When is a Breakthrough not a Breakthrough


I’m a bit of a buff when it comes to nuclear energy and a recent story racing through the internet involves a breakthrough in Nuclear Fusion.

I’m not going to get into a highly technical discussion about Nuclear Fusion or even the details of this particularly breakthrough. If you want to know more then please click the link above for a thorough and excellent article discussing the breakthrough and the challenges that lie ahead.

Free Energy

In this situation the headlines blared about an important breakthrough in nuclear fusion that promised endless and almost free energy. This is a concept I’ve talked about before. The possibility of such a thing is tantalizing and the effects on our world all but incalculable.

The Breakthrough that Isn’t

The problem with the blaring headlines and ridiculous promises engendered by them is it really isn’t the breakthrough people imagine. Yes, it’s an important breakthrough on the way to potentially using controlled nuclear fusion to generate energy. The problem is it’s nowhere near what is necessary to provide energy. Much more energy was used to create the nuclear fusion than was generated by it.

This is a problem with misleading headlines. A regular feature of mine that I’ve let slip the last couple of years. In any case, this story is not what people imagine and that’s the problem.

In this case the misleading headline is technically true but practically false. Again, for a full discussion of why this is the case, click the link provided.


Now I get to the point of this blog. What are the ramifications of publishing information about a breakthrough when many people will completely misunderstand the issue? Is it a dire situation? Not really. Most people will misunderstand the breakthrough but there is largely no practical problem with this confusion.

Controlled nuclear fusion is not coming anytime soon, if ever and no headline or personal belief on the matter will change that.

However, there is great potential for harm. Let’s imagine some fast-talking con-artist out there who wants your money and promises to make a fantastic, easy to build, nuclear fusion reactor. Lots of people give money to that person who spends a few years spouting out false promises only to fail to deliver in the end. What if that fast-talking con-artist manages to convince people in government; local, state, and federal, to give her or him a huge amount of tax-payer funds? What if that person becomes the richest person in the world or just merely a billionaire?

I think you see the problem. Con-artists love this sort of story in the same way they love conspiracy theories. It gets people excited and thinking irrationally. A fool and his or her money, as the saying goes.

What to Do?

My solution is almost always the same. Teach critical thinking skills at every level of education starting in preschool. If you’ve spent time watching science videos about nuclear fusion then you’ll be skeptical the moment you see the breakthrough headline. You’ll immediately seek out other sources to confirm it and you won’t be taken in by Theranos, I mean a con-artist.


If something looks too good to be true, it is. I’m not the first to say as much.

Tom Liberman

Nuclear Plant

Nuclear Power – Pros and Cons

Nuclear PowerToday I’ll try to examine the arguments for and against Nuclear Power. It’s a controversial subject to say the least and I think it definitely needs a further study. It is also an incredibly important argument because energy is the driving factor in many of the issues the world and the United States face.

The need for energy in the modern world continues to rise and how we get that energy and who profits from payments for that energy is a key to future economic power. The rise of the fundamentalist Islamic state was certainly fueled by oil money more than any other factor and the revenue that will be generated by future, ever increasing, energy demands is a topic well worth discussion.

Wikipedia, as usual, rises to the occasion with an excellent article about the debate over Nuclear Power but I’ll try to summarize here as best as possible.

Energy Source

There is little argument here. Nuclear power is a tremendous energy source, just look at the sun, and has the potential to provide all the energy the world needs for the almost infinite future.

Energy Security

This is not about the safety of nuclear energy but about how a country can cut dependence on other nations for their energy demands. Again, for the United States, there is little argument here. Nuclear frees us from foreign dependence. We don’t have the oil reserves to sustain ourselves. I know, I know, we have shale. People, it doesn’t count. It’s not really feasible as a substitute for Light Sweet Crude and it’s not even better than coal for simple power plants. It’s filthy, expensive to extract, and basically not worth talking about compared to nuclear. If anyone tells you the U.S. has huge deposits of oil this is what they are talking about and they are, essentially, lying to you.


Again, nuclear beats out wind, tide, and sun for its reliability. Always on, always ready. However, there is argument that nuclear plants are likely to shut down under extreme conditions. I see this but frankly, so are conventional plants. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that nuclear power is less reliable than other sources.


This is a difficult one to track down. The basic idea is how much does it cost to produce the same amount of energy from nuclear, coal, wind, sun, tide, etc. There are a number of studies on this and it is absolutely true that while at initial glance nuclear power seems cheap there are factors including massive government subsidies to start up plants. Many people will quote the cost of energy in France, very low, but they don’t take into account that the entire nuclear system was built with government money.

Fairly reliable data indicates nuclear costs more than coal, gas, and hydroelectric but less than others. However, as infrastructure for solar and wind increase their cost will drop. It’s a tough one to answer directly. I’d say it’s fair to call nuclear competitive.

Environmental Impact

This is one that nuclear appears to lose, hands down. But, on closer examination it actually does quite well, particularly in comparison to coal which has a large negative impact. Miners lose their lives, filth enters the air and water, etc. Nuclear is largely clean except if disaster strikes. But, when disaster strikes it is bad. Oil spills are bad as well. Clearly, wind, wave, and solar have a lesser impact but solar panels require chemicals to produce and wind turbines take their toll on wildlife. In conclusion I’d have to side with renewable energy on this one.


Ah, the Achilles Heel of nuclear power. What to do with the waste. One possibility is Thorium reactors which don’t produce nearly the large amount of toxicity of uranium and plutonium reactors. Still, they produce highly toxic waste. Storing this waste is a huge problem, not in that we don’t have vast tracts of land available to store it, but do we have the political will to open up those lands and drive the waste across the country to them?


Another thorn in the side of nuclear power. Accidents happen and in nuclear power they can cause utter devestation. Still, oil spills cause far more damage every year than nuclear accidents. France has been on the nuclear grid for many years without a single mishap. Still, the more plants out there increases the chance of accidents like in Japan.

Proposed Fourth Generation plants are definitely safer and Thorium plants actually have very little chance of disaster as they cool naturally over time if a mishap occurs.

Nuclear Proliferation and Terrorism

This is yet another problem for nuclear power. The byproduct of Uranium and Plutonium plants is material that can be converted into a powerful nuclear bomb. If stolen this presents a huge danger to the world. Thorium plants produce less dangerous material but still presents dangers.

All right, I’ve gone on pretty long here. I’ll save my conclusions until tomorrow but hopefully you have a better idea of the pros and cons of nuclear power.

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Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist