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The quest for nuclear fusion

With its promise of virtually unlimited clean energy, nuclear fusion has long been a goal of physicists. With the enormous ITER experimental reactor under construction in the south of France, Antony Funnell takes a look at the feasibility of replicating the Sun here on Earth.

It’s shaping up as a busy time in the south of France, even though the holiday makers from Paris aren’t expected until at least mid-April.

Teams of construction workers and scientists are flocking to the region tasked with building one of the world’s largest experimental facilities—a giant nuclear reactor that will take at least another ten years to complete.

Christened ITER (Latin for ‘the path’ or ‘journey’), the $US20 billion reactor is like no energy plant ever constructed. The project’s goal is to save the world from environmental catastrophe by providing humankind with a clean, safe energy source. Its mission is to replicate the Sun by producing power through a nuclear process known as fusion.

I think there are a lot of sceptics attracted by the fact that so much has been promised of fusion for so long and it hasn’t been achieved.

Daniel Clery, Science magazine

A conventional fission reactor splits atoms in order to generate energy, but the fusion process works the other way—it forces atoms together under great heat. The atoms it uses are relatively abundant in nature, such as those from the chemical elements hydrogen and lithium.

‘It would be the solution to our energy problems forever if they can get it to work,’ says Daniel Clery, deputy news editor of Science magazine and author of the book A Piece of the Sun: The Quest for Fusion Energy.

‘There is so much hydrogen in the oceans and lithium in the ground that you could run fusion reactors for millions of years and never run out of fuel. It doesn’t produce pollution, so it doesn’t warm the climate.’

The other major benefit, says Clery, is that the fusion process doesn’t produce the sort of radioactive waste that has plagued the traditional nuclear power industry and limited its expansion.

‘It produces a little bit of waste at the end of a reactor’s life,’ says Clery. ‘The reactor itself is slightly radioactive, so you’d need to bury it for 50 years to let it cool down, but it’s not like the waste that is produced by a traditional fission reactor where the waste is highly toxic and last hundreds of thousands of years. So it’s a very different ball game.’

The quest for fusion energy has been a long one. Australian physicist Mark Oliphant was one of its pioneers back in the 1930s. Since that time several functioning fusion reactors have been built, but none have passed the experimental stage, let alone shown signs of commercial viability.

The major stumbling block is achieving net energy. For fusion to occur, a plasma of light atoms has to be heated to a temperature in excess of 100 million degrees celsius. Scientists have been able to do that using a special donut-shaped chamber called a Tokamak which uses a magnetic field to keep the super-heated plasma from touching the sides of the containment vessel.

So nuclear fusion is by no means a theoretical concept, it can work.

The problem, however, is that no fusion reactor that’s ever been built has managed to produce enough energy to make the process economically viable. In other words, it’s taken as much energy to power the reactor as the reactor itself has produced.

Overcoming that imbalance has frustrated nuclear scientists for decades, but it’s also brought them closer together.

‘Most of the international program is now consolidated around ITER as the next step fusion experiment,’ says Associate Professor Matthew Hole from the Plasma Research Laboratory at the Australian National University.

‘If you want to be in the game, you must be part of the ITER project. In some sense there is an analogy here to high energy particle physics; if you want to do high energy particle physics you need to be involved in something like the Large Hadron Collider.’

The ITER project represents a collaboration between the European Union and six nations: the United States, China, India, South Korea, Japan and Russia. A partnership agreement was signed in 2005 but on-site construction in Saint Paul-lez-Durance, northeast of Marseille, didn’t begin until late 2014.

The experimental reactorwill have the initial task of producing 500 megawatts of thermal power from 50 megawatts of input heating power for at least 300 seconds.

That may not sound like much of an achievement, but scientists are convinced that once the reactor can prove its efficacy, great things will follow. Still, Daniel Clery accepts that the project has as many detractors as it does enthusiasts.

‘I think there are a lot of sceptics attracted by the fact that so much has been promised of fusion for so long and it hasn’t been achieved,’ he says. ‘There have been a lot of disappointments along the way, but what you will get when we do eventually succeed is so great that people have persisted. ‘

Although Australia isn’t one of the ITER signatories, the Australian scientific community is keen to ensure it finds a seat at the fusion research table.

‘There are ways in which Australia can participate both in the ITER science and also the ITER project itself, at a scale that makes sense for Australia and at a scale for which there is significant leverage of that international science back to Australia,’ says Matthew Hole, the chair of the Australian ITER Forum, a collective of scientists and engineers keen to be part of this historic experiment.

‘It’s a low entry ticket, if you like, to a very big program.

