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Fusion reactors, here we come!

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), an experimental nuclear fusion reactor, has officially been approved by seven international parties during a meeting in Belgium. The list of international parties includes the United States, European Union, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea and India.  The project will cost an estimated $5.9B USD, and is also the world's biggest scientific collaboration. 

reports "We represent more than half of the world's population, and recognize that by working together today we stand a much better chance of tackling the challenges of tomorrow, so energy is an issue of concern for all of us," according to the  EU science and research commissioner, Janez Potocnik.

The end result of the experimental fusion project should be a cheaper, cleaner and safer source of energy.  Global oil demand and greenhouse gas emissions will also theoretically drop if the nuclear fusion reactor is successful.  Fusion is a viable energy source because of natural abundance and availability, while no greenhouse gas emissions will be present.  Another advantage of fusion is that it will not produce any radioactive waste. 

But not everyone is pleased with the news.  Several environmental groups are against the project.  For example, one of the members of the Friends of the Earth group believes it would be a wiser choice to invest in renewable energy and energy conservation.

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Holy grail?
By nrb on 5/26/2006 8:18:22 AM , Rating: 2
I think everyone is getting a bit carried away with this. Okay, fusion can, in theory, provide a lot of energy; potentially fusible fuel (deuterium) is reasonably abundant; and it's physically impossible for a fusion reactor to overload or melt down; but this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a "holy grail" solution.

First, it may simply never work stably enough to actually produce power. It is incredibly difficult to get a sustainable fusion reaction: no one has yet achieved it. For this to work you need a reaction that is sustainable for weeks or months, not just the tiny fractions of a second that have generally been achieved so far.

Second, there's no guarantee that it will be powered solely by deuterium. It's easier to get a deuterium-tritium reaction going, and tritium is both significantly rarer, and also radioactive.

Third, fusion produces a hell of a lot of radiation, and it's very highly penetrating radiation (gamma rays and neutrons): not something that's easy to block. This means you need protection on the same kind of scale as you have with a fission reactor.

Fourth, because of the huge amount of radiation produced, the reactor itself becomes radioactive after a while. It is therefore not correct to say that fusion produces no radioactive waste. While the actual fuel is (mostly) not converted to radioactive waste, the reactor itself will eventually become highly irradiated. You will face exactly the same decommissioning problems that we experience with conventional fission reactors. And, worst of all, you will face exactly the same risk of highly damaging radioactive leakage into the environment as you get with a fission reactor. Fusion isn't clean.

RE: Holy grail?
By Xavian on 5/26/2006 8:24:56 AM , Rating: 2
i never said it caused 'no' waste, i said it was much less then Fission, which still holds true. Radition can always be shielded otherwise those experiemental fusion 'rings' would have never been constructed.

Fusion isn't clean, but its a damn sight more cleaner then Nuclear Fission. Even if it turns-out to be a stop-gap power source, then im sure we will find something better soon enough. (singularities spring to mind ;))

RE: Holy grail?
By Hypernova on 5/26/2006 8:29:45 AM , Rating: 3
"It is incredibly difficult to get a sustainable fusion reaction: no one has yet achieved it."

Fusion isn't stable enough now because the containment is too small, hence the bigger 3MW ITER. I don't see how stability can be an issus for multy giga watt commercial reactors.

As for the waste, compared to the billions upon billions of tonnes to CO2 and radio active spent fuel a few thousand tonnes of irradiated steel is trivial.

RE: Holy grail?
By nrb on 5/26/2006 10:36:34 AM , Rating: 2
I don't see how stability can be an issus for multy giga watt commercial reactors.
Clearly if there ever is a commercial fusion reactor, the stability problem will have to have been solved by then. But that doesn't necessarily mean it will be solved. The purpose of this project is not to build a commercial fusion reactor, it is to find out whether a commercial fusion reactor actually can be built: the conclusion may very well be that it can't.

RE: Holy grail?
By stephenbrooks on 5/26/2006 2:17:29 PM , Rating: 2
Technically, you don't need stability, you can run the machine in pulsed operation. Inertial confinement fusion with lasers is a 2nd option that doesn't get mentioned very often, and it entirely generates its energy in the transient regime when a small deuterium target is crushed into a high temperature and density plasma.

