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Tag Archives: ITER

Renewables in France – good targets, slow progress

By Dave Elliott

Although progress has been relatively slow, France has a quite ambitious energy policy, with nuclear to be cut back by around 25%, by 2025, so that it supplies a maximum of 50% of power, and renewables accelerating to supply 32% of energy by 2030 and double their share of electricity to 40% by the same year. Last year, according to BNEF data, France invested $5bn in Clean Energy, up 15% on 2016.

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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.

http://fusionpower.org/

http://www.hiper-laser.org

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Why fusion?

One of the big hopes for the energy future is nuclear fusion- not messy uranium fission, with all its problems, but allegedly clean and hopefully prolific hydrogen based nuclear fusion. However, it’s a long time coming – and it’s costing a lot. $20 billion so far globally, and more soon. The cost of the new ITER project at Cadarache in Southern France. has risen from £9 billion to, reportedly, around £18 billion. It’s a joint EU, Russia, US, China, Japan and S. Korea project toward which it seems the UK is contributing around £20m p.a. That’s in addition to the £26 m for nuclear fusion research in the UK through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for 2007-8.

For comparison, government expenditure on research and development for all the renewable energy sources in 2007-8 was £ 15.92 million via the Research Councils and £ 7.53m via the Technology Strategy Board, plus some related policy work via the UK Energy Research Centre and Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Fusion is clearly getting favourable treatment compared to renewables. Is this wise? After all there is a wide range of renewable technologies, a dozen or more very different systems, not just one. Why the imbalance?

The claim is that fusion offers, as the EURATOM web site says, ‘an almost limitless supply of clean energy’. And yet the UK Atomic Energy Authority say 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.’ That’s not a misprint – 20%, if all goes well, in 90 years time. 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.

By comparison, the prospects for fusion are actually rather mixed. The physics may be sorted, up to a point. The UK’s JET experiment at Culham managed to generate 16MW briefly (but not of course net- it needed 23MW input). But the engineering is going to be complicated. How do you generate electricity from a radioactive plasma at 200 million degrees C? The answer it seems is by absorbing the neutron flux in a surrounding blanket that then gets hot, and has pipes running through to extract the heat, which is then used it to boil water and raise steam -as with traditional power plants. Not very 21st century…

As yet, few people would hazard a guess as to the economics of such systems. The ITER web site (www.iter.org) says ‘it is not yet possible to say whether nuclear fusion based on magnetic confinement will produce a competitive energy source’.

But at least there won’t be any fission products to deal with. However, the neutron flux will activate materials in the fusion reactor which will interfere with its operation, and will have to be stripped out regularly- so there will still be a radioactive waste storage problem, albeit a lesser one. The materials will only have to be kept secure for a hundred years or so, rather than thousands of years as with some fission products.

The risk of leaks and catastrophic accidents is said to be lower than with fission. Fusion reactions are difficult to sustain, so in any disturbance to normal operation the reaction would be likely to shut itself down very rapidly. But it is conceivable that some of the radioactive materials might escape. The main concern is the radioactive tritium that would be in the core of the reactor, which if accidentally released, could be dispersed in the environment as tritiated water, with potentially disastrous effects. To put it simply, it could reach parts of the body, which other isotopes couldn’t.

Finally what about the fuel source? The basic fuels in the most likely configuration to be adopted would be deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, which is found in water, and tritium, another isotope of hydrogen, which can be manufactured from Lithium. Water is obviously plentiful while it is claimed that Lithium reserves might last for perhaps 1000 years, depending on the rate of use. That presumably depends on the competing use in Li Ion batteries in consumer electronics and possibly soon, on a much larger scale, in electric vehicles.

While that could be a problem for the future, there is a long way to go before we need worry about fuel scarcity. The ITER project is small (500 Megawatt rated) and won’t start operating until 2018, and, even assuming all goes well, it’s only a step toward a commercial pilot plant. And that at best is decades away. There could of course be breakthroughs. While the ITER magnetic constriction device is seen as the main line of attack, the US is also looking at laser fusion. But, even if it works, that too is unlikely to provide a practical energy source for some while.

We need to start responding to the climate problem now. So why then are we spending so much taxpayers money on fusion? It might eventually be useful for powering space craft. But on Earth? Wouldn’t it 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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