Nuclear fusion might be the best medicine

The Engineer

Events in Japan have once again polarised the debate on nuclear power. While its proponents are aggressively reaffirming its role in averting a global energy crisis, there’s a fresh momentum to the arguments of its detractors.

However, as this issue’s big story looking at industrial applications of fusion reveals it’s not just our energy future that hangs in the balance; a post-Fukushima nuclear downturn could have a profound impact on the global healthcare sector.

The medical industry relies on nuclear fission for the production of radioactive isotopes – which are essential for a range of scanning techniques and cancer treatments. With the experimental reactors that produce these isotopes coming to the end of their lives and plans to prolong their lives or replace them suddenly not looking so straightforward, there are genuine fears that we’re heading for a worldwide shortage of nuclear medicine.

It’s an important reminder that sectors which superficially have little common ground often share critical links and proscribing activity in one sector can lead to damaging knock-on effects in another.

But where one technology falters, another spies an opportunity and, as our report explains, an impending radioisotope shortage could give nuclear fusion – the energy industry’s holy grail – a more immediate opportunity to prove its worth.

Indeed, nuclear medicine is just one application that could drive the development of fusion, its usefulness as a source of neutrons could also see it being used to clean up nuclear waste and even to trigger fission reactions in new, safe hybrid fusion-fission reactors.

It feels like this could one day be an important part of the back story in the development of fusion power. Despite its considerable promise, the commercial case for fusion is far from certain and in an economic climate where investment is increasingly limited to dead-certs its progress has been stuttering at best. But by providing genuine solutions to pressing short-term problems its credibility will be improved, funding should be more forthcoming and, perhaps most importantly, engineers will continue to advance the technology to the point where it can be used for commercial energy generation.

There are some intriguing parallels in our report on ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC), which looks at the development of technology that can harvest solar energy from tropical oceans. Rather like fusion, it’s been demonstrated on a small scale but to become economical needs to be scaled up.

But its development could well be advanced by an unlikely ally, the US defence industry – which believes the technology could be used to power large sea bases such as Pearl Harbor. Yet another reminder that the route to commercialisation is often unpredictable, occasionally unexpected and rarely straightforward.