A Dream of Clean Energy at a Very High Price

Mar 29, 2017

By Henry Fountain

SAINT-PAUL-LEZ-DURANCE, France — At a dusty construction site here amid the limestone ridges of Provence, workers scurry around immense slabs of concrete arranged in a ring like a modern-day Stonehenge.

It looks like the beginnings of a large commercial power plant, but it is not. The project, called ITER, is an enormous, and enormously complex and costly, physics experiment. But if it succeeds, it could determine the power plants of the future and make an invaluable contribution to reducing planet-warming emissions.

ITER, short for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (and pronounced EAT-er), is being built to test a long-held dream: that nuclear fusion, the atomic reaction that takes place in the sun and in hydrogen bombs, can be controlled to generate power.

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31 comments on “A Dream of Clean Energy at a Very High Price

  • 1
    Robert Firth says:

    The same old promise: infinite energy at a price nobody can afford. In other words, the same crazy boondoggle that nuclear fusion has always been. And no mention of the fact that 65% of the energy will be released into the environment as heat pollution.

    Why not use the working and sustainable fusion reactor that hangs in the sky? Perhaps the answer to our problems is a simpler lifestyle and less hubris.



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  • 2.65 trillion barrels of oil equivalent sunshine falls on the planet every day.

    We use 96 million barrels per day

    In truth we need a slightly more complicated lifestyle. Going back is never an option.

    We shouldn’t forget the uranium, potassium and thorium fission reactor that makes our planets metal core shine as bright as the sun (could we but see it).



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  • The interesting question from my point of view would be would this be worth doing even if we had solved our energy problems?

    I’d argue we already have, that is we can use alternatives now, and in fact other than baulking at the enormous cost of upgrading our grid and incorporating more storage into the system so we can use the remote solar fusion factory 150 000 000 km away. The more difficult problem is how to shift the stupid, ignorant and greedy (read stupid also) into pursuing that goal. The whole South East of my state just shut down all schools for a day because of cyclone related flash flooding, how many businesses and homes were ruined over the last week, how much lost productivity did we lose? And this is only 6 years since major flooding took many lives and destroyed large parts of towns and caused massive infrastructure costs. I think that the alternatives will be in place and generating enough cheap power before fusion becomes feasible.

    I’d still argue though it is worth pursuing anyway. How much is the research facility compared to say developing a new fighter aircraft? How much are scientists learning as they inch closer and closer to achieving the goal of generating more power out than in? The research will globally cost us a lot less than any one of the pointless wars we’ve run over the last 2 decades and will pay back much more in the long term.



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  • @OP – ITER, short for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (and pronounced EAT-er), is being built to test a long-held dream: that nuclear fusion, the atomic reaction that takes place in the sun and in hydrogen bombs, can be controlled to generate power.

    If we plan to send probes or go to other star systems – or even set up bases or mining operations in the outer Solar-System, this sort of generation is a must!

    It could probably be established within a decode or so IF the the money wasted on military research and weapons production was diverted into civil scientific projects.

    In fact if the $trillions wasted on stupid disruptive and destructive wars in Iraq, had been diverted to civil research years ago, we could well already have such systems!



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  • How much of the earth’s surface and materials do we need to fully switch to solar and wind energy? Well, a lot! Nuclear fusion is the only answer for our energy hunger. And yes, it is hard. But that’s no reason to do nothing. All these smart physics guys working on ITER have no doubt that it will work. Have a little trust in science and let them solve the problems.



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  • hfaber

    I remember when ten I learned about Zeta (itself, six years old)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ZETA_(fusion_reactor)

    This was the future. I loved it more than my spaceship designs. In twenty five years unlimited power would be ours.

    Eight years later I did physics at university and specialised in plasma physics and high energy power control and twenty years after that my company received an invitation to quote from Culham Compass (link in next post) on the high speed control systems to wrangle the wriggling plasma you can see in the Zeta link. (We’d done some stuff on a fighter simulation platform that maybe caught their eye.) Though I’d developed the system capability I knew this was going to be an immensely long battle, needing ever finer levels of control as the scales and power levels went up. I declined the chance to participate in my childhood dream and have watched it closely over the next twenty years, seeing exactly the efficiency prospects decline as the plasma wriggles are kept under even tighter control, but never enough.

