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Canada should be in the race for nuclear fusion

There is enough deuterium for millions of years of energy supply, and easily accessible lithium for several thousands of years. With essentially zero long-lived radioactive waste, zero greenhouse-gas emissions and none of the safety concerns associated with fission reactors, one can begin to see the attraction of fusion power. It is the green technology with the most potential to make a real difference to the climate-change debate.

Is there a way out of the wretched dilemma of significantly reducing greenhouse-gas emissions while still pursuing the growth required to maintain our standard of living? A technology that Canada helped pioneer, but abandoned in a round of budget cuts, could be the answer.

After 65 years of effort and false starts, real progress is finally being made on fusion energy. Regrettably, Canada is no longer at the table, having withdrawn its support to the international consortium funding this work.

As of today, a fifth-generation fusion reactor, and the first design expected to produce more energy than it consumes, is under construction near Marseille in the south of France.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is slated to attain "first plasma" by 2016 and is, indeed, the last step to the elusive "sustained ignition" objective (necessary for the production of large amounts of energy) first proposed by Manhattan Project scientists back in 1942. Sixth-generation commerce-ready designs are already on the drawing boards and await engineering results from ITER to move forward. Japan and China expect to pour first metal and concrete for a... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

Is there a way out of the wretched dilemma of significantly reducing greenhouse-gas emissions while still pursuing the growth required to maintain our standard of living? A technology that Canada helped pioneer, but abandoned in a round of budget cuts, could be the answer.

After 65 years of effort and false starts, real progress is finally being made on fusion energy. Regrettably, Canada is no longer at the table, having withdrawn its support to the international consortium funding this work.

As of today, a fifth-generation fusion reactor, and the first design expected to produce more energy than it consumes, is under construction near Marseille in the south of France.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is slated to attain "first plasma" by 2016 and is, indeed, the last step to the elusive "sustained ignition" objective (necessary for the production of large amounts of energy) first proposed by Manhattan Project scientists back in 1942. Sixth-generation commerce-ready designs are already on the drawing boards and await engineering results from ITER to move forward. Japan and China expect to pour first metal and concrete for a sixth-generation reactor by 2030.

Even that date, however, may be pushed forward. Motivated by high energy prices and global warming, and an unexpected acceleration in the pace of technological advances, many consortium members are now compressing their initial timelines for the completion of their commitments toward a viable fusion reactor.

To cite just one example: in September 2006 the Chinese Academy of Sciences announced that its Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokomak (EAST) reactor had at last achieved a temperature of 100 million degrees, the threshold needed for sustained fusion. No wonder it is making progress: China has 4,000 researchers working full time on a wide variety of fusion energy projects.

Japanese energy specialists expect that the sixth-generation reactor design will produce in the range of one gigawatt of electricity and do so at a cost competitive to that of uranium-fuelled fission reactors. The raw materials to produce the fusion reaction fuels are water and lithium. Lithium is a common metal, in daily use in mobile phones and laptop batteries. British researchers have calculated that it will require only one kilogram of seawater and two kilograms of lithium per day to fuel a one-GW fusion reactor, compared to 10,000 tonnes per day of coal for an equivalent power coal-fired plant.

There is enough deuterium for millions of years of energy supply, and easily accessible lithium for several thousands of years. With essentially zero long-lived radioactive waste, zero greenhouse-gas emissions and none of the safety concerns associated with fission reactors, one can begin to see the attraction of fusion power.

It is the green technology with the most potential to make a real difference to the climate-change debate.

There are, of course, many skeptics as to the wisdom of pursuing fusion power, and with reason. Progress has been elusive. In 1951, President Juan Peron of Argentina announced with great flourish that his country had, on the advice of an unscrupulous former Nazi scientist, succeeded in building a fully functional thermonuclear reactor. Pure fantasy.

Then the "cold fusion" fiasco of 1989 threw another dose of cold water on the viability of fusion technology. This was then followed by a long period of international bickering over which country should host ITER.

As with the development of any complex technology, the outcomes are uncertain and the costs high, but advances in much of the science have been plagued with bunglers and bloopers.

The first crude steam engine, built in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen, intermittently produced all of one-half horsepower of output. It was not until some 100 years later that high-horsepower machines were widely available. Today few would argue that those many years of trial and frustration were a waste of time.

Canada's resource-sector companies should be given incentives to develop fusion energy expertise. This policy would support their vital long-term interests by helping them prepare for the not-far-off future when conventional energy sources are significantly less economical to exploit. Energy and materials know-how is, after all, their prime line of business, and there is more to green technologies than building better wind farms and refitting homes with insulation.

The record profits in the resource sector make this a propitious time to increase investment in this transformative technology. The Canadian industrial average for R&D spending is 3.8 per cent of revenues, whereas the oil and gas sector invests less than one-tenth of this percentage. There is no doubting their capacity to expand support for more research.

The way forward should be clear: Add fusion energy research to the list of projects qualifying for carbon tax credits. What companies do with this incentive is up to them. It could be providing funds to become a participant in the "fast ignition" laser-based fusion reactor expected to be built in Britain starting in 2010. Or, for the truly enterprising, it could be the formation of a consortium to build a sixth-generation reactor right here in Canada (at a cost of approximately $500 million per year for a decade) to extract oil from the Alberta oil sands.

Private corporations are notably more skilled at getting things done than are governments. It is time to get them involved and begin to develop a robust Canadian economic potential in the post-Kyoto world.

John Skelton is a former senior policy adviser with Industry Canada and is currently employed as an educator with the Canada Museum of Science and Technology.

 



Source: http://www.canada.com/ottaw...

JUL 31 2007
https://www.windaction.org/posts/10364-canada-should-be-in-the-race-for-nuclear-fusion
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