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Fusion: the ‘great gamble’ we have to take

Fusion: the ‘great gamble’ we have to take thumbnail

Billions has already been spent on fusion since the first experimental base opened in the former Soviet Union in the 1960s. Billions more is about to be spent on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in France, which is due to come into full operation in 2023. The aim of all this expenditure is to achieve the ultimate breakthrough – to create cheap energy from an environmentally-friendly and relatively stable source that will help to combat climate change while driving economic growth and improving Europe’s competitiveness.

The ITER project – a collaborative effort including the European Union, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States said to be more costly and complex than CERN – has the potential to lift millions of people in the emerging countries out of poverty and millions of citizens in developed nations out of fuel poverty, at the same time as weaning society off its addiction to fossil fuels. These are grand ambitions and they come with a hefty price tag. For fusion is still 20 years behind solar power in terms of the advancement of its technology and the power gains witnessed.

But as the leader of the European Fusion Development Agreement Francesco Romanelli admits, talking exclusively to, those working on ITER can “make no promises” despite the annual £7bn price tag. Although faced with population growth and its accompanying energy demands, runaway climate change and a persistent global economic downturn – we really have no choice but to invest in the ‘great gamble’ of fusion. After all, the fuel used for fusion is abundant in seawater and the earth’s crust. This means that no one state will have a stranglehold over the necessary natural resources. In addition, the technology is remarkably safe – unlike nuclear energy or oil and gas.

Fusion of light nuclei is the energy source that powers the sun. A fusion plant utilises the reaction between tritium and deuterium. The process yields a helium nucleus and neutron. Then the neutron’s energy is harvested for electricity production. Experts estimate that global deuterium and lithium resources can satisfy the world’s energy demands for millions of years.

If it works, the ITER will deliver a demonstration fusion power plant – operating at up to 20 times hotter than the sun – in the 2040s. It will produce net electricity to the grid at the level of a few hundred megawatts before the next big jump to a fully commercial power plant by 2050. At this stage, the big corporations – so far quiet on fusion investment – and leading scientific nations are expected to ramp up investment and construction, building power plants all over the world.

With Europe in decline and Asia on the rise, it could be that the “aggressive” Chinese stance – Romanelli’s words – results in China becoming the leading global player by the time the product goes to market. For that reason, Romanelli and his peers are urging European leaders to keep the faith. So far, EU nations and their partners have committed to building the ITER but decisions about its ongoing running costs over the long term are yet to be made.

Romanelli says Europe’s work on fusion is more efficient than ever thanks to the Roadmap to the realisation of fusion energy. “We have put our house in order now,” he says. “I hope the political system will follow and we will have enough resources to implement the roadmap; we are not asking for the moon.” Also speaking to this website during a visit to the Joint European Torus fusion plant in England, the director for plasma operations at ITER – David Campbell – says: “You have to spend at a certain level to maintain the expertise. This is a promise to future generations that could lead to the global availability of resources.”

But surely the scientific community has been guilty of overpromising on what fusion might deliver for more than 50 years now? Not a bit of it, claim Romanelli and Campbell. “It’s an experiment so there is always a risk, we are now moving from theory to practical solutions on fusion,” claims Campbell. Adding his view, Romanelli states: “The true expert never promises anything. Will we be ready in 2040 or 2050? I don’t know but we think that fusion can impact on everybody’s standard of living. And the use of fossil fuels has an impact on the climate that is not sustainable.”

Chairman of the European Fusion Education Network Governing Board Niek Lopes Cardozo is more prosaic. “The last few years have been difficult for all of us, we cannot go slower and become irrelevant,” he says. “Fusion cannot be a political ‘keep refrigerated’ option. We must deliver on our promises but exponential growth implies exponential spending. ITER is a transition from being science-driven to industry-driven. It will take a decade or two; 30 years from now, we will wither be opening demo plants or we will not exist anymore.”

Building a star inside a man-made chamber is no easy task, as the last half a century has proved. There have been difficulties in achieving critical mass in experiments, problems with finding metals that will not melt or contaminate the plasma during tests. Not to mention the problems associated with sustained funding and finding the right scientists to drive fusion onwards.

