The Oil and the Glory

The Weekly Wrap — July 27, 2012 (Part II)

What is with superheroes and fission: No film is bigger this summer than the latest Batman offering, The Dark Knight Rises. While taking in the film, we couldn’t help but notice that clean energy is a central plot point — specifically, a nuclear fusion reactor that Bruce Wayne, Batman’s billionaire alter ego, builds to power ...

Ronny Hartmann/Getty Images
Ronny Hartmann/Getty Images

What is with superheroes and fission: No film is bigger this summer than the latest Batman offering, The Dark Knight Rises. While taking in the film, we couldn’t help but notice that clean energy is a central plot point — specifically, a nuclear fusion reactor that Bruce Wayne, Batman’s billionaire alter ego, builds to power his beloved Gotham City. While Wayne regards nuclear fusion as the key to clean, lasting energy for all, villains see its potential for big, city-destroying explosions.

This isn’t the first time Hollywood has weighed in on the upside and downside of nuclear fusion. In the 2004 film Spiderman 2, the brilliant-scientist-turned-evil-genius Doctor Octopus displays an obsession with creating a stable fusion reaction, hence threatening the safety of Spiderman’s (Tobey Maguire’s) New York. Then there is Iron Man. In two films, Robert Downie Jr. powers a technological-wonder-suit with a personal-sized fusion reactor of his own design. According to Iron Man, his reactor produces 3000 megawatts — enough to light up a few million homes. We know these characters belong in science fiction, yet how far off are their ideas from scientific reality?

The best-known nuclear energy process is fission, in which atomic nuclei are split into fragments. That is behind our nuclear reactors, in addition to the weapon that the U.S. is attempting to stop Iran from acquiring. With fusion, by contrast, nuclei fuse together and form a heavier nucleus, giving off far vaster amounts of energy as they do so. Fusion is what powers the sun (Doctor Octopus is only slightly exaggerating when he dreams of possessing "the power of the sun in the palm of my hand."). This has long enamored scientists, because fusion reactors emit less radiation and waste than fission. But fusion reactions require incredibly high temperatures, vast energy inputs, and complex pressurization techniques, leaving them still in the experimentation stage. Yet, scientists are getting closer. This month, the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California, fired a record-setting 500 trillion watts of energy in a single burst — over a thousand times more energy than the entire United States uses at any given moment. If Livermore scientists have their way, such laser bursts will eventually drive fusion reactions — and a major of the supply of clean energy.

Still, that does not explain why superhero films are so hung up on fusion. By way of explanation, perhaps we can begin with their fitting grandiosity in scale and cost — the National Ignition Facility alone cost over $1 billion to build, the kind of big money that Bruce Wayne and Iron Man alter-ego Tony Stark relish throwing around. In addition, fusion represents a chance at a brighter future, something our heroes like to dream about while they battle the dark present. Safe civilian nuclear energy usage is also about turning the potentially destructive — nuclear power — into the productive. Often haunted by their own violent pasts, superheroes can relate to this. (So can studios, which usually hanker for a warm ending.)

Of course, it’s the downside of nuclear fusion that titillates the bad-guys. Some green energy advocates protest funding for nuclear fusion research, arguing that no form of nuclear energy can really be trusted. In a post-Fukushima world, those fears are more real than ever, and the evil plans of super-villains in The Dark Knight Rises reflect that. Yet we know that real-world Batman admirers in the laboratory will not stop attempting to realize his vision of super-charged nuclear-power.

Go to the Jump for the rest of the Wrap.

 

Hot week on the South China Sea: Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said today that he might send soldiers to secure the Senkaku islands should it be the scene of "illegal acts" meaning a Chinese incursion. This went over poorly in Beijing, which claims virtually every nearby island and the whole of the South China Sea as its own. Temperatures had begun the week high, with both China and the Philippines announcing military deployments in the sea. Few think that actual war is likely, but sometimes people can miscalculate, hence Noda’s announcement and China’s reaction have been noted.

Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, fired off two commentaries in protest. In one, the agency alleged that Japan is "heading down a dangerous path with its recent island-grabbing moves," even while peaceful "China has always shown constraint and remained cool-headed." "The Japanese government must drop its provocative moves and fully understand that any unilateral move on the … islands is illegal and invalid," Xinhua said, "and will not change the fact that the islands belong to China." The agency also took aim at the United States, which it accused of emboldening Japan by offering up its political support. The U.S., Xinhua said, had "turned a blind eye to a spate of provocative acts by other countries, such as Vietnam and the Philippines," with which Beijing is also in a territorial conflict in the South China Sea. "Such an adversarial approach, however, risks dragging the United States into another quagmire in the South and East China Sea, and is also detrimental to regional peace and stability," Xinhua said. Look for the temperamental atmosphere to continue at least three or so months longer and perhaps more as China passes through its once-a-decade leadership transition.

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