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The False Promise of Nuclear Fusion

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There have been some pretty radioactive climate change ideas making the rounds at the COP21 talks in Paris. Team Hansen’s wildly unrealistic notion of switching on 61 new nuclear reactors a year was taking the cake until an even fruitier one reared its familiar head: the nuclear chimera known as ITER.

ITER was originally called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, with ‘experimental’ being the operative word in that lofty title. Which is perhaps why today they refer to it only by acronym (apparently the word ‘thermonuclear’ also had some rather explosive connotations.) The official website equates ITER with its coincidental Latin meaning, ‘The Way’.

ITER was initiated in 1985 by then presidents Reagan and Gorbachev. The multi-nation project included not only the United States and the already crumbling Soviet Union, but the European Union and Japan. Today there are 35 countries in the partnership.

If it ever gets completed and actually works, ITER will be a fusion reactor known as a Tokomak. Fusion is the physicists’ wet dream, and they’ve been hallucinating about ITER for precisely three decades and Tokomaks and fusion itself for even longer.

ITER itself isn’t even the final step to electricity-producing fusion power plants. Its purpose is in “preparing the way for the fusion power plants of tomorrow.” A tomorrow that is heralded as ten years away, decade after decade.

Wrestling with plasma

Indeed, ITER has been such a perpetually longstanding aspiration that I can delve for information into my father Mike Pentz’s 1994 memoirs without risk of being much out of date. A physicist and founder of Scientists Against Nuclear Arms, here’s how he assessed the challenge of fusion, something he began wrestling with back in 1948.

“The problem of containing a deuterium-tritium plasma at high enough temperatures for long enough to get more power out of the reactor than has gone into it is still not solved, in spite of the expenditure of billions of pounds, dollars, roubles and yen over more than forty years of effort.”

The world’s cleverest scientists have been working on the problem for decades, trying to contain very multi-million degree plasma in magnetic fields, but constantly being flummoxed by the unpredictable pressure and temperature surges that plasma throws up, frustrating their finest efforts.

Yet cracking fusion holds scientists in thrall. The elusive promise of limitless energy that would instantly solve climate change has Nobel prize written all over it. But the confounding nature of the science is what makes the process so slow and complex. Even, potentially, impossible.

Writing in the November 6, 2014 edition of the New Statesman, Michael Brooks, who holds a PhD in quantum physics, said: “Many experts say overcoming such technical difficulties is still decades, if not centuries, beyond our capabilities.”

This does not mean that physicists in the laboratory should not be able to experiment with fusion. The thrill of intellectual exploration is understandable, as is the search for the Higgs Bosun or dark matter.

However, this cannot justify the misrepresentation of multi-billion dollar fusion experiments as some sort of relevant climate change solution. Talk of fusion has no place at COP21.

Too expensive, too slow and completely impracticable

The challenges that make fusion potentially permanently decades away have been identified as threefold. The first is for the reactor to generate more energy than it takes to produce it. The second is for the reactor to produce more energy than the facility as a whole uses to make it. And the third is to actually make electricity in this fashion without going completely broke.

The expense could be the ultimate showstopper even if we achieve the fusion dream within someone’s lifetime. The official price tag to date just for ITER’s preliminary 500-MW fusion plant is $14 billion. But with so many countries sharing the cost, along with the endless construction delays, an accurate figure is difficult to calculate.

Technical progress has been slow, too. Pentz noted that in November 1991, scientists at the Joint European Torus project “achieved a temperature of about 200 million degrees Celsius (about 10 times the temperature in the centre of the sun) for a period of two seconds.” It was hailed as “a major step forward.”

My father demurred, calling the claim an overstatement, and not only because of the likely decades of scientific work still ahead. More important was the question of fusion’s applicability to our now present and then still future energy needs, if and when it worked.

“Ironically, by the time that point is reached (if ever) – some time well into the 21st century – thermonuclear power will be irrelevant to the world’s energy needs”, he wrote.

“By then about 90% of the world’s energy will be needed by the people living in the countries now somewhat euphemistically called ‘developing.’ Extremely advanced, high-technology and high cost energy sources like controlled fusion will be entirely inappropriate for meeting their needs.”

Consigning fusion and fission to the past tense

Only slightly into the 21st century, there is now actually an ITER construction site to show for all the billions spent. It is in Cadarache in the South of France, where it is more likely to abruptly be reduced to a pile of rubble than to solve the climate crisis.

Cadarache is built on a fault line that is the most seismically active in France and close to another that registered the highest level of seismic activity the country ever recorded (in 1909).

The International Atomic Energy Agency, however, gave ITER a green light, saying the severe earthquake risks were low and not likely to happen for another 10,000 years. Which is possibly how long it might be before nuclear fusion power plants light up the Earth.

But even if ITER arrives this century, it will be pretty much irrelevant, given our survival will depend upon moving away from large centralized sources of energy, like coal, oil, gas or uranium, towards much smaller, decentralized sources.

This will, as my father wrote back in 1994, “make controlled fusion reactors as impracticable and inappropriate as nuclear reactors based upon fission. If any historians survive to write them, the history books of the 22nd century will write of nuclear energy, whether from fission or fusion, essentially in the past tense.”

Which is precisely where the wasteful ITER needs to be consigned.

More articles by:

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear. She also serves as director of media and development. 

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