ITER late than never ?

©André Faber

Could nuclear fusion solve the world’s future energy problems? Scientists believe it could. Experiments have been taking place for years to show how a fusion reaction, rather than splitting a nucleus in the way fission does, forces two atomic nuclei together to form heavier ones. That process releases energy.

Fusion is a promising technology. Like nuclear fission, it would emit no CO2. However, the waste generated would be benign. Moreover, its fuel is abundant–deuterium, a hydrogen isotope found in seawater, would fuse with tritium, a short-lived isotope that can be derived from plentiful lithium. Above all, by imitating the energy reactions that drive the sun, fusion promises a plentiful power supply as well.The trouble is, reactions rarely last more than a few seconds and experiments have not been on a large enough scale to test its potential as a source of controlled power.Enter ITER. Short for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, the project involves building an immense scientific research and demonstration facility at Cadarache in southern France. As with any major scientific undertaking with such high stakes and costs, international politics has taken a lead role. In fact, though the ITER idea was first mooted between Russia, France and the US in the 1980s, an agreement to establish the organisation that will oversee the project was signed only recently, on 21 November 2006, by Korea, Japan, the US and the European Commission–all four are OECD members–and China, India and Russia.The Cadarache device is based on the Russian “tokamak” concept, by which gas will be confined in a chamber using a magnetic field and heated to enormous temperatures. The aim is produce 500 MW of fusion power.Though there is no radioactive waste from fusion, the walls of the chamber remain contaminated for several years. Still, fusion reaction is considered safe mainly because there is only ever enough fuel in the chamber to sustain the reaction, and so is easily interrupted. The ITER plant is expected to be ready by 2016 and will operate for 10 years before being decommissioned. The goal is “to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion power,” so the Cadarache station will not generate power for outside use.For Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, though ITER is a fantastic project, nuclear fusion is not a policy option yet. “One day it may succeed to become part of an energy mix, but when? In today’s context of global warming, even 50 years is a long time.” RJCVisit www.iter.orgOECD Observer No. 258/259, December 2006 
File: iterfinal.jpg (687k)

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