It is notable that, unlike space travel which gave us satellite television and miniaturisation, the huge investments in fusion have not produced any technological spin-offs that have become useful in everyday life. Even so, we must not give up now. Europe must pledge its loyalty. If not, the continent may become as dependent on Chinese fusion power in the next 50 years as it has been on imported oil and gas over the last 50 years. It is a huge gamble. But not investing in fusion is an even bigger gamble. Place your bets now.

15 Comments on "Fusion: the ‘great gamble’ we have to take"

  1. BillT on Wed, 26th Jun 2013 10:35 am 

    Another fantasy story…

  2. Arthur on Wed, 26th Jun 2013 12:33 pm 

    “But as the leader of the European Fusion Development Agreement Francesco Romanelli admits, talking exclusively to, those working on ITER can “make no promises” despite the annual £7bn price tag.”

    Exactly. We cannot afford to wait until these people come up with something workable. We already have something that works, let’s implement it and avoid societal collapse. We can do fusion in the next century when we are fed-up with windturbines whereever you look.

  3. Norm on Wed, 26th Jun 2013 3:32 pm 

    Fusion power works great. Thousands of researchers worldwide getting fat 6-figure salaries for decades, with full benefits, with no working system. If you won’t believe in fusion power, then you can drive my limo.

  4. dissident on Wed, 26th Jun 2013 3:54 pm 

    Put a sock in it, Norm. Researchers are only fat cats in the demented minds of foaming at the mouth freaks like Rush Limbaugh and the whole collection of fossil fuel industry whores who make up the US right wing mainstream.

    The only ones making $100,000 and more are university professors. They are administrators who oversee the work of usually soft money research associates who make less than $70,000.

    Funny to see right wing blowhards speak and act like commies when it comes to deciding what scientists should be making. Perhaps you sanctimonious freaks should worry about the multi-billion dollar government subsidies to your sugar daddy corporations.

  5. DC on Wed, 26th Jun 2013 3:56 pm 

    Or, we could use less power, become more utilitarian etc.

    Fusion as a gamble, I like the comparison. I wonder what sort of odds, would Vegas would give fusion?

  6. Newfie on Wed, 26th Jun 2013 4:13 pm 

    Limitless power from fusion is just 20 years away. And it always will be… 😉

  7. rollin on Wed, 26th Jun 2013 5:45 pm 

    Fusion is the big dream, limitless power.
    However, considering that fusion only occurs in the center of stars under fantastic temperatures and pressure, scientists may be underestimating the nuclear forces involved along with the temperatures and pressures.

    The only other place fusion seems to occur is very briefly on earth due to a fission bomb explosion used to start the fusion reaction. However that is far too energetic for practical power generation.

  8. dissident on Wed, 26th Jun 2013 7:11 pm 

    Tokomak plasma fusion is a process that has not been observed in nature. It actually requires temperatures much higher (100 million Kelvin) than those in stars due to the need to compensate for the lack of gravitational compression. This attempt at man made fusion is afflicted with plasma instabilities and nonlinear processes that cannot be easily controlled. So any assurances about commercial fusion power around the corner have to be taken with a large grain of salt.

  9. Mike on Wed, 26th Jun 2013 8:42 pm 

    All a load of bull as usual but how is this supposed to stop climate change anyway? Climate changed is caused by the heat differentiation between the air the sea and space is it not? The bigger the difference the more energy in the atmosphere the more crazy weather we get. At the moment the difference between the air temp (which is getting hotter due to the greenhouse effect)and the sea temp is getting wider. Surely having lots of power plants all around the world , burning hotter than the sun is going to cause a little bit of extra heat in the air isn’t it? I’m sure these super intelligent scientists must have though of that though.

  10. J-Gav on Wed, 26th Jun 2013 8:45 pm 

    I guess the odds would be along the lines of the tooth fairy coming along to make you rich.

  11. Plantagenet on Wed, 26th Jun 2013 8:58 pm 

    Interesting to see all the leftists complaining about scientific research. Heaven forbid the scientists might discovery something that would help the world with its energy and global warming problems…..what would the leftists have to ignorantly bleat about then?

  12. DC on Wed, 26th Jun 2013 9:02 pm 

    @Mike, Tom Murphy over at Do the Math talked about your very point. He modeled an ‘economy’ whose power generation grew by about a few 2% a year. Here is what he had to say about fusion specifically.