    This is great physics but there is little real prospect for cost effective power on earth or the inner solar system. It is for those times we’ll need to take a mini sun with us, into the dark bits, refuelling from comets.

    Never could give up spaceship design….



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  • How much of the earth’s surface and materials do we need to fully switch to solar and wind energy? Well, a lot!

    It’s not as exorbitant as you imply here, especially as you consider that the raw stock of materials will still be there for recycling when they are upgraded in decades. This is vastly different from repairing the damage from say open cut coal mines or the sunken resources from oil.

    A better way of looking at it be to ask how much is it going to cost us to re-sequester all of the extra C02 in the atmosphere? We’ll wait the thousands of years for nature to do it because we simply cannot afford it. However if we are taking about recycling, wind mills, solar cells etc. the cost is a minimal proportion of the clean energy generated over the life of the panel windmills.

    Once you scale up solar thermal with molten salt storage, you have even less issues/kw of energy. You can a) put it in remote areas. b) you are running mirrors or shinny metal focused on a single point, not much in rare earth minerals required there, and then you are running standard steam generators which you would need anyway with fusion.

    Many people I know have more than enough power with a few panels on their roof to power their needs. Now if we scale that up to all of us then yes we will be using a lot of stuff. But it isn’t going anywhere, this is a completely different model to digging up trillions of tonnes of coal and drilling out billions of tonnes of oil and all of the infrastructure that goes along with it and then turning most of that in gas and ejecting it into the atmosphere.

    Here in Australia you also need to consider the enormous infrastructure costs of linking power lines to each other all over the country (and it you use solar thermal plants this still needs to be there). These are also vulnerable to storm damage as we found out in the recent debacle in South Australia. The weight of metal say in a wind farm is probably not as great as the power lines to carry it from where the power is generated to where is connected on the grid. More and more towns are now making themselves independent of the grid and generating their own power locally. If fusion becomes a reality you are still going to send hundreds or thousands of kilometers of power-lines around the country, that is not without cost or environmental impact so the energy generated must be massive to off-set the cost of that.

    Also while fusion plants would be great particularly at generating base load power. It isn’t here now and even if tomorrow we got a plant producing more energy than is put in, that still doesn’t mean the power is going to be economical. Let’s say they put out 1.000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001 : 1 energy in well that is likely going to be a awfully big power plant if it is going to generate enough fusion power to run a city. Look at the size of infrastructure you need to make a 2mm round pellet hot enough to generate less than the amount of energy in. So they are likely going to have to do better than just the current goal of more energy out than is put in. I will not be surprised if we hear when they break 1:1 that they say we’ll we are almost there now we just need to build that up until it high enough to make an economical power-plant. I have no idea what that number would be and perhaps I’m wrong. I’m sure Phil and Alan are much more up on this than I so they’ll correct me.

    Don’t get me wrong I want us to develop fusion power I think the benefits will be enormous I just think we’ll have moved over to alternatives before it comes on line and it is likely that these fusion plants may be put up where say heavy industry needs massive power on demand etc. and if significantly more efficient than wind/solar etc. will end up replacing these in time. Climate change is on us now, the alternatives are here now and need to be employed now! We cannot afford to make the good the enemy of the best.



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  • 9
    maria melo says:

    Bellow: my bill of electricity and gas service, if you could read in the graphic, most of my electricity is produced by wind, and I pay more taxes than gas I use (contribution to fabrication coasts), I pay as much as my mother in law for instances (she uses spanish electricity servive generated by nuclear power) which states it is cheaper but that in fact is not, and if I pay the coast of construction of facilities, what will her bill look like if the consumers had to pay for na environmental clean of a nuclear facility after the safe years of it´s production? (unbeareble, don´t even dare to caculate it). Well I am happy for my choice, even go every year to a festival all about environmental safety, that includes vegan workshops, etc. And NOPE that´s not out of reach!!!

    My bill even describes the environmental impact of my comsuption on CO2 emission.



