Was The Nuclear Fusion The Answer To Clean Energy?

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Think of nuclear power and many imagine the worst. Atomic bombs reactors melting down radioactive wastes. There is no denying that the history of nuclear is fraught and the dramatic and disturbing moments hard to forget. But for the most part nuclear energy operates out of sight and out of mind generating about 10 percent of the worlds total electricity.This represents 29 percent of all the world's low-carbon power and 55 percent of the United States' low-carbon power. Nuclear reactors generate energy day and night and produce no greenhouse gases. But overall the growth of nuclear is slowing in comparison to other low-carbon sources like wind and solar.By 2050 all 420 nuclear plants operating today must be replaced.Were not on a path to get there. Nuclear power plants are expensive to build construction often take longer than expected and debates over how to handle radioactive waste srage on.

What's more public opposition to nuclear power is strong especially in the U.S.But were in the midst of a climate crisis and many energy experts argue that despite a contentious history nuclear has a key role to play in our energy future as a stable always available source of power.As we replace coal we really do need another form of what we call spinning reserve. You know large power plants that when the wind is blowing or the sun isnt shining that power is available.And nuclear is going to be the best solution for that.If you just believe in arithmetic you need nuclear.Some experts are working to upgrade existing nuclear power technology.That means designing safer and more efficient fission reactors with the support of philanthropists like Bill Gates.But government labs private investors and intergovernmental organizations are also devoting vast resources to what many consider the holy grail of energy: nuclear fusion. Good grief the energy potential there is just enormous.The energy that we need is going to be mastering this fusion. Nuclear fusion is the same process that powers our sun and every other star in the universe.And if we can figure out how to harness that power here on earth it would be a huge game-changer.

Nuclear fission was discovered in late 1938 by a pair of German researchers. They found out that when you bombard uranium with neutrons the nucleus splits forming two lighter isotopes and releasing mass that gets converted into energy. The discovery paved the way for the development of the atomic bomb in theUnited States. And after the infamous bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki concerns over nuclear proliferation spiraled as the global nuclear stockpile grew during the Cold War between the United States and theSoviet Union. But in 1953 President Eisenhowers Atoms for Peace program attempted to shift the focus of nuclear power toward peaceful energy generation and much of the world started building nuclear power plants for civilian use. The private industry quickly jumped on board especially in the United States and by 1991 the U.S.had twice as many operating nuclear power plants as any other country.

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If those all of a sudden went away and you had to make that electricity with fossil fuel it would be like doubling the number of cars on the road. So our 100 nuclear power plants in the U.S.are helping us avoid and have been for like 50 years helping us avoid a significant amount of carbon generation.As of 2019, about 450 reactors worldwide operate in 31 countries.And some countries such as France Hungary Slovakia and Ukraine get more than half of their power from nuclear energy.But over the decades a number of high-profile disasters have stalled the industry's momentum. In 1979 the partial meltdown and ensuing radiation leak at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania cost about 1 billion dollars to clean up.

The disaster stoked public fears about nuclear power. Stricter safety standards were imposed.Reactors became more expensive to build and fewer were built. Fission is always also quite expensive and because of the large amount of radioactivity in those machines, people are scared of it.So the social acceptance of fission is not very good.The nuclear disasters at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima Daiichi in 2011led to further scrutiny of the industry as concerns mounted over the longterm effects of the radiation exposure.And then theres the battle over where to store nuclear waste.One proposed site Yucca Mountain in Nevada has been hotly contested for over 30 years. Yucca Mountain is unfit as a repository site for nuclear waste because of the impact it would have on national transportation. The current state of the industry remains mixed. Countries such as China India and Russia are building new reactors at a fairly fast clip. But in the United States, more than one third remain unprofitable or face closure. Frankly were rusty.

