Is nuclear fusion finally ready to deliver after 60 years? | Nuclear power
“We are standing on the ground that could change the future of energy,” says engineer Laurent Pattison deep in the reactor pit of the world’s largest nuclear fusion project.
There is a huge construction site around it, the aim of which is to generate temperatures of 150 mC at this point and ultimately bring the power of the sun to earth. The EUR 18 billion (£ 14.3 billion) Iter project, now rapidly rising from the ground under the bright blue skies of Provence, France, is the first to make a critical breakthrough: More power get out of the intense fusion reactions when investing.
“It’s a bet that is very important for humanity,” says Johannes Schwemmer, Director of Fusion for Energy, the EU partner in international Iter cooperation. “We have to get that energy once and for all.”
The long-term appeal of nuclear fusion is simple: clean, safe, and limitless energy for a world that will soon be home to 10 billion energy-hungry citizens. But despite 60 years of research and billions of dollars, the results so far are also simple: It didn’t deliver.
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The merger runs the risk of following its atomic cousin, conventional fission nuclear power, too promisingly – “electricity too cheap to be measured” – and delivering too little. The Iter project itself, which emerged from a Cold War Reagan-Gorbachev summit in 1985, has seen years of turmoil. The US withdrew completely between 1998 and 2003, and in 2008 Iter had to triple its budget and postpone its deadline by a decade.
But the heads of state and government, who represent half of the world’s population – via the Iter partners, the EU, China, Russia, the USA, India, Japan and South Korea – are now betting on 18 billion euros that can be achieved through merger, and have radically revised the management of Iter to fix the errors of the past.
The goal is to trap a plasma in a giant magnetic ring and force heavy isotopes of hydrogen to fuse together to release staggering amounts of energy – four times more than the fission of uranium atoms in conventional fission reactors.
“We believe we can deliver hundreds of megawatts with Iter,” says David Campbell, director of science and operations at Iter (which means “the way” in Latin).
To achieve this breakthrough, Iter will use a donut-shaped magnetic cage called a tokamak to capture the plasma. More than 200 smaller tokamaks have been built around the world, and Campbell says the decades of physics and engineering on which Iter has been built are a strong guarantee of success.
But nothing has ever been tried on the Iter scale. The world record for fusion power – 16 MW – was set in 1997 in the British JET reactor. The longest fusion run – six minutes and 30 seconds – was achieved in 2003 at Tore Supra in France. Iter is aiming for 500 MW and 50 minute runs.
When completed, the reactor building will weigh 320,000 tons, three times more than the Eiffel Tower. Photo: Iter
The site is a cathedral of the fusion dream: it spans the equivalent of 60 soccer fields and the reactor building will weigh 320,000 tons, all of which will rest on rubber bearings in the event of an unlikely but not impossible earthquake. The reactor itself will weigh 23,000 tons, three times more than the Eiffel Tower. It is the most complex engineering project in history.
More than 2,800 tons of superconducting magnets, some heavier than a jumbo jet, are connected by 200 km of superconducting cables, all from the world’s largest cryogenic facility, which will pump 12,000 liters of liquid helium per hour, at -269 degrees C to be held.
Millions of precision components are supplied by the seven partners and assembled by thousands of workers. All of this aims to keep just two grams of plasma in the 30 m diameter tokamak hot enough and stable enough for fusion to take place.
Iter’s plan is to create the first plasma in 2025 and then shoot tiny frozen 5mm pellets of heavy hydrogen – deuterium and tritium – into the plasma and generate energy. Deuterium is easily refined from seawater and fuses with tritium, which is extracted from fission reactors but could be produced in Iter itself in the future. The aim is to achieve maximum performance by 2035. In this case, Iter will form the basis for the first fusion power plants.
Bernard Bigot, the general manager of Iter, is certain that he will produce plenty of electricity. “What has not been granted so far, however, is that this technology will be simple and efficient enough to be industrialized,” he says.
The point of Iter is to find out, says Bigot: “The world needs to know whether this technology is available or not. Fusion could help keep the world energized for a very long time, maybe forever. “
Fly through the Iter Tokamak
Even if things go well, it would be a triumph to have real fusion power plants online before 2050, which begs an awkward question: what if the merger comes too late? Climate change is accelerating the transition to low carbon energy and drastic emissions cuts are required by 2050. If these are achieved, will there be a need for fusion power that will be expensive to start with?
