Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The Lost Dream of Mr. Fusion

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, August 18, 2015 --  

Why futuristic visions from the 1980s didn't come to pass.

When the blockbuster movie Back to the Future came out in the Summer of 1995, the year 2015 must have seemed like a long way off. At the end of the film, eccentric scientist Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) returns to the year 1985 from our 2015 sporting a flying car powered by a tiny nuclear generator called ‘Mr. Fusion.” By comparison, the real 2015 looks a lot less exciting.

Why don't we have flying cars with portable fusion reactors?

Without a doubt, the image nuclear energy has declined significantly since 1985. Less than a year after Back to the Future came out, disaster struck the Soviet Union's Chernobyl reactor sending a radioactive cloud over a frightened Europe. It took 25 years before public opinion recovered enough for the nuclear industry to predict a renaissance. Then, as the industry planned to build a new generation of reactors, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami slammed into Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, triggering a meltdown. Instead of the industry roaring back to life, Germany decided to close all of its nuclear reactors and Japan temporarily shut all of them down. (The country only restarted its first reactor last week.)1

These reactors were all powered by fission nuclear generators, not the fusion generator depicted in the film. Back in the 1980s, fusion was seen as the real hope for nuclear energy because it doesn't create dangerous nuclear waste. In the 1980s, Cold War research funding for lasers and superconducting magnets led to the development of advanced tokamaks (magnetic bottles for holding superheated plasma needed for a fusion reaction.) Back then, nuclear fusion seemed just around the corner.

But even with superconducting magnets the practical advances simply never came. Researchers could not generate sustainable fusion reactions that creating more energy than the equipment consumed. 30 years later, research continues on incremental improvements with no practical uses in the foreseeable future. But it didn't take 30 years for public opinion to sour. In 1989, a team of scientists excited the world by announcing they had achieved fusion reaction at room temperature using electricity and heavy water. When other scientists failed to reproduce “cold fusion,” public excitement disappeared, and dreams of fusion in pop culture virtually disappeared.

Flying cars are every bit as much of a failed dream as fusion -- except this dream has been a recurring one of science fiction writers dating back to the early 20th century. While some inventors have created prototype personal vehicles that can drive on land and take off like a helicopter, they have proven impractical and expensive --nothing like the jet-powered flying cars of science fiction. Today's practical cars have somewhat different body styles, more electronics, and are sometimes battery-powered, but most are not fundamentally changed from models built in 1985.

Indeed, what is more striking is that the whole love affair with the motor vehicle -- whether moving on land or air -- has begun to wane in the years since1985. The shiny mall-studded suburbia depicted in the film, and the run down city center with drunks sleeping on park benches by an X-rated movie theater are what looks so dated. Today, it is often America's city centers that are shining, filled with people who have abandoned their cars (perhaps out of disappointment that they cannot fly) for the sake of walking, biking or riding the subway. The suburban areas are showing their age, and populated by poorer Americans confined to sit in unrelenting traffic jams of cars unable to break free from the surface.

To be fair, depictions of the future in pop culture are almost always inaccurate and based on excess extrapolation of short- term trends. The real drivers of technological change in the past 30 years have been computers and the internet -- advances that have driven forward in the past decade with mobile devices. Unlike fusion and flying cars, these advances were not depicted by the film, which makes 1985 appear downright old-fashioned when Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) has to ask his girlfriend for her grandmother's land line phone number so he can contact her when she is there.

One other big change over the last 30 years hits the movie closer to home. It's the decline of the summer movie blockbuster itself. Today, much creative energy and Hollywood talent has been redirected to the genre of the paid television series. Top grossing summer blockbusters in recent years have devolved into mindless action movies and bottom-of-the-barrel superhero franchises. This year's top grossing Jurassic World (itself a remake of a film from over 20 years ago) earned only 71 percent positive reviews from critics on Rotten Tomatoes compared with 96 percent for Back to the Future. To find a summer blockbuster that is also critically acclaimed, viewers in 2015 have little option but to go back in time.

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1. CNN, Japan Restarts First Nuclear Reactor Since Fukushima Disaster, August 12, 2015