This past Monday the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor Organization (ITER) signed a cooperation agreement at the opening of an IAEA fusion energy conference held in Geneva. I’m thinking about whether to be pleased or deeply worried. I’m leaning to the worried side.

ITER is an experimental reactor being built in Cadarache in southern France, which has a practical goal: to establish whether fusion, the nuclear reaction that powers the sun and the hydrogen bomb, can be tamed to generate useful power on Earth. Now, despite the complexity and high research and development costs, scientists are convinced they can unlock the massive power of nuclear fusion “within a generation.” They are nicely saying that this method is decades out and falsely suggesting that this method is the only way to useful fusion.

ITER Reactor Layout

ITER Reactor Layout - Click to Enlarge

The idea is to fuse two atoms of hydrogen using powerful magnets to form helium inside the tokamak design originating from the old Soviet Union. A small amount of mass is lost when the hydrogen atoms combine, in the process releasing vast quantities of energy. The fuel required – the elements deuterium and tritium – could be obtained from water and lithium, both found in abundance on Earth. Unlike nuclear fission, only low-level radioactive material, no more dangerous than hospital waste is left afterwards.

That said – this thing – a doughnut-shaped magnetic vessel, called a tokamak, with a diameter of 17 meters (56 feet). It will be surrounded by superconducting nio­bium coils that create magnetic fields 100,000 times as powerful as the Earth. These fields will do double duty: They will heat a cloud of hydrogen to the searing temperature required for fusion and forcing the resulting plasma to sit in a ring-shaped cloud away from the tokamak’s walls as at such temperatures anything would vaporize.

The goal is to use the heat from fusing plasma to keep the reaction going indefinitely, without having to pump in more energy. The ITER design can’t get there, but if the planning works out, when the reactor gets switched on in 2018, it might be able to hold a burning plasma for five minutes or more, allowing it to release 10 times as much energy as used to drive it. These institutions claim that would make ITER the first fusion reactor to produce a net surplus of energy. Ah, not quite, a 10 fold power release would be significant, but others are already ahead using other methods.

Then there is there’s a difficulty known as a “vertical displacement event.” David Campbell, an ITER physicist, describes such an event occurring (pdf) when the plasma in the doughnut drifts out of control, unleashing a tremendous electro­magnetic force. Within a tenth of a second, he says, “the whole structure is pushed up or pushed down” by a force equivalent to about 8,000 tons. ITER will have to be strong enough to withstand such stresses. I have to wonder just how fast that happens and the frequency.

Scientists can then begin working out how to harvest fusion energy for practical use. That may prove problematic in the same way. 100 to 200 million degree heat will be hard to handle if it can be done in an economical way at all.

The premise underlying all of this is the notion that heating and compressing within an electromagnetic field is the best way to get past the atom’s unwillingness to merge. While the tokamak idea is nearing 40 years old other ideas using much less intense demands for powering up are in need of support. The Bussard IEC method led by Richard Nebel comes to mind, Eric Learner”s Focus Fusion, Rostoker’s well funded idea and General Fusion’s technology. All the while the LENR or cold fusion science is now outputting excess energy in very small experiments. All the alternatives offer more elegant, simple and less expensive routes to inexhaustible power. Everyone would prefer an affordable fusion driven power plant that may be sized for a home, community or region.

The only recommendation for ITER is that every other idea must have conclusively failed because by far ITER is the most expensive and just as uncertain as any other. Tens of billions of dollars are being committed to this with the other ideas struggling to stay functioning in their research.

Something strategic from a consumer/taxpayer point of view is way wrong in all of this. Budget numbers are all over the place, most recently ITER has asked an independent expert group to review the latest estimates for a report before the end of 2008.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress in a gust of sense removed the U.S. funding for ITER in its last go around for energy funding. It won’t stick as the U.S. is committed, but it gives some hope that reason and common sense might prevail in investing in fusion research.

Make no mistake, I wish no one at ITER ill, but I certainly wish to get as many routes to fusion as possible as quickly as possible. That could include ITER, but and it’s a big “but”- there needs to be credible theories at a minimum, on harvesting, controlling and making use of the reactors energy output before we go any further. I might not be so resistant, if not for the huge investment requested to start. Or perhaps a better, faster cheaper proposal might find traction. ITER as proposed simply doesn’t cut it here.


3 Comments so far

  1. SOLOMON AZAR on October 17, 2008 8:57 AM

    The words of Tesla-“Of the various branches of electrical investigation, perhaps the most interesting and immediately the most promising is that dealing with alternating currents. The progress in this branch of applied science has been so great in recent years that it justifies the most sanguine hopes. Hardly have we become familiar with one fact, when novel experiences are met with and new avenues of research are opened. Even at this hour possibilities not dreamed of before are, by the use of these currents, partly realized. As In nature all is ebb and tide, all is wave motion, so it seems that in all branches of industry alternating currents—electric wave motion—will have the sway.”—my name is Solomon Sami Azar-born on the 13th January-1965. I have combined the century old ideas of Tesla and Einstein to produce safe nuclear fusion of heavy water in order to end the energy crisis- When the scientific community has found this and understands -the energy crisis will be over along with talks of greenhouse gases-I have been guided to this discovery by the heavens- by a force in this universe we are all connected to in spirit and pray to in the name of god- I have put together many signs and connections to form the big picture- I am a messenger of GOD—I have been sent by heaven to declare An Age of Unity has begun- world war 2 was Armageddon signified by two atomic bombs-An age of unity has begun

  2. Reginald Hopkins on December 24, 2008 4:51 PM

    you say “I certainly wish to get as many routes to fusion as possible as quickly as possible.”

    But you are against ITER funding? I don’t understand. ITER has the same feasibility as anything else, certainly as much as any other fusion project. The concept for commercialism is the same as any other: create heat, boil water, and turn turbines.

    Just because commercialization may be a ways away, that’s no reason not to fund it. We need to fund now to potentially have a solution in the future. No funding guarantees no solution. If ITER is too bureaucratic and slow, then perhaps an alternative is in order. But in absence of that, it’s the best we’ve got.

  3. Reginald Hopkins on December 24, 2008 4:59 PM

    Oh and one other thing. You say you are looking for a cheaper solution. Sorry, that’s not going to happen. In fact, the reason ITER is so slow and out of date is because the US pulled out of ITER in the 90’s and stalled it for a decade because we demanded a cheaper implementation. This cheaper implementation is smaller and may not even provide the scientific results and data we are seeking. By building larger, the Q value is multiplied by a greater-than-linear factor, and this is the way to go. We should rather vastly increase funding and demand results on a rapid timescale. Instead of this nonsense of breaking ground in 2009. We should have done that 20 years ago

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