Fusion In Our Future?

ITERTuesday saw the official agreement between a consortium of countries to construct a fully functional fusion reactor, at a cost of 12.8 billion dollars, or thereabouts. The project is called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, ITER. It is indeed a huge undertaking, and we could end up with nothing to show for it, but on the other hand it would be a miniscule price to pay if we were to get the scheme off the ground. The promise of an abundant source of energy that is (supposedly) less polluting and safer to run than fission and does not add to our upcoming woes caused by climate change is too tantalizing not to pursue.

In case you’re wondering, the image to the right (click for larger) is a schematic representation of the 500MW reactor. It is of the classic “Tokamak” type, in which there is a torus (doughnut) shaped region where the plasma will be magnetically contained, at a temperature of 100 million K. To learn more about fusion, you can go to the article from the UKAEA here, and the article on ITER here at their website. From the latter, you can learn about the specific scientific objectives of ITER:

  • Achieve inductive plasma burn with power amplification, Q (ratio of fusion power to auxiliary heating power), of at least 10, under stationary conditions on the timescales of plasma processes;
  • Aim at demonstrating steady-state operation with Q > 5;
  • Do not preclude the possibility of controlled ignition.
  • Integrate the technologies essential for a fusion reactor (e.g. superconducting magnets, remote maintenance);
  • Test components for a future reactor (e.g. divertor and torus vacuum pumps);
  • Test tritium breeding module concepts for DEMO.

From there, they hope to go on to the next stage: commercial designs… 40 or 45 years from now. See the ITER page on the timelines.)

Of course, we must be careful. Are they really as relatively safe and clean as is claimed, for example? Furthermore, please beware: No matter how promising it might seem, or turn out to seem later on, we must guard against the temptation to see fusion as the simple high-technology fix that is going to solve, in one fell swoop, all the environmental woes that are probably around the corner. Sometimes we come to a point where we must make the choice to look at a deeper solution to some major problem in our society, but we jump at the flashy technological solution. It might be that there is no flashy solution in this case. So we should certainly not risk things by waiting for it to turn up just in case. In fact, looking at the projections for how long the project will take to get us to commercial reactors – 45 years – it is not at all clear that even if fusion were to work, we would get it to work in time. If we continue pouring carbon dioxide into our environment at the rate we are now, (never mind the increased rate which is more likely to occur) by time a functional fusion reactor design is rolled out and built commercially in enough quantities… it will be all way way too late.

Others (Greenpeace for example) argue that the money being spent on the ITER should be better spent on research on alternative fuels, etc, for the reasons I said above and others. I am not sure that it should be an either-or situation. We should be trying a cocktail of efforts, as no simgle solution is going to be enough. This diversification of effort is certainly possible if we stop spending billions on serving up death and destruction in the Middle East, for example. Pulling money away from ITER will not mean that it will be spent on hydrogen fuel cells, or wind or solar power. It does not work that way.

Stories on the signing of the agreement can be found in several places. Here is a Reuters story, and here is one from the BBC, and one from the Financial Times.


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18 Responses to Fusion In Our Future?

  1. Holmes says:

    Well, if Greenpeace is against it, it must be doing something right.

  2. Pitiful Red says:

    They had a segment on the today program about this where some guy from friends of the earth was arguing that we should spend the money elsewhere, before saying that renewable energy was the fastest growing source last year. However, wasn’t it originally (back when they started planning in the early 90s) going to be bigger and closer to a commercial reactor? The amount they’re spending on ITER really is peanuts for the international community, and the long timescale is scandalous.

  3. boreds says:

    I’m not sure why you seem to cast doubt on the assertion that fusion is safer and cleaner than fission. If you have doubts, it would be interesting to hear what they are in more detail.

    And why exactly is fusion `flashy’? I might be misunderstanding you, but would you be happy if we did find it possible to take all of our power from fusion reactors? It sounds like you think that that kind of solution would fail to address a deeper problem.

    (If all you mean is that we shouldn’t put all the eggs in one basket etc, I totally agree with you—but as I think we agree, the money currently spent on fusion research isn’t huge in the grand scheme of things.)

  4. Clifford says:

    HI Boreds,

    I am not an expert, but there seem to be reasonable concerns expressed about safety, etc, that have not been addressed since nobody has figured out how to make the technology work yet. So there is still a lot to do in realizing the technology before we can make the extraordinary claims of cleaner and safer… I use the word flashy only to reflect that image that is presented of fusion – a fantastic fix-all near-perfect solution to everything. Have a look at some fusion promoting websites for what I mean. The idea of fixing deep problems with a clever technology is seductive, and is one that people (especially in the USA) love to reach for… it is most often a mirage.

    Gosh, I’d love it it we could fix all our problems in this way. But no….. putting all our eggs in one basket is insanity.


  5. Clifford says:

    Pitiful Red:- I think it was a bit more ambitious in scope at the earlier stages, as you say… and it was the 80’s not the 90’s. Depressing how far behind it all is…


  6. Elliot says:

    I am curious as to why more effort isn’t being put into thorium as an alternative fuel for fission reactors. It appears from what I have read that it is a viable scenario without the possibilty of peripheral weapons production.

    That said I think that a variety of approaches, solar(including perhaps off planet), wind, deep water currents, biofuels(including perhaps some GMOs), along with an aggressive of conservation and reforestation will be required to 1) provide adequate energy for society 2) hopefully avoid the most serious consequences of climate change.

