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Will China beat the world to nuclear fusion and clean energy?

Will China beat the world to nuclear fusion and clean energy? thumbnail
Image caption China says it’s ahead in the global race for nuclear fusion

In a world with an ever-increasing demand for electricity and a deteriorating environment, Chinese scientists are leading the charge to develop what some see as the holy grail of energy.

The BBC’s Stephen McDonell was given rare access to their facility in Anhui province.

Imagine limitless energy with virtually no waste at all: this is the lofty promise of nuclear fusion.

On Science Island in Eastern China’s Anhui Province, there is a large gleaming metal doughnut encased in an enormous shiny, round box about as big as a two-storey apartment. This is the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (or EAST).

Inside, hydrogen atoms fuse and become helium which can generate heat at several times the temperature of the sun’s core.

Powerful magnets then control the reaction, which could one day produce vast amounts of electricity if maintained.

Around the globe, they are trying to master nuclear fusion – in the United States, Japan, Korea, Brazil and European Union – but none can hold it steady for as long as the team in Anhui.

Right now that’s 100 seconds and it gets longer every year. Here they’re already talking about goals which are 10 times as long, at temperatures of 100 million degrees Celsius.

Image caption Hundreds of specialists are working at the site

But there’s a reason why fusion has eluded scientists and engineers since the early advances in the Soviet Union in the 1950s.

It is really difficult.

Safe nuclear energy

Maintaining a limited fusion reaction in a controlled environment has been possible for more than 50 years and yet the duration is still a long way short of what would be needed to capture this vast heat and convert it to electricity.

The EAST system is a souped-up version of the original Russian design.

On the day we visit we watch a lively debate unfold in the control room. There are leakage problems – not material getting out but air being sucked into the vacuum within – and they need to find a solution.

A separate group is in walkie-talkie contact with the control room. They move around the configuration of pipes, electricity housing and stepladders surrounding the Tokamak, looking to patch the leak.

When Xi Jinping visited here he wanted to know about the dangers of this technology, so we asked what they told China’s president.

“A fusion reactor is quite safe compared with fission reactor,” says Song Yuntao, deputy director at EAST.

“Magnetic confinement is controllable fusion. I can shut down the power supply and it’s perfectly safe. There won’t be any nuclear disaster.”

Image caption The Chinese project builds on earlier Russian research

Current nuclear reactors rely on fission and the splitting of an atom which leaves toxic waste that must be safely stored for potentially tens of thousands of years.

A nuclear fusion power plant would instead stem from the joining of two nuclei to make a single nucleus and then magnets inside the internal wall of the doughnut contain the reaction (called the plasma) inside the huge tube.

Crucially, we’re told, this leaves almost no waste.

A hefty price tag

However the technology is not cheap.

It costs $15,000 a day just to turn on the machine and that’s without the wages of hundreds of specialists, the construction of buildings and the like.

And yet the Chinese government is digging into its deep pockets to fund the project in the full knowledge that it could be decades before fusion is lighting up major cities.

“Fusion is going to require huge breakthroughs from scientists and engineers as well as a lot of financial backing from the government,” Mr Song says.

“It’s a project which costs so much but personally I think it’s going to be great for the sustainable development of mankind.”

Because it carries such a hefty price tag and because it is so hard, the pursuit of fusion is seeing a fair amount of international collaboration.

For example, China is one of the countries contributing to the ambitious International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project in southern France which – apart from European nations – draws in India, Japan, Russia, South Korean and the United States. It is expected to start testing in 2025.

In the meantime China is also making leaps and bounds on its own.

Image caption The project still requires huge breakthroughs from scientists and engineers

The proposed next step for this team is to design a fully-fledged nuclear fusion test reactor capable of generating electricity. To eventually work properly it would have to be much bigger than what we’ve seen and able to contain a plasma reaction indefinitely rather than for a minute-and-a-half.

“The demand for energy is huge in every country and China has a roadmap for fusion-generated power,” says Mr Song. “We want to complete the design for a test fusion reactor within five years. If we succeed it will be the world’s first fusion reactor.”

The eventual hope is that fusion might produce electricity in volumes beyond mankind’s wildest dreams.

It may be some way off but Beijing is taking the challenge very seriously meaning that, if it can get it to work, China could end up having the edge over all others when it comes to the power generation of the future.


62 Comments on "Will China beat the world to nuclear fusion and clean energy?"

  1. Davy on Fri, 20th Apr 2018 8:20 am 

    Your screwed nedernazi. The demographics don’t lie. You Nazi fantasy PBM will never happen. All you have is a fancy dressed up presentation of how pigs fly.

  2. Davy on Fri, 20th Apr 2018 8:31 am 

    Come on Antius. Why does someone have to be either or. I grab what is best and works of all of the various persuasions. I would never commit to any group. Conservative suck too. They tend to deny science until it fits their agenda. Tell me that is good????

  3. TheNationalist on Fri, 20th Apr 2018 8:49 am 

    If all else fails at least we will still be able to order our rubber dog shits from Hong Kong nice and cheap!

  4. Antius on Fri, 20th Apr 2018 8:53 am 

    “Come on Antius. Why does someone have to be either or. I grab what is best and works of all of the various persuasions. I would never commit to any group. Conservative suck too. They tend to deny science until it fits their agenda. Tell me that is good????”

    It isn’t good. But it also isn’t conservative. A true conservative is a pragmatist. He looks at the facts and draws logical conclusions. He knows what is important and isn’t influenced by political ideology, which requires that one divorces their own brain and accept a preordained solution – rather like a religion. He is essentially a defender of civilisation.

    Creationist nut jobs are no more conservative than Marxist heathen. Plenty of people like to identify themselves as Conservative. But sticking feathers up your arse doesn’t make you a chicken.

  5. Antius on Fri, 20th Apr 2018 1:05 pm 

    These two articles discuss how a long-term renewable energy economy will need to operate.

    The long shot is that it can be done and indeed has been done before. But don’t expect your way of life to be anything like it is today. Adapting to a new energy source, means changing the way you live. I have shown in the past that attempting to store renewable electricity to generate some sort of base load roughly triples the cost of power. Other than for a few niche applications, this will not be affordable.

    If we go down a renewable route, we will need to adapt our demand to the intermittent supply of these energy sources. Factories will run when power is available and shut down when it is not. Heating and cooling will be used to capture and store excess energy for later use. Transport may be powered by direct electric (trains, trams, etc.), stored synthetic fuels (i.e. upgraded biomass), stored heat, cryogenic liquids and compressed air. Transport will be more expensive and will tend to focus on moving goods rather than people. Transport of all kinds will be collectivised as this provides the most passenger-km per unit of energy.

    The way we live will need to be different as present living arrangements would be inefficient and unaffordable using renewable energy. You will need to be closer to work and working arrangements will need to be more flexible, in order to respond to sudden changes in the availability of energy. Our lives will be like those of a doctor on call – sometimes faced with long shifts and at other times with redundant time. But this will change unpredictably, so you could never go very far from home.

    Heat and cold can be stored for long periods (inter-seasonally) in bulk materials and this is the most efficient and cheap way of storing energy for long periods. But to work successfully it requires different living arrangements to the ones we are used to, because heat losses mean that there are minimum scales at which this can be made to work. To keep warm in winter will require that lots of people live together communally close to a large thermal store. That means blocks of flats, built close to where people work. Communal kitchens can cook food in ovens using stored heat at >100C. However, this is only efficient at large scales, hence the communal part. Communal freezers can store food, absorbing intermittent electric power and using soil as an insulator. Life will generally be less affluent and more communal.

  6. Cloggie on Fri, 20th Apr 2018 1:36 pm 

    The Fraunhofer Institute has calculated that in the long run a renewable energy system + storage is just as expensive as a fossil-fuel based energy system. The extra infrastructure cost is compensated by the absence of fuel cost:

    In the short run, during the transition extra cost would emerge.

  7. Cloggie on Sat, 21st Apr 2018 2:51 am 

    The new standard in the North Sea: 9.5 MW wind turbine

    Consortium includes Shell, Eneco, Van Oord, and Diamond Generating Europe.

  8. Cloggie on Sat, 21st Apr 2018 2:59 am 

    New offshore jack-up ship available in 2019 that breaks all the previous records:

    3000 ton lifting capacity up to 170 m high:

    One such ship can install a 100% offshore renewable energy base for small countries like Belgium, Holland or Denmark in a matter of 10 years. Europe already has tens of these ships but this would be the largest:

    The fleet of existing ships is constantly being upgraded to be able to carry ever heavier loads:

  9. Cloggie on Sat, 21st Apr 2018 3:52 am 

    Yet another jack-up ship under construction with a carrying capacity of 4400 ton:

    Operational early 2021.

    Future trends offshore wind:


    88% offshore wind installed in Europe
    Current capacity 16 GW, from 4200 turbines.
    By 2030 this could have grown to 70-99 GW.

    Average EU electricity consumption: 300 GW (total installed capacity 982 GW).

    It is obvious that by 2050 a substantial share of European electricity generation could come from European waters.

    The bigger the better: 12 GW turbine is under development.

    All of a sudden offshore wind is cost competitive with onshore wind.

    From now on offshore wind tenders no longer require taxpayers money. Funding will be taken over by large money bags such as pension funds.

    Floating wind is taking off. More expensive but higher capacity factor up to 65%.

  10. Cloggie on Sat, 21st Apr 2018 4:21 am 

    Most wind installation in 15 countries only:

    82.7% of new capacity (570.4GW) added between 2018 and 2027 will be added in just 15 markets: China, US, India, Germany, France, UK, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, Japan, Netherlands, Argentina, Spain, Taiwan and Canada.

    Distribution wind power over the planet:

  11. Cloggie on Sat, 21st Apr 2018 4:27 am 

    Electricity consumption Google now 100% covered by renewable energy:

    Dutch Rail achieved that benchmark earlier:

    Several high-profile companies around the world are committed to achieve the same for their companies.

  12. Boat on Sat, 21st Apr 2018 9:22 am 


    You forgot apple.

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