‘There’s a framework called the International Tokamak Physics Activity, which is an international framework for ITER relevant research, and we think there is an opportunity for Australian scientists to participate in that.’

According to Hole, success in southern France should pave the way for the first commercially viable fusion power-station, but he cautions that that advance could still be some way off: ‘ITER is really a pre-prototype power plant in the sense that it’s intended to deliver the physics and engineering that we need to understand in order to be able to put together a prototype commercial power plant.

‘So ITER is really the last physics research experiment before a prototype power plant. For that reason alone, I think if you look at the chronology of experiments and if you look at the state of understanding of the field at present, I think it is likely, indeed very plausible, that fusion will be able to meet its ambition of being able to produce power by the middle of the century.’

ITER might be the international focal point for fusion research, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only game in town. High-level experimentation is still being conducted at the Joint European Torus facility (JET) in Oxfordshire in the UK.

Read more: Nuclear power must be part of Australia’s energy future

In late 2014 the giant American aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin surprised many when it issued a media release claiming to have made advances in what it called a ‘compact’ fusion reactor. It will be so small, a company spokesman declared, that it would fit on the back of a truck.

Lockheed Martin claims its device could be ready for commercialisation within a decade. Clery is sceptical: ‘They’ve taken a couple of old techniques and combined them together, but at the moment all they’ve done is computer simulations.

‘Personally I think their predictions were enormously over-enthusiastic, but you never know, they might have success and they might be building a working prototype in 10 years.’

Hole also has reservations. He says the company is yet to match its PR claim with any substantive scientific proof.

‘When I was at the Fusion Energy Flagship conference, there was no representative there from Lockheed Martin. They didn’t turn up to the meeting. They haven’t given any detailed information about their experiments. The information is not there. It’s great to have these ambitions, but it is not substantiated by any scientific evidence.’

For the record, the company also declined an interview request from RN.

‘I think Lockheed Martin finds itself in an environment where the defence contracts have been dwindling because the US has reduced its expenditure in developing new technology, military technology in particular, so it’s seeking to diversify,’ speculates Hole. ‘I understand Lockheed is a commercial company, but at the very least you need to substantiate any claim that you make with evidence.’

While Lockheed Martin appears less than keen to share, that certainly isn’t the case with ITER. In fact, according to Clery, transparency is one of its key strengths.

‘The ITER project is international, entirely open, so no one country or company is going to monopolise it,’ he says. ‘The whole project is designed so that all of the partners are involved in making most of the parts, so that everyone gains the expertise that is going to be needed in the future, and we will all get the benefit if it succeeds.’

Excavation work on a 130 metre ‘seismic isolation pit’ was completed in August last year allowing for work to begin on the reactor complex proper. The giant Tokamak fusion chamber and its supporting structure is expected to weigh around 400,000 tonnes and reach seven stories in height. The chamber itself will take up to five years to construct and won’t be ready for testing before 2020.


20 Comments on "The quest for nuclear fusion"

  1. Bob Owens on Wed, 25th Feb 2015 2:55 pm 

    Another article telling us about the great future of fusion. Enough already! Even if fusion is technically possible it will never be economically possible. Too bad we can’t tell the difference.

  2. Westexasfanclub on Wed, 25th Feb 2015 4:24 pm 

    Why should it not be economically possible? ITER might be too big and expensive but certainly commercial plants will be smaller and more efficient. Just think about a stellarator like the Wendelstein 7-X. The biggest problem I see is: Will the world be able to change to fusion energy while it still has enough fossile resources? We’re talking about the middle of the century and you still would need to scale fusion energy for decades until it occupies a significant share of energy production.

  3. Makati1 on Wed, 25th Feb 2015 6:17 pm 

    Unicorns and finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow are more likely than humans will ever be able to build a miniature sun that it can control. The techies believe their gods can do anything, but that has proven to be a lie many times. All they can do these last few decades is tweak something that was discovered/developed long ago by really intelligent humans with a real education and common sense.

  4. Westexasfanclub on Wed, 25th Feb 2015 8:14 pm 

    I wouldn’t paint it that much in black and white, Makati. Though there is some weight in your point of view. But without serious technological advances mankind won’t be able to survive on this planet. And you can never tell when and where these discoveries are going to be made. The second and probably even more important point is, that the human mindset must change profoundly. BAU even with infinite fusion energy would lead to a total desaster IMO.

  5. Speculawyer on Wed, 25th Feb 2015 9:12 pm 

    I don’t think we’ll get a working reactor out of it but we should at least learn some things. And I think this is a much better approach than NIF in Livermore, California.

  6. Speculawyer on Wed, 25th Feb 2015 9:15 pm 

    Again, I’m glad there are “Can do” people out there that are working on things instead of the just the Debbie Downers that just whine like many of the posters around here. Some people solve problems, others just whine.

  7. Poordogabone on Wed, 25th Feb 2015 9:25 pm 

    The funny thing about fusion energy if it was ever possible and if it could produce limitless amount of cheap energy as it is promoted would be the opposite of what people think. It would not replace fossil fuels IMO. The world needs liquids to run and grow economies not electricity. Fusion would make EROEI irrelevant. IOW we would use it to extract and produce liquids whereas it is currently uneconomical. Coal to liquids, frack the most marginal plays, 3rd 4th 5th… recovery from abandoned conventional plays, produce oil from oil shale, well you get the picture. We would indeed fry the planet.

  8. Poordogabone on Wed, 25th Feb 2015 9:47 pm 

    The other irony is that the “can do people” are continually impotent at doing fusion.

  9. GregT on Wed, 25th Feb 2015 9:49 pm 


    “But without serious technological advances mankind won’t be able to survive on this planet.”

    Seriously? Mankind survived for at least tens of thousands of years without “serious technological advances”. By some estimates hundreds of thousands of years. Less than 300 years of technological advancement, and we now face extinction?

    What are you talking about Westexas? You aren’t making any sense. It is human technology that is the biggest threat to not only our own species, but every other species on this planet. Give your head a shake.

  10. Makati1 on Wed, 25th Feb 2015 9:54 pm 

    Poordog, the techies don’t think that far ahead or they would see the problems with their ‘fixes’. It has nothing to do with being positive or having a “can do” attitude. It has to do with the laws of physics and the ability to devote excess energy into it. ALL tech is the result of having a surplus of cheap plentiful energy these last 200 years. Nothing more or less.

    I suspect that the above “think positive” commenters are under 50 and probably under 40. They haven’t seen enough of the real world to doubt the lies they are told by the tech industry to make money. The most memorable is the “electric will be too cheap to meter” BS put out by the nuclear electric companies in my teen years. Funny, the price has only gone up in those 50 years and now the costs are more than dollars as they are collapsing under their own radioactive hubris.

    Dream on, but you better be preparing for the collapse of your dreams in the not too distant future. Remember, nuclear bombs, and the missiles that deliver them, are ALSO a product of technology.

  11. GregT on Wed, 25th Feb 2015 10:44 pm 

    “Again, I’m glad there are “Can do” people out there that are working on things

    We really “can do” with less people that are working on driving our species to extinction.

  12. Apneaman on Wed, 25th Feb 2015 11:09 pm 

    Speculawyer, sounds like you grew up watching lots of Ophra. You been “Brightsided” It’s all part of your social conditioning and has worked wonders for shutting down any and all debate on everything. A major component of PC.

    Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

  13. Jimmy on Wed, 25th Feb 2015 11:42 pm 

    Last time I checked the multiple trillions of dollars invested in humanity’s farm equipment runs on diesel. You want to eat? You need fossil fuels. Gimme a break from this ‘never ending magic porridge pot’ bullshit. Until someone has an extra 50 trillion sitting around to electrify the agricultural industrial production network we ain’t growing a hill of beans with electricity, even if it comes ftom our own little sun down at the county utility service. This article sounds like more of Tom Whipple’s tripe. He’s been a shill for that Italian crook for years now.

  14. Westexasfanclub on Thu, 26th Feb 2015 3:31 am 

    Greg, Makati, yes, after 300 years of technological advances, we are facing extinction. So you want to go back to the good old times? They don’t exist anymore. Less than 1% of mankind would reach a stable posttechnological state. Maybe less. The only possibility to save mankind is a leap ahead in technology AND mindset. Bycicles AND fusion, to put it very simple. And even with a profound change it might be too late for billions of us.

  15. Davy on Thu, 26th Feb 2015 5:55 am 

    WT, you make a point with fusion and the bicycle statement but the Fusion part is too far on the complexity side of technology element in the equation. It would be more like low complexity AltE and or other low complexity high effectiveness technologies. This will be what we need as our population drops to 1BIL in a generation.

    There is nothing in the pipeline that can substitute for fossil fuels as our foundational commodity. The JIT complexity from dispersed production and distribution is not possible. This JIT and global distribution created economies of scale which have allowed so much production that has allowed so much complexity. JIT is energy intensive. There is no way to grow a third of the food we grow without FF. The same JIT formula of dispersed production, distribution with monocultures allows a huge food production. IMA food production productivity that has even with JIT and energy intensity of oil hit diminishing returns and limits as we speak.