“It certainly won’t be too cheap to measure,” says Campbell. But it is a question of the timeframe, he says: “In the long term, there are very few options: renewable energy, split and merger.”
For Schwemmer, there is only one long-term option. “You would have to cover entire continents with wind turbines to produce the energy that is needed for 10 billion people,” he says. “And if our children’s children are not supposed to be in a pile [fission] Nuclear waste, we have to make the fusion work. Even if it takes until 2100, we should do it anyway. “Nuclear fission is also limited by the uranium supply, perhaps to a few decades if it should play a major role.
Bigot said, “People need to see if we want a breakthrough [that could provide energy] For millions of years, 10 or 20 years is nothing. “He believes the merger could come in time to meet the need to bring the world to zero emissions in the second half of the century in order to defeat global warming.
As a nuclear technology, some will remain adamant against the merger. While fusion reactions only produce harmless helium, the ejected high-energy neutrons also irradiate the walls of the reactor, which leads to radioactive waste.
A European contractor is creating the inlets in the ladders for helium. An average of eight helium inlets are required per coil. Photo: Iter
Again, the key is the timescale, says Campbell. Waste from the fission can remain radioactive for 250,000 years, making plans to store hazardous waste many times longer than all of speculative human civilization. In contrast, fusion wastes will decay on a scale of decades. “It is credible to take care of the waste for 100 years,” he says.
The merger is also inherently safe, as the major collapses in fissure accidents like Fukushima and Chernobyl are physically impossible. Part of the reason is the tiny amount of fuel in a fusion reactor at any given point in time, and part is the spirited nature of plasma, a boiling gas made up of ions and electrons. “When you lose control of the plasma, not only does it sit there, it goes away,” says Campbell, clicking his fingers.
“After Fukushima, we thought we would be flushed in the toilet like all nuclear weapons,” says Sabina Griffith, communications manager at Iter. “But the opposite has happened – governments thought if not division, what then?”
There are other fusion reactor designs that may be better, and especially smaller. A reactor that was opened in Germany by Chancellor Angela Merkel in early 2016 uses a stellarator in which the plasma ring is shaped like a Mobius strip. This makes it potentially more stable, and most importantly, able to work continuously, rather than in pulses like a tokamak.
There are also numerous private companies manned by reputable fusion researchers that promise much smaller reactors, including British companies Tokamak Energy and Tri Alpha Energy, and General Fusion in Canada.
“There are technology routes that you can basically use to build something smaller,” says Campbell. But he says they either rely on unproven “exotic” ideas or underestimate the heavy engineering required to contain burning plasmas. “Iter is the size we can build with our current technology,” he says.
Politics remains a challenge to the implementation of Iter, and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, where some powerful voices want to leave the project for good, has increased uncertainty. The UK’s vote to leave the EU has also contributed to the uncertainty.
But Bigot believes that the need to know if full fusion power is feasible will hold the partners. “To be honest, the US is only 9% of the project, if left alone we could move on,” he said. “But it would be the wrong signal [showing] The most powerful country in the world is not preparing for its future. “Regarding Brexit, he says,” It would hurt Iter a little, but it would hurt the UK a lot, “given his long and ongoing research into the merger.
The Iter Council includes representatives of its seven members: China, India, Russia, the EU, Japan, the USA and South Korea. Photo: Iter
The political problems usually boil down to the expense and governments of the Iter partners seeking to reduce the taxpayer money spent on the project. “Iter looks very expensive to the ordinary person on the street,” says Campbell. “However, the costs are spread across half of the world’s population. In that context, I don’t think it’s such a big investment. “According to the IEA, in 2015 alone the world spent $ 325 billion on fossil fuel subsidies and $ 150 billion on renewable energy support.
Merger promoters like Campbell also suggest that the merger has geopolitical advantages as its main fuel – heavy hydrogen – is available to all. “Nobody has a monopoly on fuel, so nobody will argue about it.”
The 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev Summit, which launched the Iter project, called for “the fullest possible development of international cooperation” in nuclear fusion in order to “preserve energy that is essentially inexhaustible for the benefit of all humanity “.
How far is the world from it, 30 years and numerous stumbling blocks? Many still refer to the answer given by Lev Artsimovich, the father of the tokamak and head of the Soviet fusion force program for more than two decades until his death in 1973. Fusion force will arrive “when humanity needs it – maybe shortly before”.
This article was changed on December 2, 2016 to correct the location of General Fusion.