    One interesting area is the enzyme RuBisCO http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RuBisCO which is the key enzyme in one phase of photosynthesis. It looks ripe for modification to be made more efficient or “moved” to a non-organic platform.


  7. spyder says:

    I am not sure that it should be an either-or situation

    Indeed, we need the both/and discussion. As PitifulRed points out the $$ allocated for the project are about equal to the money spent in Iraq by the US in a month. Not exactly spare change, but after nearly four years of this debacle, spending funds to help the planet cope with the numerous threats to its life sustaining capabilities would seem highly reasonable. The environmental community is concerned with the transportation issues that surround the “flashy” envisioned benefits of the fusion reactors to remove the hazardous and toxic radioactive materials that are quickly accumulated in our world. Trains and trucks moving through towns and cities, carrying radioactive wastes are a major problem. We are even transporting some of those across the oceans, and the supposed oversight is underfunded and unmanned.

    Therefore, we do need to support the development of the ITER, and all other alternative energy researches. We also need to lobby to restrict the desire on the part of large corporate entities to restart a vigorous coal burning energy economy. Unless intense scrubbing and sequestration of carbon is part of that measure–and certainly stopping the abusive, destructive, human-health destroying, mountain-top-removal mining of coal–we will only further contribute to our future generations sufferings.

  8. TheGraduate says:

    Doesn’t fusion produce a lot of neutrons, potentially making the things radioactive?

  9. Weldon says:

    Nothing to show for it? The ITER project will return untold benefits to human society and I do mean untold, since few will ever hear of them. How many new scientists will we get out of that twelve billion? How much of it will go to education? How many companies will prosper on the contracts awarded for ITER and what will those companies do with the new techniques and the experience they gain from working on the project. Technological spin offs, international cooperative opportunities, the advancement of our understanding of the universe, the list is long.

    Even if they never attain a sustained reaction, humankind will be enriched by ITER and projects like it. ITER isn’t expected to be a commercially viable energy source, but the knowledge we get from working on it will bring us that much closer to that goal. We know fusion will produce energy and now that economics is forcing us to address our future energy needs, we will work out a process to make it work.

    This is why people, like Friends of the Earth infuriate me. With all the urgent environmental problems society faces today, why do they oppose the spending on long term solutions for short term concerns. Unless we blow ourselves off the face of the earth, our population controls will do no more than slow growth. Many of you will live to see a population of nine to ten billion, but only if we have the energy to feed and shelter ourselves. Making sure that energy is there when and as we need it requires research now and that means money.

    Many organizations say we must spend that money on short term fixes for current problems, but the problems we face are not just technological, they come from within. The greed of those who would exploit, persecute, and even kill others for personal gain. The politicians from the dark side who’ve made a business out of war, genocide, and terrorism. More money is never going to solve these issues, nor will it eliminate disease, pain, or suffering. That requires better humans and to accomplish that goal will take time, time we won’t get if we don’t address our energy needs. No one asks them to stop their efforts to make the world a better place, why do they try to block our attempts to do the same, people spend more on thier pets and personal grooming this year, than ITER ever will. Let the Friends of the Earth go after them and let science do what it has always done, keep us one step ahead of the disasters that our expanding population is is bringing down on us.

  10. Paul F. Dietz says:

    I am curious as to why more effort isn’t being put into thorium as an alternative fuel for fission reactors.

    Uranium is plentiful, so there’s little point in doing so. This is also why breeder reactor research has dead-ended.

    The ITER project will return untold benefits to human society and I do mean untold, since few will ever hear of them. How many new scientists will we get out of that twelve billion? How much of it will go to education? How many companies will prosper on the contracts awarded for ITER and what will those companies do with the new techniques and the experience they gain from working on the project.

    Oh please! If we are going to be getting new scientists and putative spinoff technologies we might as well be getting them in fields that also yield useful results. ITER has little chance of leading to a reactor that would be economically competitive with the alternatives, including fission.

  11. Elliot says:


    The point on Thorium is that there is no risk of weapons development. That alone would make it attractive.


  12. Paul F. Dietz says:

    The point on Thorium is that there is no risk of weapons development. That alone would make it attractive.

    Why? If a government is talking about licensing reactors in its own territory, why should this matter at all? Is it worried about the electric company building bombs? And have any civilian powerplants been used to make plutonium for bombs? All cases I’ve heard of have involved dedicated production reactors.

  13. Elliot says:

    no comment….

  14. We already have fusion power. And, it’s in common use. Most of the power used on Earth comes from it.

  15. Paul F. Dietz says:

    no comment….

    I’ll take that as an admission you couldn’t come up with any kind of rational counterargument.

  16. Elliot says:

    Actually Paul it’s a sign that I was completely dumbfounded that you would suggest that a technology that could potentially remove the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation has in your view no value.

    If there is a non-zero probability of theft of plutonium then I would say there is some value.


  17. doug says:

    As I’m not a fusion physicist I’m curious as to why there has been such mild response to claims made by Dr Bussard a few weeks ago in a lecture at Google’s lunchroom. It would seem that if it’s bunk the rest of the scientific community would be making some noise about it, or the IT community would be pokin’ Google in the ribs about its sponsoring him, and either way the media would give it some attention. And if it is anything like what he says it is in his 90 minute presentation, does anyone know where to sign-up as an investor?

  18. Clifford says:

    Thanks Doug.

    Never heard of this lecture…. anyone with any thoughts on it? I imagine you mean this video: