A comment by Ortwin Renn

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Ortwin Renn (Image: private)

Fusion technology appears to be the undercover agent among the candidates for future energy systems. The topic of replacing fossil and nuclear energy with renewable energy sources is fiercely discussed in the public and dominates energy debates throughout Europe. This is a striking contrast with the current public attention that fusion energy is receiving: Namely very little!

The development of technologies related to fusion energy is certainly not popular among Europeans, but fusion technology does not trigger the same amount of public attention, let alone the amount of opposition and scepticism faced by, for instance, nuclear or coal-fired power plants. This does not mean, however, that the general public is indifferent or even favourable to the application of fusion technology for energy production. As long as fusion research remains located within basic research labs, most public commentators have no incentive or motivation to initiate a campaign against fusion. They are too busy encouraging the fight against nuclear and fossil power production. As soon as fusion research moves into building prototypes or even first demonstration projects, this approach may change drastically. Many sceptics of the conventional energy systems will also be adamantly opposed to fusion energy once it becomes more feasible.

We have conducted inquiries into public opinion and positions on fusion over the last ten years. Since most members of the public are not yet familiar with the main characteristics of fusion energy, we organised focus groups with different sets of the public (engineers, mothers with children, science journalists and others) in which information about fusion was provided before the discussion started. The information consisted of purely technical background knowledge and statements from different points of view that people reviewed and digested.

To summarise the results, it is quite obvious that all thefocus groups came to the unanimous conclusion that renewable energy and conservation remain the preferred options for meeting future energy needs. Given these results one might conclude that it is best to keep the issue hidden under the carpet and hope that, once the technology is proven and tested, public acceptance will follow automatically.

This is a grand illusion! It is not prudent at all to wait and hope that, in the future, this potential opposition and scepticism will disappear. On the contrary: I would expect that, the closer we get to an operating reactor, the more opposition we will face. For this reason, it seems much more appropriate to address people’s concerns in this phase of relative calm rather than in a future phase of public protest. The debate may prove or disprove that a sustainable energy future includes fusion as an element for providing reliable base load electricity. However, it is without doubt that fusion will be a viable candidate for being included in the future energy mix.
The most important component of that debate must be the conclusion that fusion is not a relic of old conventional technologies but rather an integral and meaningful component of the envisioned energy transition. When you have energy technologies, such as wind and solar, which are characterised by major fluctuations in supply, then a new technology capable of providing constant energy all year round with no restrictions on access to resources as well as manageable environmental impacts may be useful in convincing the population of the world that it is not only environmentally justified but also socially responsible to welcome fusion as a component of the desired energy transition worldwide.

Ortwin Renn serves as professor for environmental sociology and technology assessment and as the director of the Stuttgart Research Center for Interdisciplinary Risk and Innovation Studies at the University of Stuttgart. Among other things, he co-directs the German Helmholtz-Alliance: “Future infrastructures for meeting energy demands. Towards sustainability and social compatibility“. Renn is primarily interested in risk governance, political participation as well as the technical and social changes with regard to sustainability. Renn has published more than 30 books and 250 articles, most prominently the monograph “Risk Governance”.