By Dimitris Raptis, Junior Analyst KEDISA May 5, 2016
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is an independent international organization. The fundamental goal of the IAEA is the promotion of the peaceful use of nuclear technology, such as fusion energy. For many decades now the IAEA has worked towards promoting and providing safeguards against the misuse of nuclear technology and materials; as well as setting and endorsing modern nuclear safety standards and assisting nations in the implementation of said standards.
Initially, fusion research remained a classified topic in the USA and USSR due to its link to atomic and thermonuclear weapons development. However, during the 1958 United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, fusion research was declassified and by that period researchers and engineers started to exchange information about nuclear fusion energy. In October 1960, the IAEA published the first issue of the quarterly journal called “Nuclear Fusion” and 18 years later this journal became a monthly publication. Since the first publication of the journal, in September 1961 the IAEA hosted the first ever international conference on the topic of “Plasma Physics and Controlled Nuclear Fusion Research” at Salzburg. After the first conference, another 4 international conferences on nuclear fusion research followed per 3 years intervals in different places each time. The fifth conference was held in Tokyo in 1974 and from that time on it was established that conferences would be held every two years.
Magnetic confinement was the part of the nuclear fusion process that drew lots of attention to scientists and researchers all over the world and in the late 1960s the interest of this process grew, especially in its configuration, known as the “Tokamak”, which is a Russian acronym that stands for Toroidal Chamber with Magnetic Coils. By that time, many Tokamak machines were built around the world and facilitated international research, which led to the creation of comparable results among researchers, leading to formal agreements for international co-operation. The tokamak was designed in 1951 by Soviet physicists Andrei Sakharov and Igor Tamm. Tokamaks operate within limited parameters outside which sudden losses of energy confinement (disruptions) can occur, causing major problems, due to high temperatures, to the structure and walls. Nevertheless, it is considered the most promising design for future research and development. In 1970, the IAEA created an advisory body, the International Fusion Research Council (IFRC), which has since met annually and in the late 1970s launched a series of workshops to assess the design of a large, updated and more developed tokamak: the INTOR (International Tokamak Reactor). Its last projects in the mid 1980s included a study on different innovations on tokamak design, a comparison on various tokamak designs and a definition of the database for fusion. In November 1985, during the discussions at the summit between presidents Reagan and Gorbachev, it was recommended that international cooperation on the topic of nuclear fusion research should be expanded. The Soviet Union then, suggested building a next generation tokamak along with Europe, Japan and the USA. This collaboration was established under the auspices of the IAEA and the first designs of the project came to the fore in the late 1980s. The project was called International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) and its aim was to prove that nuclear fusion can be used as an alternative source of energy. The ITER conceptual design was successfully completed in December 1990, and in July 1992 the ITER parties proceeded to the engineering design of the projected reactor, again under the auspices of the IAEA.
Apart from the above collaboration, other tokamaks were also built around the world including the Joint European Torus (JET), the Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak (MAST) in the UK and the tokamak fusion test reactor (TFTR) at Princeton, USA. In the 2020s, the ITER project is going to begin its operation and it will be the largest tokamak located in Cadarache, France. Nuclear fusion research is a non-ending study which provides promising evidence for an inexhaustible, alternate source of energy. However, scientists and engineers have many hurdles to surpass in order to reach the desired outcome.
Nuclear fusion is the process in which two or more lighter nuclei combine in order to form a single heavier nucleus. On the other side, fission is the opposite process in which a nucleus breaks up into lighter nuclei. The common thing between those two processes is that they produce huge amounts of energy, as given in the Einstein’s relation: E=mc2. During the nuclear fusion, though, the energy produced is 3 to 4 times greater than the process of nuclear fission and that is because the mass is bigger when it is transformed into energy. In order to understand how huge the energy is during fusion, just think that it occurs in stars like the sun. Nuclear fusion occurs only in high temperatures and pressures and requires huge amounts of energy to bring the protons together. This process can only happen in special designed fusion power plants in which they use fusion reactions to create heat. An example of nuclear fusion is the Hydrogen bomb (thermonuclear bomb), as it requires extremely high temperatures to initiate the fusion process.
The production of energy by nuclear fusion is still in an experimental stage and under research by scientists and engineers. However, researchers have pointed out the benefits and the peaceful uses of nuclear fusion. The advantages are gaining ground, though there are some downsides which we will need to draw our attention to, since they have to be countered in order to enjoy its benefits, namely take advantage of this technology to provide the world with abundant energy.
