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Fusion: funding problems and choices

The EU is set to contribute 45% of the construction costs for ITER, the new international fusion reactor being built in France, which some estimates now put at €15 bn, three times the 2006 cost estimate. But the EU’s financial problems may mean that it can’t deliver all of its share of around €7.2 bn.

The most pressing problem is a €1.4 bn gap in Europe’s budget for ITER in 2012–13. Nature commented: “Left unresolved, the impasse in Europe will, at best, delay the project further. At worst, it could cause ITER to unravel entirely.” It added: “The crunch is so serious that some European states have gone as far as to ask the commission to investigate the possibility of withdrawing from ITER, according to sources familiar with the negotiations. The price of such a withdrawal would probably be in the billions, as the treaty governing ITER requires heavy compensation to other partners.”

A temporary solution would be a loan from the European Investment Bank to cover the immediate €1.4 bn budget gap. Another possibility would be to build a smaller version. But that could compromise its viability and aims.

Following a crisis meeting in July, it now seems that some interim refinancing has been agreed, but details of who is paying more are scare. However, the larger point remains. As Stephen Dean, president of Fusion Power Associates, a US non-profit advocacy group, told Nature: “There are serious questions about the affordability of fusion as a whole as a result of ITER.”

On their website, Fusion Power Associates say that: “It would be premature at this stage to judge which of the variety of magnetic and inertial fusion concepts will ultimately succeed commercially.” But, although part of the ITER magnetic containment programme, the US is also pushing laser-powered inertia fusion strongly these days, while the UK is also the base for an international HiPER laser fusion project.

HiPER is being supported by a consortium of 25 institutions from 11 nations, including representation at a national level from six countries. Following positive reviews from the EC in July 2007, the preparatory phase project will run up to 2011, aiming to establish the scientific and business case for full-scale development of the HiPER laser fusion facility. This phase is timed to coincide with the anticipated achievement of laser fusion ignition and energy gain (on the National Ignition Facility laser in the US). Then the website says “…future phases can proceed on the basis of demonstrable evidence. Construction of the HiPER facility is envisaged to start mid-decade, with operation in the early 2020s…”, possibly at Rutherford Appleton Lab in Oxfordshire, since the UK is a leading contender to host the HiPER laser facility.

The physics is tricky, but the engineering is even more so – 1 mm pellets of deuterium and tritium have to be presented accurately and fired by lasers continually, many times a second, and the debris cleared away. But the HiPer group seems confident it can be done and that inertial fusion may be easier than the “magnetic containment” fusion approach being adopted by the ITER project. They say that “Inertial fusion offers some unique benefits – for example the potential to use advanced fuels (with little or no tritium). This greatly reduces the complexity of the process and further reduces the residual radioactivity. Inertial Fusion also allows for the use of flowing liquid wall chambers, thus overcoming a principal challenge: how to construct a chamber to withstand thermonuclear temperatures for the lifetime of a commercial reactor. In addition, Inertial Fusion allows for the direct conversion of the fusion products into electricity. This avoids the process of heating water, and so increases the net efficiency of the electricity generation process.” It would be good to hear more about that. Otherwise it’s back to running pipes through the outer blanket to raise steam!

Interestingly though, electricity production may not be the main aim. As with other fusion projects, and some new fission projects, there is now talk of focusing more on hydrogen or synfuel production (e.g. for the transport sector, presumably either by electrolysis or by using the heat direct for high-temperature dissociation of water). Or the heat could be used for other industrial processing heating purposes.

Whatever the final end-use, the engineering does sound mind-boggling, even if the Hiper website does try to make it seem familiar: “The principle is conceptually similar to a combustion engine – a fuel compression stage and an ignition stage” (i.e. “analogous to a petrol engine (compression plus spark plug) approach”).

Well yes, but it’s at 100 million  °C, and, after a few firings, the whole thing will become fiercely radioactive due to the blast of neutrons that will be produced.

They are also the source of the energy that would have to be tapped if power is to be produced. But this bombardment means that, as with ITER, the containment materials and other components will be activated by the neutron flux, and have to be stripped out periodically and stored somewhere, although the half-lives would be relatively short – decades. The radioactive tritium in the reactor also represents a hazard; although the quantities at any one time would be small, accidental release could be very serious.

Overall it all sounds very complex and daunting and not a little worrying. On current plans we might be seeing a prototype working in the 2030s, although that sounds a little optimistic. Meanwhile, other ideas may yet emerge. There is talk of hybrid fusion/fission systems – perhaps using the neutron flux to convert thorium into a fissile material, or to transmute some of the active wastes from fission. And there was me thinking that fusion was meant to replace fission – not support it!

The UK is spending about half its energy R&D budget on fusion, including a contribution via EURATOM to ITER, as well as its national programme (£20 m last year), following on from JET at Culham. HiPER may achieve an earlier breakthrough than ITER, but the UK Atomic Energy Authority has said that, assuming all goes well with ITER and the follow up plants that will be needed before anything like commercial scale is reached, fusion only “has the potential to supply 20% of the world’s electricity by the year 2100”. Renewables already supply that now globally, including hydro, and the new renewables like wind, solar, tidal and wave power, are moving ahead rapidly – and could be accelerated.

As I said in a previous blog, since we need to start responding to the climate problem now, it might make more sense to speed the development and deployment of full range of renewable technologies, and make use of the free energy we get from fusion reactor we already have – the sun.

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