Fusion: waste of research money or solution to world’s energy crisis?

The international fusion reactor ITER, located in the South of France in Saint Paul-lez-Durance, will cost an estimated 15 billion Euros over its lifetime. The European Union will be bearing 45% of the costs. The reactor is an experiment, scheduled to begin in 2020, and will not produce electricity for the grid.

For critics, this project is an enormous white elephant, a colossal misdirection of resources away from other areas of science at a time when money is in short supply. Supporters say ITER can move us closer to sustainable energy, with no atmospheric pollutants, and that the one billion per year between 35 or so countries is money well spent.

Feasibility and timeline

Fusion has been dogged by criticism as unworkable. A popular science book Sun in a Bottle dubbed it the “science of wishful thinking.” Political opponents in Europe say ITER has wasted huge amounts of public money on a supposed miraculous technology. “Almost since the theoretical foundations of nuclear fusion in the 1950s, scientists as well as the nuclear lobbyists have been trying to convince the public that the crucial breakthrough was just about to happen,” says Helga Trüpel, budget spokesperson for the Green/European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament.

No gains have been evident, she adds, but the project has taken money away from renewable and green resources. “ITER is hence nothing but one of the major obstacles for the necessary investments in solar energy and wind turbines,” she argues.

Today, ITER scientists are cautious regards timelines, acknowledging that full-scale fusion plants are decades away. ITER itself aims to show the feasibility of producing 500 megawatts, with an input of 50, and pave the way for a Demo project sometime after 2040.

We need to find solutions to deliver electricity on a realistic timescale to help with global warming. But no solution is going to deliver within the next ten years. And certainly not fusion, according to Steve Cowley, who directs the UK’s JET fusion research centre in Abingdon and is CEO of the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority. The energy industry “has invested huge amounts of money in existing infrastructure, so it is going to take time for it to evolve to a cleaner, less carbon-producing system,” Cowley notes. “But my hope is that in the next half of this century, beyond 2050, we will have real commercial fusion power.”

Cost considerations

Cowley argues fusion could replace a significant proportion of the world’s energy generation from coal, oil and gas. “The world spends 6 maybe 7 trillion [Euros] on energy and in Europe this is well over one trillion, close to 2. ITER will cost between 10 and 15 billion spread over 15 to 20 years. I don’t think that is much money to be spending if it is really going to make a difference to the world’s energy supply.” Cowley is confident ITER will succeed and believes a fusion economy possible. Wishful thinking, critics snap.

“When I started studying nuclear physics in 1978 they said it was 50 years away. Look at the current timetable and generating electricity from fusion has not moved any nearer. The challenges have become clearer and larger,” says Jan Haverkamp, a nuclear energy expert and consultant for Greenpeace on energy policy. It is such an incredibly complex machine, much more complex than ordinary nuclear power, that the 15 billion is definitely not a final figure, he says. “As soon as you start building machine there is no way back. It costs spiral out of control and you are forced to continue spending,” he adds, predicting that there will be an almighty row between partners about costs in future.

“Year after year the European Parliament was asked to mobilise higher sums of public investments than initially agreed on. In 2012 and 2013 alone ITER will cause 1.3 billion Euros in additional costs,” Trüpel notes. “ITER puts a heavy burden on the slim shoulders of the European Budget. This is why we Greens will fight for mechanisms that will make sure that ITER will not eat up other money dedicated to other more important research projects.”

ITER acknowledges that costs have risen by 67%. The EU’s contribution would have risen to €7.2bn from a forecasted €2.7bn in 2001, but in 2011 the EU agreed to an increase in funding, but capped its contribution at €6.6bn to encourage savings.

Research priorities

Haverkamp does not object to the basic science of ITER, but says it “should compete with other research for funds in the EU, instead of going on a special track.” He argues there is more than enough renewable energy on the planet. If we are really rational about this project the logical outcome would be to find another use for the site. “If it ended up as a waterfun park [such as Kalkar in Germany], I wouldn’t be surprised. But there is almost a religious belief behind this, that we will harness the energy of the sun, that only a funding crisis will shut it down,” Haverkamp says.

With energy consumption growing in places like Indian and China, Carlos Alejaldre, DG of the ITER Safety & Security Department, argues, we need carbon-free energy on a massive scale. He points out that one gram of fusion fuels equals 8 tons of oil. “Its clear that you need one massive source of energy production combined with intermittent sources from renewables, so we see fusion as delivering large amounts of baseload electricity,” Alejaldre says.

ITER stands as arguably the world’s greatest scientific collaboration, counting China, India, the US, South Korea and Russia as partners, and is the subject of international treaties. Whether fusion is the answer to the world’s energy problems remains to be seen.

Featured image credit: ITER Organization

Anthony King

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Anthony King is a freelance science writer based in Dublin, Ireland. He has contributed news and feature articles to the Irish Times, and science magazines such as New Scientist, Cosmos Magazine, Discover, Chemistry & Industry and Chemistry World, as well as journals such as Cell, Nature and Science. He writes primarily about the biological and chemical sciences, but also has an interest in policy.
Anthony King

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