If you look at countries like China and Russia were being outnumbered by30 to 1 on new builds.Only one new nuclear reactor has come online in the U.S.since 1996 as costs and construction times in developed economies have spiraled. The typical nuclear plant today in Europe costs well over 10billion dollars and generally takes 10 years to build.The low cost of solar wind and in particular natural gas has meant that nuclear not only comes in at a very expensive proposition but it also means that nuclear is not a very friendly player in the market.Next-generation fission technologies are much safer than reactors of the past and some proponents claim theyll be cheaper too.The general public may still need convincing but one idea has outlasted the controversy. The promise that someday nuclear fusion will provide abetter alternative.Scientists have been researching nuclear fusion since the 1920s ever since they learned its what powers the sun.In a fusion reaction, extreme temperatures and intense pressure cause hydrogen atoms to fuse together forming helium atoms.In the process the atoms lose some mass which is converted into vast amounts of energy. The reaction could produce four times as much energy as nuclear fission and nearly 4 million times more energy than burning coal or gas.

Or another way to think about it is 2 pounds of fusion fuel is the same as about fifty-five thousand barrels of oil.It doesn't contribute to greenhouse gases.The fuel is plentiful and can be found essentially everywhere in the world. The radioactivity would be short-lived.There is no possibility of a runaway reaction so its an inherently safe system. But after decades of research and billions of dollars, scientists still have not found a way to create a sustained fusion reaction.Thats created a not-so-inside joke among scientists that fusion is the energy source of the future and always will be.Every time physicists think that fusion is around the corner nature tricks them. That nature resists taking this large cloud of gas and compressing it to the point where you can get fusion out of it.When I talk to colleagues or like my parents or family they make fun ofme and say "Oh yeah you guys said fusion is going to be coming 50 years from now and that was 50 years ago.
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Where are ya?" But some think these questions and jokes overlook the real progress thats been made. Although we dont have fusion over the last 30 40 years the amount offusion that the prototypes make have increased by a factor of 10 to the four 10000 times.And this is actually a growth rate similar to the amount of transistors ona chip. The challenges is until you get to the point where you build that first power plant everybody thinks you haven't moved very far.Fusion has traditionally been the purview of government labs like Lawrence Livermore and Oak Ridge.But more recently a number of private companies have thrown their hat in the ring. This includes General Fusion which aims to bring a commercial reactor to market in the 2030s. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is among the companies investors.And then there are the large multinational effort thats underway in thesouth of France called the International Thermonuclear ExperimentalReactor or ITER the project aims to create the worlds largest and most powerful fusion reactor.While all of these players are competing for resources and funding that could actually be a good thing for the nuclear power industry overall.

The success of one company or one group or one organization actually grows the pie. It convinces more people out in business and in the economy tolook at fusion as a viable alternative.And that attracts more investment for everybody. General Fusion founded in 2002 operates out of a nondescript office park about 20 minutes outside of Vancouver.Unlike most government labs or academic institutions, General Fusion is focused on implementation over research.The companys goal is to build an electricity-generating fusion reactor inthe next decade or two.Jeff Bezos was an early investor and the company has now raised over 120million with about 90 million coming from private investment and 30 million from the Canadian government.General Fusion combines two common approaches in the industry: Inertialconfinement which subjects the fusion fuel to extremely high-pressure fora brief amount of time and magnetic confinement which uses modest pressure for a prolonged time.

When heated to extreme temperatures the fusion fuel becomes a plasma astate of matter similar to gas except that it contains charged particles that allow it to conduct electricity and respond to magnetic fields.Our compressor is going to be a big sphere about 4 meters across 15 feetacross on the inside. And into that big sphere we are going to put Liquidmetal. And that liquid metal were going to spin around in a circle so itopens a hole. And into that hole were going to put our fuel which ishydrogen gas.Its preheated up to a few million degrees.And then all around the outside of this sphere is a big array of pistons driven by compressed gas.So they push on the liquid metal and they collapse the hole with this fuel trapped inside. And that collapse happens very quickly and compresses thefuel up to fusion conditions.The peak of the compression the fuel ignites and gives a fusion reaction.That energy goes into this liquid metal.So the liquid metal heats up you take this hot liquid metal out you runit through a heat exchanger and you boil water and make steam.And then the steam drives a turbine to make electricity and puts it out onthe grid. And we just keep pulsing and do that over and over again.Right now General Fusions' main components like its plasma injector piston array and fuel chamber all exist separately.

Delage wants to integrate them into one large demonstration reactor a process he estimates will take about five years.A space roughly this size would fit a power plant that would be enough fora hundred thousand homes. And when the reactor goes online Laberge saysit will bring General Fusions cost of power into competition with coal and renewables like wind and solar.At 5 cents per kilowatt hour its quite competitive actually.Like it is cheaper than many other things.But its not cheaper than natural gas.Laberge hopes it will eventually become cheaper though a likelihood ifthe U.S. decides to implement a carbon tax.The energy market on the planet is a trillion a year.And so if we take a sizable chunk of that we get a sizable fraction of atrillion dollars a year. But some industry experts believe that private companies like General Fusion are being overly optimistic with theirtimelines. In the past 10 years theres been a lot of small industries coming in to say we can achieve fusion in five years ten years.I dont believe it.I think theyve underestimated and not looked at the full challenge of afusion reactor. Nuclear fusion is hard.No research group or company has ever been able to reach the so-called breakeven point at which the energy released from a fusion reaction isgreater than the energy required to heat the plasma used in the reaction.This is not really an energy technology.It is basic research.Basic research has value.But to sell this as a technology that will solve our energy needs in thenext 20 to 30 years is deceptive.We are just not that close.But basic research is the bread and butter of Lawrence Livermore NationalLab. Its been researching fusion since its establishment in the 1950s.In 2009 the lab opened the National Ignition Facility with the goal of achieving breakeven and ultimately igniting a fusion reaction.And by ignited we mean that it can be self-sustaining.It can propagate throughout all the fuel thats present in the implosion. Lawrence Livermore is pursuing inertial confinement fusion.

That is confining plasma at extremely high pressure for a very short amount of time using high energy lasers to do so.We're standing in what we call our Target Bay looking at our target chamber. The target chamber is a big ball about 30 feet across and at thevery center of that ball we put a very tiny target about the size of the tip of my finger and we irradiate that target with one hundred and ninety-two of the worlds most energetic lasers. Researchers at the National Ignition Facility and other national labs have access to enormous computing power allowing them to run complex simulations that help them understand the exact conditions necessary to reach ignition. And so based on our best simulations they say that a facility of this scale is big enough to create these runaway reactions if everything works nearly ideally.But clearly getting everything to work perfectly in the real world is much harder than it looks on a screen.The National Ignition Facility was based upon the promise of just that ignition. After 10 years of trying they haven't gotten anywhere close.And when they fail they say "All we need is a little bit more money and time!" And the critics are saying " No theres some fundamental problem here." So it could very well be that neither the well-funded research-oriented national labs nor the scrappy goal-oriented startups are going to solve the fusion puzzle.It might just take an international effort.

The ITER project originally known as the International ThermonuclearExperimental Reactor originated nearly 35 years ago at the GenevaSuperpower Summit. Now China the European Union India Japan KoreaRussia and the United States are all working together to build what wouldbe the worlds largest tokamak reactor the donut-shaped device used formagnetic confinement fusion.Currently under construction ITERs tokamak reactor will be twice thesize of the current largest machine and aims to produce 500 megawatts offusion power from 50 megawatts of heating power.I do believe that this is more challenging than decoding DNA or putting aman on the moon. The literal challenge is beyond todays capacity.But Henderson says ITER is poised to surpass previous efforts simply dueto the sheer scale of the proposed machine which builds upon alreadyestablished technologies.Unlike General Fusions ambitions the immediate goal of ITER is notenergy production though the project does have an eye towards eventualcommercialization. Well start building the actual tokamak itself whichis about 20 yards in diameter and about 20 yards in height.

And that device should be completed around the 2024 period and then targeting to go nuclear in the 2035 period.So by 2040 which seems a long way we will have gained all the information that allows the next generations to build demos. Henderson hopes that these demos will achieve ignition opening the door for industrial-scale reactors that generate electricity for the grid.And that is literally where fusion will take off.Its not in our lifespan but it is in our grandkids or the great-great-grandkids type lifespan.Its a grand vision but even if ITER hits all its targets how to translate that into a commercially viable reactor remains somewhat unclear. Thats an entirely different problem.Thatll take another 30 years at best.And whether the economics works out is another question.Henderson says its impossible to say right now what a fusion reactorwould cost or if the price point would be competitive.There is however a price tag on ITER itself.And while its not cheap its not necessarily exorbitant for the undertaking of this magnitude.ITER is going to cost roughly about 20 billion.It cost roughly about 120 billion in todays money to put Neil Armstrong on the moon.

