Flashback: ‘We Are Definitely on the Way’ To Nuclear Fusion, Scientist Says

Newsok.com Mary Jo Nelson Published: December 12, 1982

The United States is “definitely on the way” toward achieving nuclear fusion, called the most promising alternative for freeing the developed world from dependence on imported petroleum.

Former Oklahoman William B. Briggs, considered one of the world’s top authorities on nuclear fusion, says a commitment is required by the United States to reach the goal of generating abundant electricity by fusing atoms of hydrogen.

Director of fusion energy program development at McDonnell-Douglas Astronautics Co., the St. Louis scientist was in Oklahoma last week to lecture at his alma mater, Phillips University in Enid.

At some point, he said, the federal government will be forced to turn to nuclear energy either fission or fusion. Fusion, the physicist-engineer says, is the most exciting energy advance in generations.

“Every generation has its exciting intellectual adventure.

Centuries ago, it was crossing the world’s oceans in sailing ships. For my generation, it was putting a man on the moon. Fusion energy is the intellectual adventure of the next generation,” he said.

“It was extremely unfortunate that the application of nuclear knowledge first hit mankind as a destructive force,” Briggs said.

“That perception will continue to limit the benefits from knowledge of nuclear physics for many years to come.”

Nuclear fission splits the uranium atom. Fusion involves forcing two atoms of a chemical element, such as hydrogen to join together. “It unites two particles of fusing them together. This makes intense heat and helium,” Briggs explained.

“You take this heat and turn it into steam and run the steam through a turbine just like conventional models, to make electricity.”

Before and after Three Mile Island, fission has met strong and widespread public opposition because of the threat to mankind of both the potential for accident and its vast residues of nuclear wastes.

Fusion virtually eliminates the peril of nuclear accident; produces hardly any atomic wastes, and the production fuel is water rather than some other form of energy, Briggs said.

Phillips Petroleum Co. at Bartlesville is working on one advanced program, Briggs said. “There are others that are equal to it in terms of development, at least half-a-dozen.” McDonnell-Douglas works with all major researchers seeking to research fusion.

“We want to be an industrial applier. We are helping all of them as best we can.” Two principal unknowns remain to be resolved, he said.

“First is how you can control the plasma which is the working fluid.

“Second are the engineering devices to contain it. You have superconducting magnets and various materials and you have to heat it (hydrogen) with neutral particle beams. For instance, you can heat with radio frequency energy. Those are the two categories of unknowns and they all have to be engineered and developed.”

The technology, Briggs explained, is “pretty far along. We are past the point of scientific feasibility. Next will be the demonstration that it will work.”

One of the most promising projects, he said, is at the Princeton University plasma physics laboratory, where “either this year or next year they will demonstrate break-even, the point at which you get as much energy out of plasma as you put into heating.”

“After that there would have to be another device. The next generation would be to go to ignition. Ignition is where the fuel is actuallly burning in a nuclear sense,” Briggs said.

At that point, he said, some decisions would have to be made by governments on building a demonstratin nuclear fusion plant, to show that abundant electricity by using fusion is feasible. Political action is necessary, he said because only governments are the source of funding.

The next step after showing that it can be done through a working plant, would be to make it economically feasible. “Then you would start putting it into place.”

When all this might happen for Americans is largely up to the federal government, he said.

I grew up in the space age and when our government made a commitment to go to the moon and back, we did it in 11 years. And when someone makes the commitment to have fusion power, we will do it. With a commitment from the United States government, we could do it in a decade. Without such a commitment, it could take 20 years.’ Briggs said a lot of people in government are listening and giving strong endorsement for fusion. Other governments, meanwhile, have already taken such an obligation upon themselves.

“The governments of Japan and a European group, I think including Italy, France, West Germany and England, have all gone together and have determined in the past year or two to go ahead. The Russians have a significant effort going. Their “tokamak’, a magnetic concept for building a fusion reactor, is the best yet.”

The Oak Ridge laboratory in Tennessee as well as Princeton, the University of Texas and a number of other university research projects use the Russian tokamak, he said.

“We are definitely on the way. The promise is so great there will be no halting us, but there could be a slopwing or holding constant. We are money limited right now, not knowledge limited.”

One of the greatest aspects of fusion power is that the technology could be linked to existing generation plants.

“Steam is steam. The turbine doesn’t care where it comes from. It would be more economical than starting over.”

But he noted “fusion won’t make coal or natural gas or fission power plant obsolete. Where you can get good coal, coal plants will still be economical. In Wisconsin, there is an area of four or six fission devices close together in a huge energy park. That will operate for the next 100 years at least. Fusion won’t make that obsolete.”

Since water is the fuel of fusion, it won’t necessarily be economical in a desert. But until it is here, Briggs believes the United States should put its house and law in order and go ahead with such projects as the Clinch Breeder Reactor in Tennessee.

The breeder reactor is the next generation of fission plants, earliers ones being light water reactors, Briggs explained. The advantage is that breeder reactors consume a much lower grade of uranium fuel. Much less refining of the ore is required, which reduces costs. In addition, a breeder reactor can use depleted fuels from light water reactors.