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Where's My Atomic ... Everything?
Nuclear fission may have fallen out of favor, but nuclear fusion has not. Mechanics work on the experimental nuclear fusion reactor 'Wendelstein 7-X' at Germany's Max Planck Institute of Plasma Physics (IPP) on Dec. 9, 2013. © Stefan Sauer/dpa/Corbis

Every once in a while, a scientific development, term or technology will set fire to the popular imagination. In the mid-20th century, that word was atomic. Sci-fi television, film and books promised atomic cars, planes, rockets, wristwatches -- you name it. News and opinion pieces held forth about mining ore with nukes, digging foundations with atom bombs and powering the world with nuclear reactors. Unfortunately, we mostly ended up with atomic weapons.

We might not get our atomic roller skates, but recent years have seen renewed interest in once-mothballed atomic energy, powered by safer, more efficient designs; advances in fusion power; and renewed economic and environmental pressure to phase out fossil fuels. But concerns persist regarding the disposal of nuclear waste and the overall safety of reactors, particularly in the wake of the tsunami-triggered failure at Japan's Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in March 2011 -- a grim reminder of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and the fact that, when nuclear power goes wrong, it goes very wrong.

Still, you can't count atomic energy out. In 2013, fusion made a great leap forward when researchers succeeded in the first fusion reaction that produced more energy from its fuel than went into it. If researchers can make the technology efficient, nuclear fusion would provide virtually unlimited power, more safely than fission, with a fraction of the radioactive waste and little to no weaponizable byproduct. That's bound to cause a public reaction [sources: Atherton; Ferro].

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