We must make the dream of a nuclear fusion reactor a reality

HeraldScotland Ben Thomson / Wednesday 23 September 2015

In 1961 President Kennedy made an historic announcement that the United States would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Defying the many sceptics, eight years later Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface uttering the immortal words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. ”

However, Mr Kennedy could have made another announcement that in retrospect would have had a much greater impact on the US position in the word. He could have declared that, within a decade, America would crack fusion power and give the world virtually limitless energy so that it did not rely on fossil fuel. Think of a world that could run for millions of years on the hydrogen locked up in water, with no CO2 emissions; a world that neutralises the influence of oil producing nations on world politics.

The total cost of the lunar mission reported to US Congress in 1973 was $24.5 billion (£16bn); about $150bn (£98bn) in today’s money. It shows that, if the general public and politicians are behind a project, great technical challenges can be overcome. If the same amount of money and effort had gone into fusion, we would be living in a very different world, one where we had little or no dependence on polluting fossil fuels, where the Middle East did not dictate the oil price and the pace of the global economy, and one where virtually limitless energy could address the many of the environmental problems such as production of clean fresh water.

My grandfather, GP Thomson, was one of those scientists who in the late 1940s pioneered the techniques for making fusion possible. I remember him saying that he would like to see fusion happen in his lifetime but if not certainly his children’s.

At this rate it will be a push to see commercial fusion happening in his grandchildren or even great grandchildren’s lifetime. So why hasn’t more progress been made and what is the position at present?

First, to understand why more progress has not been made, we need to understand a bit about the technical problems. Nuclear energy is produced by fission where large atoms such as those of uranium are split to produce smaller radioactive atoms and energy.

Fusion is at the opposite end of the spectrum where the smallest atoms, hydrogen, are fused together to form helium and energy. This is the way the sun produces heat. The problem is that each hydrogen is positively charged so, to get two atoms to come together, they have to fire at each other at full belt to be close enough to fuse.

The core temperature of the sun is about 15 million centigrade so atoms have more than enough energy to hit each other and fuse. However to heat up a gas of hydrogen to anything like that temperature a container that will not melt is required. The way that is achieved on earth is with a huge magnet called a Tokamak that uses its field to contain the hot hydrogen gas. Fusion is theoretically possible but what is tricky is to get a magnet strong enough to work for more than a few seconds.

Why we have not got further on fusion is down to three reasons. The first is funding. In the 1970s American researchers estimated that getting fusion power on the grid would demand investment of $2-3bn (£1.3-£2bn) annually for 20 to 30 years in research and development; in other words the same order of magnitude as getting a man on the moon. Nothing like that amount was spent. Less than 0.2 per cent of the revenue of the energy market is spent on research into new forms of energy including fusion.

Secondly, politicians are swayed to maintain the status quo by the powerful oil, aviation and car industries, all of which have a vested interest in not developing other forms of energy. Lastly, the public is either largely unaware of or uninterested in fusion; perhaps they have heard too much hype over too many years and lost interest.

Unlike CERN, the Swiss particle accelerator which is widely known about, ask about ITER, the European project to build a fusion reactor, and you mostly get blank faces. Yet ITER is bigger than CERN and one of the biggest world-wide projects currently under construction.

It means ”the way” in Latin and its aim is to build the first commercially viable fusion reactor that will produce 500 megawatts of energy while needing only 50 megawatts to operate. The initial impetus for the project was the meeting between presidents Reagan and Gorbachev in 1985 when they were looking for a joint energy project to collaborate on and building a fusion reactor was put forward.

However the project took until 2006 to actually get going and when it did it was a collaboration involving Europe, Aemrica, India, Japan, China, Russia and South Korea. The site at Cadarache in the south of France was cleared and building started in 2013. The assembly of Tokamak magnets has begun and work should finish in 2019. However, after testing to ensure the facility is fully working, producing power will not happen until 2027; a far cry from the original timetable envisaging completion in 2016.

It is typical of joint European projects such as the Channel Tunnel. Weak management, indecision and bureaucracy are getting in the way of driving the project forward and frustrating those who want to see a real priority on getting commercial fusion prototype working. A new director, Bernard Bigot, was appointed earlier this year to try to get better control over a project with with spiralling costs as well as delays.

The original cost estimate back in 2006 was $5bn (£3.3bn) and is now estimated at $15bn (£9.8bn). It should be the ambition of the international community to deliver a fully working fusion plant within a decade with the same focus as putting a man on the moon, overcoming the barriers which are more political and economic than scientific.

The ITER project is one the public should be fully engaged with. Not only do we need to scrutinize it as it is a major project that has all the hallmarks of allowing costs to run away due to the lack of clear controls and managing so many different representative nations; but we also need to encourage our politicians to resource it in a way that gets it completed faster

I only hope that we do demonstrate commercially viable fusion in the next decade as it will allow mankind to help overcome the technical difficulties of supporting a population expected to be around 8.5 billion with fresh water, food and housing. However, it will need a different, more energized approached by our politicians to make this happen; if we achieve the goal, that certainly would be a giant leap for mankind.