Fusion, Fission and the N Word (nuclear)

Posted by Rezwan Razani on Aug 07, 2013 at 11:34 AM
What do you think about this? Let us know in the comments below!

In light of the stigma associated with the word, “nuclear,” how should fusion position itself with respect to fission?

The Nuclear Stigma

Nuclear energy has a bad rap.  The word “nuclear” is associated with mushroom clouds, chain reactions, meltdowns, radiation, the cold war, Chernobyl, chaos and terror.

No wonder many fusion proponents are quick to disassociate from the N word. 

First Response:  Disassociating

Disassociation is accomplished by simply avoiding the “N” word.  You can say that fusion is “clean energy” or “green energy.” 

When that doesn’t work (for example, when people say, “but isn’t it nuclear?”) you need other ways to downplay the nuclear-ness of fusion.  The time-honored way of doing this is to use the Jedi mind trick, “this is not the nuclear you’re looking for;” or, “fusion isn’t really “nuclear” per se - because it’s not fission.” 

Putting “nuclear” in quotes also helps.

An example of this approach and the logic behind it comes from J.D., who posted this on our Facebook page:

I think there need to be information and awareness campaigns to educate the general public about the differences between fission and fusion, even if we don’t have viable commercial fusion reactors yet. If your average TED-ster doesn’t know the difference, it may take a decade (or more) to get the public to think of fusion as something different, safer, and more desirable than “nuclear” (fission) power with which they are familiar, and terrified.

Differentiation is not Disassociation

I am all for educating people on the differences between fission and fusion, and even between the various fusion approaches.  The primary goal of the Fusion Experiment Tracker is to systematically differentiate fusion projects from one another.  Going forward, we want to use it to inspire the broader “Energy League and brackets” campaign. 

This differentiation is good, because it’s rational and seeks to bring forward the best information for decision making.  In contrast, disassociation is not so good.  Here’s why.

Trouble with Disassociation

JD’s post points out the following facts:

1) People are terrified by nuclear energy.
2) People are familiar with nuclear fission (the “bad” one).
3) People can’t tell the difference between fusion and fission.  (Here are some French people protesting fusion
4) It could take a decade (or more) of intensive education just to get people to tell the difference.
5) The “education” campaigns also require an emotional dimension: they have to get people to see fusion as safer and more desirable.
6) Fusion doesn’t have viable commercial reactors yet.  Fission does.

What’s the trouble? 

Constraints:  Our constraints are highlighted in #4.  “It could take a decade or more” to educate anyone in anything.  We’ve got a long road ahead of us, no matter which approach we take.  Whatever message you’re putting out, it will take creativity, energy, hours of your life, money, to get it across.

Getting the Message Right:  With the Experiment Tracker, we’ll help people differentiate fusion and fission.  That’s not the disassociation message. 

The disassociation message relates to #5 - to get people to see fusion as “safer and more desirable” than fission.  However,

  • Fusion doesn’t have viable commercial reactors yet.  Fission does.  Thus fusion is more desirable in the future, but is at a disadvantage in the present.
  • The most expedient way to get people to see fusion as safer and more desirable is to play up the idea that nuclear fission is unsafe and undesirable. 

But is it?

Where things took a wrong turn. 

JD’s #1 point was that people are terrified of nuclear energy.

But should they be?

This is the question we should have asked in the first place:  Is nuclear energy as bad as people think? 

No.  It’s not.  See Pandora’s Promise.  And read Nuclear Pride and Prejudice.  And this “Unite and Conquer” post.  And just look at this chart. Nuclear is 4000 times less lethal than coal, 1000 times less than oil.  FYI, it’s about on par with wind and a bit better than solar.

In light of the dramatic safety of fission, it appears the fusion community is squandering its energy in trying to disassociate.  Worse, the process of disassociation causes it to reinforce the nuclear stigma and misinformation. 

What’s the Harm?

Fusion research won’t happen if people don’t support it.  The negative view of fission is holding fusion back.  So what difference does it make if we reinforce negative fission stereotypes to win support for fusion?

Lives are at stake.  Progress is at stake.  And we’re alienating potential partners.

Look at the chart above again.  Not only is fission safe, it’s one of the safest forms of energy on earth.  Switching from coal to fission would save millions and millions of lives, and slow down global warming.  And unlike fusion - the fission concepts are ready today.  Why would we try to cloud up that message?

Collaboration and Fusion Message Recalibration

Listen to your messaging.  Are you saying that fusion will be a better energy source once it comes on line, or are you saying that fission is intrinsically bad and must be eschewed?  In either case, when you talk to people who can’t even tell the difference between fusion and fission - what do you think they will hear?

With Pandora’s Promise, the broader nuclear energy community is undergoing a re-branding process and looking towards future innovations.  Here is a report from the Breakthrough Institute on next generation nuclear energy.  Notice that it includes fusion.  This opens up an excellent strategy.  Lobby together WITH nuclear proponents for a greater nuclear energy innovation budget that includes fusion.  Build relationships from a larger pool of interested people. 

The fusion community should be an active part of this process.  It’s going to take time and resources to spread any message you choose.  You may as well choose a message that makes the world a better place both in the present and the future.  You may as well take advantage of the strength in numbers that comes from working with the rest of the nuclear advocates. 

Fusion Proponents have a choice. 

You can keep up the criticism of fission for the same tired reasons as more ideological environmentalists.  This will make you a barrier to the adoption of fission, responsible for some of those lives lost to coal and oil and for the continued increase in global warming.  Or you could help educate people on the utility of nuclear energy.  Start speaking in a more inclusive way about the range of nuclear options.  Be part of a bigger movement, headed more effectively to a brighter future.

What is your choice?  What are your thoughts?  Discuss below.

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