    Some readers may be bothered by the foregoing focus on solar/stellar energy. If we’re dreaming big, let’s forget the wimpy solar energy constraints and adopt fusion. The abundance of deuterium in ordinary water would allow us to have a seemingly inexhaustible source of energy right here on Earth. We won’t go into a detailed analysis of this path, because we don’t have to. The merciless growth illustrated above means that in 1400 years from now, any source of energy we harness would have to outshine the sun.

    Let me restate that important point. No matter what the technology, a sustained 2.3% energy growth rate would require us to produce as much energy as the entire sun within 1400 years. A word of warning: that power plant is going to run a little warm. Thermodynamics require that if we generated sun-comparable power on Earth, the surface of the Earth—being smaller than that of the sun—would have to be hotter than the surface of the sun!

    IoW, anyone that promots fusion power as ‘cure’ for GW caused by gas-powered cars and coal plant etc, is either a liar or an ignoramus. If fusion were made practical, some fusion plants wont wreck the planet-trying to use them to stop GW by building them everywhere we can-will still result in the same end.

    Waste heat is waste heat no matter what its source.

    Entire article

  13. JBP on Fri, 28th Jun 2013 1:22 pm 

    Wow dessicant. Rush lives in your angry little brain. Look, fusion is the future. However, as long as LowInformationFolks allow their worldview to be skewed by their choice of power-hungry politicians (punny in a way) we will be forever getting there. For instance, the administration allows $200 mil in funding to be cut from fusion research, but ‘invests’ $500 mil in solyndra. Great stuff.

    AGW, doubly wrong, being nonexistent and wrongly attributed primarily to ‘evil’ CO2, has kinda been proven to be a lie by the last 15 years of climate records, but let’s not let that little bit of info get in the way of our rants (huge increase in CO2 accompanied by NO increase in global temps). I think the primary source of global warming (sun) and the factors such as the milankovitch cycles, ocean currents, landmass locations, Solar flares, CME, etc are the keys to explaining why our climate ‘is the way it is’. No one has configured the keys quite right yet though.
    Unless velociraptors rode around in Ford Excursions and Brontosaurus used billions of tons of coal to cook their food, it appears anthropometric global warming is beyond the power of humanity.

    As far as the projection of us using energy (currently we are estimated to use 5E13 J / second) at an increasing rate of 2.3% a year and in 1400 years ending up producing as much energy as the sun does (3.8×1026 J/second): that is just crazy talk. That kind of simplistic projection requires other projections such as population growth to happen on a similar scale, that is, on the order of 10E13! Yes, truly crazy talk.

    But wasted breath is wasted breath when the listener is liberal
    Oh, and pardon my spelling errors, Sister Rita wouldn’t.

  14. Steve on Fri, 28th Jun 2013 8:33 pm 

    Global Warming/Climate change is not caused by the waste heat of the coal plans and cars, it is caused by the build up of CO2 in the atmosphere from their exhaust gasses. The atmospheric CO2 traps the heat from SUNLIGHT, by reflecting the heat normally radiated from the earth out to space back to the earth. If we can reduce the amount of CO2 we release into the air, the plants etc can clear it back out. That is where Solar or Fusion power sources would shine, by not releasing the huge amounts of CO2 the coal plants do. As for the cars, well we’ll have to see.

  15. Donald Jasby on Wed, 3rd Jul 2013 9:33 pm 

    This article claims that a fusion reactor is a longshot, but if successful the benefits would revolutionize the world.
    But why is fusion so wonderful??

    The only practical fuel for man-made fusion reactors is a deuterium-tritium mixture. Tritium does not exist in nature and is currently produced only in fission reactors.

    In the deuterium-triium reaction, 80% of the fusion energy product is in the form of neutrons streaming at one-tenth of the speed of light! To make electricity, this stream of particles must first be converted to usable thermal energy without destroying the assembly of components that do the conversion. Neutron activation results in large masses of highly radioactive materials that must be disposed of.

    All fusion machines require huge inputs of electrical energy. Whether it takes thirty years or three hundred years to develop an operating fusion reactor, it will be on balance a huge net consumer of electrical energy, and require a fleet of fission reactors to provide make-up tritium fuel. All for the purpose of generating streams of neutrons that will produce mountains of radioactive material.

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