Saturday, 9 March 2013

(Why I do not like) nuclear fusion...


For anyone interested in energy matters at an international scale, ignoring the occasional noise about nuclear fusion is not easy. Lately there's been even more of it as Nature reports that South Korea in collaboration with the US Department of Energy's Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. I could even risk saying that there seems to be a subtle race between the projects in Korea and ITER, the France based international fusion facility.

For ITER the EU is joined by India, Japan, Russia, China, South Korea and the US. Financing is roughly shared at 45% for the EU and 9% for each one of the other partners; the bill has already reached 15bn for a project which now looks like it will be completed in the late 2020s. There's plenty of time until then for plans to be reviewed again and costs to hike again. This is not criticism against ITER or nuclear fusion. Uncertainty is in the very nature of experimentation and that's exactly what ITER is; a large scale, very expensive experiment.

The title of this post makes it sound as if I really have something against nuclear fusion, when in fact I don't. I have nothing against it. There's nothing negative about a technology that promises to meet our ever-growing energy demand without serious environmental impact. However, I do not think that nuclear fusion will make any serious contribution to the world's energy needs until 2050 that is often linked as a milestone date for it.

Setting unrealistically ambitious targets for 2050 distracts public opinion, decisions and funding from real solutions. There are people (quite often even my students) who believe that there's no need to invest in renewable energy or nuclear fission (or anything at all for that matter) because nuclear fusion is just around the corner and will solve all of our energy problems. Could this belief be playing a role in public opposition against wind energy, I wonder? Could it be diverting funds from nuclear energy investment?

My intention is not to blame nuclear fusion for all that is wrong in the energy sector. I cannot escape to see though that it is misleadingly used as a panacea and that as such it may be making investment in real solutions a lot more sluggish. This is very dangerous in a period when under-investment is one of them main problems of the electricity sector in most developed countries. Public opinion as well is led to believe (very conveniently) that we can avoid wind turbines, nuclear power stations or even conventional thermal power stations simply because there are other means in which we can meet our energy needs.

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