TCS Daily

Fusion Energy: Europe's New Holy Grail? (Part 2)

By Peter C. Glover - November 7, 2008 12:00 AM

Continued from Part 1...

Not all senior physicists believe an early breakthrough in fusion energy is either possible or, given the prevailing global economic conditions, even viable. And when Professor Dunne, director of the European HIPER project gives us an analogy for "perspective," it is not hard to see why. Dunne puts it this way:

"The laser is 10,000 times the power of the entire UK National Grid. And then you're going to focus that down onto a spot that's 10 to 100 times smaller than the width of a human hair. The pressure is equivalent to 10 Nimitz class aircraft carriers sitting on your thumb. Some pretty crazy things are going to happen."

Given the serious setback earlier this year for the ITER project, when it was discovered that unpredictable bursts of energy known as edge localized modes, or ELMs - similar to eruptions in the Sun, or solar flares - could occur, and were much bigger than anticipated, we see just what kind of "crazy things" Dunne means.

In the fusion process Deuterium and Tritium (isotopes of Hydrogen) are compressed to create Helium and an energetic particle or neutron. This neutron can be captured to produce energy by heating water to drive a steam turbine. But producing more energy than is used in the process remains the key to a real breakthrough.

Leading US Atmospheric Physicist, Professor S. Fred Singer, responding to HIPER's launch in an online editorial at the Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP) website sums up the dissenting view. Singer cites the chief twin problems for all new fusion energy research: the difficulty in confining unstable hydrogen plasmas through magnetic fields or other means and the ability to commercialise the process.

But Professor Singer also asks an even more pertinent question: "Do we really need fusion?" Singer points out, "We [already] have the standard nuclear fission reactor based on uranium. It is relatively cheap, it is safe, and it works." He explains, "Estimates vary but most experts agree that uranium will be a viable source of energy, and perhaps the best one available, for thousands of years. It becomes a matter of semantics whether an energy source than can be relied on for, say, 10,000 years or more is sustainable. But it is an empty argument. The point is we can do it now with available technology." The issue he raises becomes more than moot when we consider the Commission's other twin-track conundrum: the EU's attempted harmonization of its increasingly divergent energy and climate policies.

In a bid to live up to its "world lead in the fight against climate change", largely by setting highly ambitious CO2 emission cutting targets, the EU has demonstrated its readiness to pour vast sums of taxpayer dollars into expensive, often questionable, renewables and other 'green' projects. The EU's recent conversion to a new nuclear age represents one (more sensible?) element of how the Commission has sought to seek harmonization.

The prospect of commercially viable fusion-powered reactors supplying most of the world's needs by 2050 is tantalizing. But pouring massive public subsidies into projects that could not attract private equity capital, and where the 'proof of principle' factor alone will not be settled for decades yet, reveals perverse priorities. The EU has been vocal in taking a political lead on climate change based entirely on climate alarmist principles, chiefly that the planet is quickly running out of time of time to save itself from cataclysmic disaster. If that is so, then one might wonder why the somewhat nebulous holy grail of fusion energy, a massively costly and highly speculative long-term venture, has become such a high EU priority? Especially - the point Professor Singer makes - when we already possess the technological know-how to pursue clean and cheap standard nuclear fission using uranium.

Part of the reason is that Eurocrats find themselves between a rock (uranium) and a hard place (convincing a post-Chernobyl, skeptical Europe to trust using it). EU polls regularly reveal a population against more nuclear power. A new route to fusion energy may thus prove more appealing, not least as the pay-off is decades away. Neither is the EU leadership, as its ludicrously over-ambitious (and fast-collapsing) carbon cutting targets reveal, above making grand "world lead" political gestures. After all, it is only taxpayer's money.

Peter C Glover is a British writer & Associate Editor of Energy Tribune.


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