RE: Holy grail?
By TheDoc9 on 5/26/2006 10:28:04 AM , Rating: 2
I love reading how everyone here who ISN'T a nuclear scientist knows exactly everything about nuclear fusion and is full of wonderfully incitefull predictions on the future. I might as well call miss cleo and get my lotto numbers.

RE: Holy grail?
By nrb on 5/26/2006 10:37:49 AM , Rating: 2
I love reading how everyone here who ISN'T a nuclear scientist knows exactly everything about nuclear fusion and is full of wonderfully incitefull predictions on the future.
Well, I do at least have a degree in Physics, so I know something about the subject....

RE: Holy grail?
By Sunrise089 on 5/26/2006 12:03:15 PM , Rating: 2
um...this is a PC site. How many of us have degrees in computer science or engeneering? (yes I know some do, but not all or even the majority) How many posters in politics and news have journalism or political science degrees? requiring you to be a game developer to determine whether or not you feel the Half-Life expansion is any good? Didn't think so.

I fully believe most of the above posters are able to realize if fusion power can be made practical it is a better option than solar or wind. I didn't see anyone trying to overstep his/her bounds with technical information we aren't qualified to discuss.

Thanks for playing though.

RE: Holy grail?
By TheDoc9 on 5/26/2006 12:38:19 PM , Rating: 2
Back to the game -

I have a CS degree myself, but I nor does anyone know the future dangers of fusion –they haven't been discovered. Who's to say there won't be new materials used to start the fusion process instead of those scarce few (if they really are scarce) that are mentioned. Isn't that what this project is for, researching and discovering a new, better energy source. To say that fusion is messy now, when we won't see it for 40 years, is ridiculous.

The post earlier about radioactive steel was interesting, how does this poster know this will happen? I say maybe it will, maybe it won’t, maybe there will be new materials in the future to prevent this. Who here works at a fusion plant? Since they don’t exist no-one does.

RE: Holy grail?
By stephenbrooks on 5/26/2006 2:25:13 PM , Rating: 2
There is a parallel experiment called "IFMIF" - the International Fusion Materials Irradiation Facility (hope I got that right), which is designed to see how active certain samples of material get under emulated irradiation that is supposed to model what will happen in close proximity to an operating fusion reactor over the scale of years.

The idea is to find materials whose physical properties won't degrade over time and which will also lack any long-lived isotopes when they are taken out.

So, materials research is an integral part of the activity too. I guess that means we can't fully predict the radioactive footprint of these reactors until IFMIF has published its first results (~2015 it is supposed to operate, so that will be getting on for 2020!).

I suspect parts of ITER (also beginning operation ~2015) will be swapped out as results from IFMIF become known. Actually I've seen a .ppt presentation from Chris Llewellyn-Smith with a project diagram that shows more-or-less that.

RE: Holy grail?
By vingamm on 5/26/2006 12:13:37 PM , Rating: 2
Let me chime in with you NRB. Mine is not in Physics but in electro-engineering and computer science. you are right. this is a feasibility study. It is one that needs to be taken as well. Fossil fuels have almost ruined the enviroment, fission produces highly toxic waste that is active for hundreds of years. A fusion reactor will get "hot" but lets be honest with ourselves. How long can we use the current systems of energy production. To the tree huggers I add, there are over 6 billion people on this planet and the number is not getting smaller. if we dam up all the rivers, where will the fish swim? If well put up a million windmills, where will the trees grow? If the put up solar mirrors we will eventually block out the sun. We could go back to living in caves and just say screw technology all together but I am guessing each and every one of you enjoys your AC from time to time. If this was just a individual choice it would be cool to suggest some of those choices. Fusion is the best choice so far. If you have a viable solution that can serve 6 billion plus people let the WEC know and I think they may consider it.

RE: Holy grail?
By stephenbrooks on 5/26/2006 2:19:11 PM , Rating: 2
And, worst of all, you will face exactly the same risk of highly damaging radioactive leakage into the environment as you get with a fission reactor. Fusion isn't clean.

No. Importantly, there is no risk of a Chernobyl-like meltdown or chain-reaction with a fusion reactor, that makes the "risk" smaller and certainly not "exactly the same".

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