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Editor’s blog – Fusion energy: the ‘great gamble’ we have to take

Faced with population growth and its accompanying energy demands, runaway climate change and a persistent global economic downturn – we really have no choice but to invest in the ‘great gamble’ of fusion, writes Policy Review editor Dean Carroll

Billions have already been spent on fusion since the first experimental base opened in the former Soviet Union in the 1960s. Billions more is about to be spent on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in France, which is due to come into full operation in 2023. The aim of all this expenditure is to achieve the ultimate breakthrough – to create cheap energy from an environmentally-friendly and relatively stable source that will help to combat climate change while driving economic growth and improving Europe’s competitiveness.

The ITER project – a collaborative effort including the European Union, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States and said to be more costly, and complex, than CERN – has the potential to lift millions of people in the emerging countries out of poverty and millions of citizens in developed nations out of fuel poverty, at the same time as weaning society off its addiction to fossil fuels. These are grand ambitions and they come with a hefty price tag. For fusion is still 20 years behind solar power in terms of the advancement of its technology and the power gains witnessed.

But as the leader of the European Fusion Development Agreement Francesco Romanelli admits, those working on fusion can “make no promises” despite the annual price tag thought to be around €1.4bn – although astonishingly nobody seems to know the total yearly budget figure, even ITER itself. A spokesman for the organisation admits: “We will never know the real cost of ITER. The fact that we don’t know the real cost merely reflects a basic feature of the project – the fact that more than 80 per cent of the members’ contribution is in kind. The members are not obliged to let us know the exact cost.”

However, faced with population growth and its accompanying energy demands, runaway climate change and a persistent global economic downturn – we really have no choice but to invest in the ‘great gamble’ of fusion. After all, the fuel used is abundant in seawater and the earth’s crust. This means that no one state will have a stranglehold over the necessary natural resources. In addition, the nascent technology is remarkably safe – unlike nuclear energy or oil and gas.

Fusion of light nuclei is the energy source that powers the sun. A fusion plant utilises the reaction between tritium and deuterium. The process yields a helium nucleus and neutron. Then the neutron’s energy is harvested for electricity production. Experts estimate that global deuterium and lithium resources can satisfy the world’s energy demands for millions of years.

If it works, the ITER will deliver a demonstration fusion power plant – operating at up to 20 times hotter than the sun – in the 2040s. It will produce net electricity to the grid at the level of a few hundred megawatts before the next big jump to a fully commercial power plant by 2050. At this stage, the big corporations – so far quiet on fusion – and leading scientific nations are expected to ramp up investment and construction, building power plants all over the world.

With Europe in decline and Asia on the rise, it could be that the “aggressive” Chinese stance – Romanelli’s words – results in China becoming the leading global player by the time the product goes to market. For that reason, Romanelli and his peers are urging European leaders to keep the faith. So far, EU nations and their partners have committed to building the ITER but decisions about its ongoing running costs over the long term are yet to be made.

Romanelli says Europe’s work on fusion is more efficient than ever thanks to the Roadmap to the realisation of fusion energy. “We have put our house in order now,” he says despite the fact that nobody is able to give a definitive figure for the cost of ITER. “I hope the political system will follow and we will have enough resources to implement the roadmap; we are not asking for the moon,” adds Romanelli. Also speaking during a visit to the Joint European Torus fusion plant in England, the director for plasma operations at ITER – David Campbell – says: “You have to spend at a certain level to maintain the expertise. This is a promise to future generations that could lead to the global availability of resources.”

But surely the scientific community has been guilty of overpromising on what fusion might deliver for more than 50 years now? Not a bit of it, claim Romanelli and Campbell. “It’s an experiment so there is always a risk, we are now moving from theory to practical solutions on fusion,” claims Campbell. Adding his view, Romanelli states: “The true expert never promises anything. Will we be ready in 2040 or 2050? I don’t know but we think that fusion can impact on everybody’s standard of living. And the use of fossil fuels has an impact on the climate that is not sustainable.”

Chairman of the European Fusion Education Network Governing Board Niek Lopes Cardozo is more prosaic. “The last few years have been difficult for all of us, we cannot go slower and become irrelevant,” he says. “Fusion cannot be a political ‘keep refrigerated’ option. We must deliver on our promises but exponential growth implies exponential spending. ITER is a transition from being science-driven to industry-driven. It will take a decade or two; 30 years from now, we will either be opening demo plants or we will not exist anymore.”

Building a star inside a man-made chamber is no easy task, as the last half a century has proved. There have been difficulties in achieving critical mass in experiments and problems with finding metals that will not melt or contaminate the plasma during tests. Not to mention the problems associated with sustained funding and finding the right scientists to drive fusion onwards.

It is notable that, unlike space exploration which gave us satellite television and miniaturisation, the huge investments in fusion have not produced any technological spin-offs that have become useful in everyday life. Even so, we must not give up now. Europe must pledge its loyalty. If not, the continent may become as dependent on Chinese fusion power in the next 50 years as it has been on imported oil and gas over the last 50 years. It is a huge gamble. But not investing in fusion is an even bigger gamble. Place your bets now.

Dean Carroll is editor of Policy Review

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