We need to stop wasting money on the tokamak merger and use it on promising programs
Robert Hirsch and Roger Bezdek
The ultimate source of energy in the universe is nuclear fusion. It powers the sun and the stars. Extremely high temperature and high pressure gases – plasmas – are required to work. The stars hold their plasma by gravity. On Earth, trying to use fusion to generate electricity requires magnetic fields to hold fusion plasmas. This is an extremely difficult task.
Decades ago, a Russian magnetic field configuration – the tokamak – appeared promising. The countries built ever larger tokamak experiments to develop this “magnetic bottle”.
The aim was to develop a system that is large enough to produce more energy than is required to heat the fusion plasma. While significant advances have been made, the promise of commercially viable tokamak fusion energy has been slowly waning. Some realized the situation, but most just kept increasing their tokamaks – and their budgets.
Several large tokamak experiments are currently being carried out around the world. The largest is ITER (Latin for “The Way”), a joint project of 35 countries under construction in the south of France (www.ITER.org). Their goal is to develop a tokamak plasma device that generates ten times more energy than was used to heat the plasma.
ITER was originally supposed to cost around $ 5 billion, a value that could be extrapolated to a cheap tokamak fusion power plant. But reality was slowly stepping in and the costs of ITER escalated.
ITER managers now claim that the cost of ITER is around $ 22 billion. The US Department of Energy, which is supposed to bear 9% of the total cost of ITER, estimates the real cost of ITER to be around $ 65 billion. Even at $ 22 billion, the cost of an ITER-like power plant would be roughly ten times the cost of a nuclear fission plant, a totally unacceptable price.
But that’s not all. The simplest fusion fuel combination – not simple – involves two isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium. Deuterium is found in water and is easy to extract. Tritium does not occur in nature and decays radioactively. It has to be produced.
In the meantime it has been recognized that the global stocks of tritium for future fusion pilot plants, let alone for commercial fusion reactors, are insufficient. Fusion researchers are developing a fusion concept for which there will not be enough fuel! But research on this continues anyway.
How could that happen? At first, the escalation of costs happened so slowly that it went almost unnoticed. This is in part because fusion researchers have been conducting their own program reviews for over 60 years. In fact, “the foxes are guarding the chicken coop”. Practical electrical engineers, utility executives, and others who are not members of the fusion mafia were excluded from evaluating the fusion program.
We recently urged the Energy Secretary to appoint an independent body to carry out the objective, independent assessment necessary to uncover these facts. The secretary forwarded our request to the director of the merger program, who replied that the program was being led by two recent merger bodies. However, these panels were made up of fusion physicists and related researchers – most with a legitimate interest in continuing the current program.
The situation is worrying. With so many people and institutions at risk of job and funding loss, the cars have been “circled” and the programs continue. Talented people and huge sums of money are wasted – on a current US merger budget of over $ 650 million a year.
This may seem like a sucker in an era of multi-trillion dollar federal spending on “infrastructure” and other programs, however defined and politicized. But it is symptomatic of how governments are wasting our hard-earned tax dollars, driving our nation deeper into debt with each passing month. And that’s not all.
ITER will generate around 30,000 tons of radioactive waste. The researchers don’t think this is a problem as the waste will radioactively decay in about 100 years, which they think is acceptable. Acceptable? Whose backyard are you trying to bring this junk to?
Is there hope for commercially viable fusion energy? Yes, because there are other “magnetic bottles” and fusion fuel cycles. The physics involved is much more difficult, but we won’t know if any of these options are workable unless we try. Unfortunately, there is currently no government support for these options.
We still have hope for a usable fusion energy. However, it does not work without a sharp focus, competent management and independent supervision. Change will be traumatic and will require political courage.
It is up to Congress and the White House to act. If they’re really interested in having viable, renewable and sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels that so many of them are determined to get off our fuel mix by 2030 or earlier, they need to redirect that money into programs that could actually deliver more reliably Electricity at affordable prices.
That presupposes, of course, that they also intend to keep American health, well-being, jobs, and living standards near current levels – not back to pre-1950 (or even pre-1900) levels.
Management Information Services, Inc. Senior Energy Advisor Dr. Robert L. Hirsch has experience in research, development and commercial applications of energy technologies in government, industry and non-profit organizations; in the 1970s he headed federal fusion research. The founder and president of MISI, Dr. Roger H. Bezdek, has over 30 years of experience in the private, academic and government energy, utility, environmental and regulatory sectors. MISI is a Washington, DC-based economic, energy, and environmental research company.
A cross-sectional view of the core of the ITER tokamak experiment showing the donut-shaped plasma (blue) in a massive, intricate magnet system. For the height, note the person in the lower right. (Reprinted with permission from ITER.org)