    The name of the game in the descent is a hybridization of BAU technology and the old ways of utilizing the nature solar energy. We have to go back to the nineteenth century with highly effective mechanical technologies, steam power, and sail. Human power and animal power will have to make a comeback and in a huge way. Small permaculture, dispersed local, and seasonal AG production will be the name of the game. Simple methods of preserving and curing foods. Refrigeration is gone except for cellars.

    We have a vast built out modern industrial man infrastructure that will have to be utilized. This will have to be utilized because it has taken over almost every aspect of man life today. We are in effect in a modern man global environment. The entropic decay on this infrastructure will be rapid but in the bumpy descent part of the descent we will have to have technology as a vital element in the hybrid effort of technology and a return to pre-modern ways. This will happen by default because it is the low hanging fruit. The old ways will take a generation to relearn.

    AltE is hugely important element of this effort. Lights at night are essential for productivity. Basic health knowledge and tech will save needless loss of productive individuals. This health tech will not save the end of life prolonging we do now but it will save the strong from dying. These strong are the ones we need to produce. There is so much good technology and knowledge that is low tech but highly effective. We must save this tech as our monasteries of knowledge and tech for the future descent.

    The complexity of any technology today will be the determination of whether it has a future. In the bumpy descent that could dive at some point we have to triage out those technologies that are uneconomic in a collapsing world. I would say most electronic technology related to computers and communications would need to end. Maybe basic communication like land lines and basic electronics for mechanical electrical devises should be utilized. Complexity will be the factor determining a future for technology.

  16. Davy on Thu, 26th Feb 2015 5:57 am 

    Now is the time to begin to beef up those technologies with a future and be ready to triage out the ones with no future. Of course with descent comes irrational economic abandonment and irrational policy. This is especially true with BAUtopian exceptionalist that will hang on to their beloved tech. These BAUtopians are no different than cultist. They worship tech and progress instead of nature and the human spirit. The BAUtopians are the handmaidens of collapse. It is their world that brought man to a bottleneck. It is there world that has destroyed nature.

    These cornucopian tech folks will be discredited. Their world will be remember by the future generations as the world of death and destruction. Their ways are in fact the mechanization of the devil to put it in religious terms. How else can you explain big brother, Fukushima, and drone murder? Modern man and his exceptionalist world of technology, markets, and complexity is man’s evolutionary dead end. We have destroyed nature and we have destroyed ourselves. We are now in overshoot and transitioning to bottleneck man where a 1BIL die off could happen at any time along with the steady attrition of on average 200MIL excess deaths a year until we hit a natural carrying capacity of the vicinity of 1BIL people. So much for technology and complexity with that kind of future

  17. JuanP on Thu, 26th Feb 2015 7:51 am 

    I have only one thing to say to all those here that believe that more energy will make things better for people and the planet: YOU ARE TRIPPING!

    The more energy we have acccess to, the more damage and destruction we will cause. Any person that thinks that access to more energy will save humanity has no understanding whatsoever of what we are as a species. We are not going to fix with fusion what we are destroying with fossils.

    I really envy your optimism, guys!

  18. R1verat on Thu, 26th Feb 2015 7:59 am 

    JuanP couldn’t agree with you more. Bottom line is finite resources.

  19. Westexasfanclub on Sat, 28th Feb 2015 3:44 pm 

    From a misanthropic point of view we should collapse ASAP to 100 million people.

    A fast die off = less suffering.

    But if you appreciate the human race, and you don’t want to see such a horrible cataclysm in your lifetime, the only solution is to find cheap energy to run the world, be it fossile, renewable, nuclear or simply by efficiency gains.

    Until the year 2100 we could reduce world population without war and cataclysm back to the carrying capacity of our planet. We could develop fossile-free technologies. We could build a society friendly to the environment, full of material and spiritual wellbeing.

    But we could also face extinction many decades before. We are at a very narrow crossroad.

  20. GregT on Sat, 28th Feb 2015 4:28 pm 

    Yes WT,

    A narrow crossroads indeed. More commonly referred to as a dilemma.

    While I agree that we COULD do many things, we haven’t, and in all likelihood, we won’t. Developing further technologies to generate even more energy, would only result in us continuing further down the same path to our own extinction. The cataclysm is going to happen, it is quite simply the consequences of human technological advancement. We either crash our economies voluntarily and deal with the fallout, or we face extinction. One choice has a future for the human race, the other one does not. Neither choice has a comfortable outcome.

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