The number one advantage of exploiting nuclear fusion energy is that it produces high energy density. The energy produced in nuclear fusion, according to studies, is 10 million times greater than the energy produced by burning fossil fuels. You can imagine, therefore, the savings in waste materials and the way this amount of energy could provide businesses with electricity. A second advantage would be that fusion energy is inexhaustible, meaning that the elements needed for fusion to happen are coming from renewable sources. Though nuclear energy is not considered as a renewable energy source, nuclear fusion could be considered as such, since the products scientists use for it are deuterium, which can be found in sea water and tritium, which can be bred from lithium, an element found in earth’s soil. Another advantage is that fusion energy is the cheapest form of energy discovered, with its cost amounting in around 3 cents per kilowatt hour. Therefore, the ratio of energy production and cost is really worth the research for nuclear fusion energy. During nuclear fusion, there is barely to zero possibility of a catastrophic accident in case the fusion reactor receives damage, resulting to major release of radioactive material to the environment and destruction of infrastructure, as it may happen to fission reactors. The reason is that, as described in the above section, for fusion to be achieved in a reactor there have to be and maintained several conditions, such as extremely high temperatures, pressure, and magnetic field parameters in order to generate net energy. If a fusion reactor receives any damage during the process of fusion energy production, the function of these parameters would be disrupted and the heat produced would quickly fall to non-hazardous levels. Lastly, fusion energy is friendly to the environment since the only byproduct it produces is helium, namely not a greenhouse gas. The waste products of fusion energy are harmless to the environment, though in some cases radioactive materials may become harmful. The advantages leave no space for argument that nuclear fusion is the future source of energy.
Apart from the peaceful uses of nuclear fusion energy, this source of energy could be well used for military applications. Nuclear weapons in general are considered to be the most destructive of the weapons of mass destruction (atomic, biological, chemical), weapons that could kill large numbers of people, destroy infrastructure and buildings, as well as cause hazardous effects to the environment. The most destructive of the nuclear weapons are those derived from nuclear fusion reaction, ie the thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb in which in order for fusion to happen they have also a nuclear fission warhead. Hydrogen bombs (from now on H-Bombs) are more powerful than atomic bombs and that is because of different stages of chain reactions happening inside the bomb. Atomic bombs work by splitting the nucleus of an atom causing neutrons of the atom’s nucleus split to collide with nearby atoms splitting them too. The result is a powerful chain reaction, which estimates of about 20 Kilotons of TNT. H-Bombs, on the other hand, work at first with the same fission reaction as the atomic bomb, but there is another stage of reaction, which releases more explosive power estimated over 10,000 Kilotons of TNT during the first H-Bomb test in the US in November 1952. The first stage of the H-Bomb reaction is the compression of a sphere of plutonium-239. Inside this sphere there is a chamber of hydrogen gas. The high pressures and temperature created by the plutonium-239 fission process cause the hydrogen atoms to fuse (fusion process). In the last stage, the fusion reaction releases neutrons, which hit the plutonium-239 splitting more atoms and boosting even more the chain reaction. This last step makes the H-Bomb the most devastating nuclear weapon the man has ever made. Nuclear fusion energy has a positive aspect, if used correctly, meaning that this energy could be exploited as described above for producing electricity and heat. However, its invention could be devastating, if used for the wrong purposes. But, what effects does it have on the international relations of the countries?
Countries participating in the nuclear fusion project and in the future will be able to acquire and exploit the energy derived from nuclear fusion will greatly benefit, both regarding the exploitation of a renewable energy source by reducing the burning of fossil fuels and therefore producing clean energy fulfilling their environmental responsibilities, and at the strategic level, because they will have the ability to produce an increased amount of hydrogen bombs giving them strategic advantage in relation to third countries. The international relations of the countries, that have gained energy from nuclear fusion, may be improved, as the possession of nuclear energy will prevent the overall competition at the military level, otherwise the results will be catastrophic. However, third countries which are unable to benefit from this kind of energy will not be satisfied and perhaps conflictual relations will prevail and the competitiveness may cause upheavals in the anarchic international system. Such countries will wish to further equip themselves for their own safety in the military field but also exploit fusion energy in peaceful applications. In the ITER project among others countries, are participating the US, Russia and China. US relations with the other two countries are not considered the best for various reasons that will not be analyzed at this point, but achieving jointly energy from nuclear fusion may improve in many sectors the relations of the US with Russia and China and create new areas of cooperation. Finally, the exploitation of this energy source will reduce the need for countries to acquire fossil fuels (oil, etc.), namely the stone of scandal for competition between countries and for most wars conducted during the years. The international relations therefore, will improve between some countries but, on the other hand, they may worsen between other countries.
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