the kinetic energy of a flying mosquito.

ELLIS: Now, if you fuse two hydrogen atoms together, it releases 14.7 million electron volts worth of energy. It’s a huge difference in energy density.

STOCKRAHM: And in carbon emission. Nuclear energy doesn’t produce greenhouse gases. And, unlike fission, fusion uses hydrogen instead of uranium or plutonium. So the waste from a fusion reaction is much less dangerous. Some of it is just helium! The stuff we use to fill balloons and make our voices sound like this.

The atoms that fuel fusion reactions can be pulled from most water sources, including the ocean.

ELLIS: So what that means is that a very small amount of water can actually provide energy, you know, for a whole family for their entire lives. I mean, it's essentially the opportunity for limitless energy.

STOCKRAHM: New York has plenty of water access, but in an emailed statement, the Department of Public Service said: though fusion technology is “promising” it’s not yet ready “for commercial application.” But it’s close!

Richard Hawryluk is with the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab. He’s also chair of a committee working to bring fusion to the U.S. power grid for the Department of Energy.

RICHARD HAWRYLUK: We have produced power from fusion. We produced 10 million watts of fusion power for a little less than a second back in the mid 90s.

STOCKRAHM: For the record, Hawryluk says he and his fellow scientists know consumers want power for more than a second.

HAWRYLUK: You really want it for days at a time. And so we addressed: how do you solve the technical issues, scientific issues, regulatory issues, such that you can actually build a pilot plant?

STOCKRAHM: Hawryluk believes a plant is possible in the next two decades. But it could happen sooner. The U.S. is one of 35 countries working together on ITER an industrial scale fusion reactor. Laban Coblentz is with ITER.

COBLENTZ: It is a strange exercise in science diplomacy. It's one of those rare opportunities where science converges in the hope of building a legacy for our future.

STOCKRAHM: But it won’t just take science. It will take politicians too, like whoever New York’s governor may be in 2040.

Kate Stockrahm, Columbia Radio News.

FEI LU, HOST: Next week, in part two of our series, Kate will report on regulations facing fusion in New York.


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