So were a fraction of that cost.And yet what were offering is countless of generations a clean basically limitless energy source.Its stupid we dont do this.Despite the projects, obvious potential funding for ITER can be intermittent and unreliable as countries like the United States frequently change their contribution levels in tandem with their election cycles and energy budgets.Right now were pretty much governed by the electoral 4 year or 2 year cycle. We need to be looking beyond that.Not everyone thinks fusion is so integral to our survival.Fusion isnt the only game out there. Fission is like fusions ugly sibling.Its like no one wants to get involved with it.But that is the only technology that we have outside of solar and othersorts of renewables that we can produce energy without carbon waste. Public opinion on nuclear fission remains split but many within theindustry say the controversy is undeserved.Its controversial for those who havent studied it carefully.For those who have studied it carefully its not.You look at mortality rates per unit of energy produced and nuclear is thelowest of all.

But there is a fear because of its origins.Many proponents of nuclear say to look back at the past to the accidents that happened is being naive about the innovation and evolution of technologies. Microsofts Bill Gates is one of these proponents.Hes intent on building safer and more efficient fission reactors to reinvigorate the industry.In 2006 he founded TerraPower a nuclear reactor design company that working on building new Generation 4 reactors.Most of the operating reactors around the world today of which there about 450 are Generation 2.Generation 3 plants are now being built out in the U.S.in China in Russia. Generation 4 plants they represent improvements in not just economics but safety and waste reduction.So the reactors that were working on they operate not just at lower pressures which should be less expensive than todays reactors but they operate at higher temperatures.When you move to those higher temperatures you actually get a higher plant efficiency. Levesque also says TerraPowers reactors are & quot;walk-awaysafe". That means that during emergencies the plant will cool and stabilize itself without an operator present. Furthermore, Levesque says the plant produces 80 percent less waste and requires less uranium enrichment allaying proliferation concerns.But getting new fission technologies off the ground is an expensive endeavour so companies like TerraPower want government support both tobuild out their tech and to help them compete with cheaper power sources such as natural gas.The U.S. government does this all the time.They did it in the case of hydraulic fracturing they did it in the caseof wind and solar and now its time for the U.S.

government to help demonstrate the next phase of nuclear technology aswell. Levesque estimates that building TerraPower's first demonstration reactor will cost more than a billion dollars ideally funded through a public-private partnership.I can't have my grandchildren let alone my children rely on fusion. This is something weve got to do because its the one major system that we know we can build. Its a matter of how perfect we can make it not whether itll work. So here's where we stand.Fission proponents want to upgrade existing nuclear power plants and technologies. Fusion researchers say projects like General Fusion and ITERneed more investment from both public and private sources in order to turn nuclear fusion into a reality.And climate change activists say the world needs to decarbonize using the resources we have now before its too late.We need to turn to fission turn to solar turn to wind turn to geothermal turn to hydroelectric.Do whatever we can to get off of the carbon addiction.Then if the research and investment comes to bear we can turn to fusionto support our rapidly growing population.I think fusion is actually an inevitable thing.I think we will solve this problem.

The key is to get it there as fast as possible.How soon well reach this fusion-powered future remains up for debate.The first demonstration will happen in about 10 years I would think.By 2060 or 2070 the world is likely to be largely powered by fusion.Near the turn of the century or maybe even a little bit beyond that.I think if the human race is still around in the year 2500 and we look back I would wager that fusion plants will be there. However these estimated timeframes may rely heavily on how much the government decides to invest in fusion power.I think the question is political will.To what extent are our governments willing to spend the money toinvestigate these things?At this present rate and at this present level of will I dont see it happening. If you were to ask me "What is the most challenging thing about fusion?" I would not say holding some hot gas at 150 million degrees Celsius. I actually think its our mentality.We dont think 5 7 12 generations down the road.A more realistic plan a portfolio is probably to concentrate on various renewables and work on improving standard fission.Where theres a will theres a way.And through the process of building a machine like ITER as well as building a machine like NIF as well as building a machine like GeneralFusion we learn so that we can then apply that to the next time.Yeah it goes beyond our generation.But sorry I don't use that as an excuse.

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