Monday, July 11, 2011

The Fusion Reactor: an energy source that burns money

     The JET, Joint European Torus, nuclear fusion research plant in Culham, Oxfordshire UK 

The New York Times has a wonderfully nostalgic op-ed piece that echoes fantasies of technological omnipotence of the 1950s.  Stewart C. Prager, director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, argues that "an abundant, safe and clean energy source once thought to be the stuff of science fiction is closer than many realize: nuclear fusion."

I've been reading articles of this sort for decades.  I place them in a file of colorful materials labeled: "Science funding promotional hype."  To his credit, Prof. Prager delivers the pitch as eloquently as any of the fusion boosters of past six decades.

"It is essentially inexhaustible and it can be created using hydrogen isotopes — chemical cousins of hydrogen, like deuterium — that can readily be extracted from seawater.

Fusion energy is created by fusing two atomic nuclei, in the process converting mass to energy, which appears as heat. The heat, as in conventional nuclear fission reactors, turns water into steam, which drives turbines to generate electricity, or is used to produce fuels for transportation or other uses.
Fusion energy generates zero greenhouse gases. It offers no chance of a catastrophic accident. It can be available to all nations, relying only on the Earth’s oceans. When commercialized, it will transform the world’s energy supply"

It's no surprise that an essay of this kind appears soon after the ongoing calamity at the Fukushima reactors has tarnished, perhaps once and for all, the reputation of nuclear fusion reactors and the industry's lovely refrain: "Clean, safe, too cheap to meter!"  And perhaps it's no coincidence that a puff piece of this kind comes at a time when the budget cutters in Washington, D.C. are looking for items items to trim from Obama's WFT (Win the Future) wish list.  To his credit, Prager notes that costs for research and development will be quite high.

"We need serious public investment to develop materials that can withstand the harsh fusion environment, sustain hot plasma indefinitely and integrate all these features in an experimental facility to produce continuous fusion power. This won’t be cheap. A rough estimate is that it would take $30 billion and 20 years to go from the current state of research to the first working fusion reactor."

Ah, yes...with just little more money and little more time we can save the world....

Evidently, nobody has the gumption to ask an obvious question:  Wasn't it twenty years back, forty years back, and even earlier that members of your tribe made the same projections and promises?  


  1. Anonymous4:04 AM

    I find it interesting that the only criticism of fusion contained in the article is in the last sentence. In real terms, has fusion research made progress in the last 40-50 years? What have been the unexpected challenges that have delayed it? How optimistic is the scientific community as a whole? How does fusion research funding compare to other energy research initiatives, and has the international community got its money's worth? Address these, and you might have an article.

  2. Gabriel10:55 AM

    First of all, I agree with Anonymous, this article ignores the real issues. (And what does Fukushima have to do with fusion power??)

    Yes, the projections have been wrong constantly, partly because new challenges have surfaced, partly because of politics, partly because of misguided optimism. But the actual progress has been remarkable, and the field is at a point in which fusion power looks clearly achievable in the medium run.

    The fusion community has been focusing only on the plasma physics, largely ignoring the engineering issues, which is why I don't expect Dr. Prager's projections to be right. But fusion power would change the energy equation so drastically, that investing more in it makes a lot of sense.

    I just hope that funding ITER and tokamak/stellarator R&D only won't mean killing alternative concepts that have been worked on less but could yield simpler, more reliable (and thus cheaper) reactors.