ITER is First of a Breed of Fusion Reactors that Could Produce Power without Nuclear's Risks
A fusion reactor could, within 30-40 years, harness the hydrogen power of the stars. An international agreement to build the first such facility has scintillated the scientific community and roused the rage of environmentalists. Successful fusion experiments could lead to a clean, safe, unlimited power source. Not everyone is convinced that it's possible, or a good idea.
June 22, 2005
A research facility called ITER could have long-ranging implications for electric power, although no electricity will be generated by ITER itself.
"Iter" is Latin for "the way." The ITER research facility is an experimental step between previous studies of plasma physics and the fusion power plants of the future. The first experiments are scheduled to begin in 2016, but the prospect of building a reactor is already energizing the scientific community and fueling some volatile reactions.
Fusion reactions energize scientists
A clean, safe, infinite source of electricity is the stuff of futuristic novels. One such reactor exists nearby -- at the center of our Solar System.
Great deals? We suspect not. Bidding probably starts at US$10 billion, and delivery would take a decade or more. (This Google ad actually appeared online.)
Hydrogen atoms combine within the Sun under extreme pressure and heat -- over 10 million degrees C -- and release tremendous amounts of energy. With the lower pressures possible here on Earth, the temperature must be closer to 150 million degrees C for fusion to occur. Since almost any manmade container would vaporize at those temperatures, a fusion reactor uses a magnetic cage to contain the heated particles.
Tiny amounts of fuel -- about a gram per 1,000 cubic meters -- are used to perpetuate the reaction. The fuel consumption of a fusion reactor would be quite low, compared to today's power plants.
Believed cleaner, safer than nuclear
A one-gigawatt fusion plant would need about 100 kilograms of deuterium and three tons of lithium to operate for a year, generating about seven million MWh of electricity. That's enough to power a modern city. To generate the same energy, a coal-fired power plant requires about 1.5 million tons of fuel and produces about four to five million tons of CO2.
Fusion could generate electricity without the emissions and greenhouse gases thought to cause the current phase of global warming. The recent reemergence of U.S. government interest in nuclear power is ostensibly fueled (pardon the expression) by this factor.
ITER represents a safer alternative to nuclear power. Fusion reactions are not self-sustaining, so a plant won't melt down or blow up. If the small amount of non-radioactive fuel is cut off from the reactor, the particles cool and the reaction stops within a few seconds. Modern nuclear plant designers are still searching for ways to achieve similar levels of safety.
Fusion does irradiate its surrounding reactor chamber, so there will be radioactive waste to dispose of when the reactor is dismantled. The waste is dangerous, but not as highly radioactive as what goes into or comes out of a modern nuclear power plant. Fusion's radioactivity decays and becomes safe to recycle on a human time scale, around a hundred years, compared to thousands for conventional nuclear waste.
This ITER reactor won't generate electricity, only heat. Even though the reactor will produce the equivalent of about 500 MW of energy, there won't be a turbine attached. Like most power plants, a fusion power plant would convert water to steam that would drive a turbine to generate electricity.
The reactor will give scientists a chance to learn about every aspect of fusion. The six parties are already planning for the experiments beyond ITER -- known as the Broader Approach -- to take fusion research the rest of the way to power generation.
True international cooperation
Six parties (the EU, the US, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea) are participating in the ITER fusion energy project under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The cooperation was launched in 1987 when the participants realized that no single country was likely to have all the scientific resources required, nor foot the expected $10 billion in costs, for the experiment. The US stopped contributing to the effort in 1999, but resumed its commitment shortly after China joined the alliance.
Japan and France have been competing for the site, and today's announcement by Japan seems to indicate that France has won the competition. The winning country is guaranteed to be the center of the scientific universe, along with thousands of construction and research jobs spanning 30 years. It is also on the hook for half the cost of construction. The losing country is guaranteed 20% of the construction contracts, along with promises of support for building the next facility in their country.
Fusion has its skeptics
The joke in the science world is that fusion has been a decade away for 50 years. It is theoretically harder to combine Hydrogen atoms on Earth because the densities and pressures on the Sun are so much greater. Scientists are confident that it will be done.
Environmentalists are concerned that the money spent on ITER is money that won't be spent developing more known renewable energy sources. They are also worried about the possibility of proliferation of radioactive materials. Given the French propensity to voice their objections through protests, the construction process is likely to have its challenges.
Local reactions are mixed
The town of Cadarache, near Aix-en-Provence, is a quiet village with 3,500 inhabitants. ITER promises to at least double that, which would bring some expansion of the town's infrastructure. That equates to big changes for an historic area, but it also means more jobs and spending. Nestlé and other plant closures in this part of France have left many unemployed.
The region around the proposed site in Provence is considered environmentally sensitive, and some feel it should be protected from the kind of development that is certain to ensue.
Cadarache already hosts the world’s largest super-conducting fusion experiment, Tore-Supra, at the CEA Cadarache Research Centre, one of the biggest civil nuclear research centers in Europe. Other nearby towns and cities are hoping for a shift in perceptions about their region, from the current tourist-trap image to one of industrial and scientific leadership.
Starting in late 2005, it's likely to be one big construction zone.