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  • 12
    maria melo says:

    (unbeareble, don´t even dare to caculate it)

    Unfortunately not, there is really a Mafia out there it seems to transport toxic waste to deposits in the “third World” (as Africa for instance), and really ready to kill (I remember a journalist has immediately been killed after a tv documentayr about the transport of toxic waste cargo in an italian ship, toxic waste that cause malformation in children (in Mozambique, where I was born it seems there´s one of these toxic waste deposist somewhere, as far as I´ve aknowledged).



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  • 14
    maria melo says:

    In fact if the $trillions wasted on stupid disruptive and destructive
    wars in Iraq, had been diverted to civil research years ago, we could
    well already have such systems!

    Ok then if you think this is somehow a part of an interstelar kind of experimental project, but the real costs of this project (living aside the dream) will not benefit electricity consumers, it is an outrage.
    I don´t think USA would care otherwise for foreign democracy, but that somehow it benefits from arms industries just to participate in such wars.
    Well, after 50 years after 2025, we will not be here to tell if the project will succeed or if it will be a disaster (a disaster that´s what it seems to me at the moment).
    “If we plan to send probes or go to other star systems – or even set up bases or mining operations in the outer Solar-System, this sort of generation is a must!” alan4 discussion



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  • maria melo #14
    Apr 3, 2017 at 7:55 am

    Ok then if you think this is somehow a part of an interstelar kind of experimental project,
    but the real costs of this project (living aside the dream)
    will not benefit electricity consumers, it is an outrage.

    We are in no position at present (before the experimental results have been studied), to make any such predictions!
    Such negative predictions have been made in the past about many projects, – including the idea that iron ships float, trains can exceed 60mph., that messages can be transmitted without a connecting wire, that aircraft can carry commercial passengers, or that satellites or men can fly in space
    They have regularly turned out to false and the result of a lack of foresight or understanding in those making such predictions.

    Well, after 50 years after 2025, we will not be here to tell if the project will succeed or if it will be a disaster (a disaster that´s what it seems to me at the moment).

    At it’s present stage of development it is neither an instant solution, nor a disaster!

    @OP – It looks like the beginnings of a large commercial power plant, but it is not. The project, called ITER, is an enormous, and enormously complex and costly, physics experiment.
    But if it succeeds, it could determine the power plants of the future and make an invaluable contribution to reducing planet-warming emissions.

    It is an experimental research project with great potential, but which has yet to be evaluated as future power generation system.

    However, the huge potential technical benefits, make investigating the physics and the power production possibilities, well worth while.

    Enabling future space mining and interplanetary or inter-stellar travel, has massive potential so like terrestrial fusion power, it is well worth investigating, even if multi-million-fold returns are far in the future.

    In the mean time we have several perfectly good forms of clean energy to replace the old obsolete polluting carbon systems.



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  • maria melo #13
    Apr 2, 2017 at 5:46 pm

    Toxic waste dumping by the ‘Ndrangheta

    This sort of radioactive waste is produced by nuclear fission reactors, which the OP’s proposed fusion reactor generators would replace, hence reducing the production of radioactive waste from fission reactors as they were replaced and shut down.



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  • hfaber #5
    Mar 31, 2017 at 10:35 am

    How much of the earth’s surface and materials do we need to fully switch to solar and wind energy? Well, a lot!

    Actually not a lot! – especially not a lot compared to strip-mined coal and fracked gas!

    Of course “solar” includes photovoltaic and solar thermal, and in addition to wind, we have hydroelectric, tidal and wave power, geothermal, heat storage systems, and negawatt efficiency savings, by simply being less wasteful.

    Wind also has the advantage of being cheap and being capable of using windswept barren land or offshore areas.



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  • 18
    maria melo says:

    This sort of radioactive waste is produced by nuclear fission
    reactors, which the OP’s proposed fusion reactor generators would
    replace, hence reducing the production of radioactive waste from
    fission reactors as they were replaced and shut down.

    Yes, I aknowledge that by reading it is clean, however carries risk (Green Peace for instance is against).
    I supposed there is need of scientist´s work in both kind of nuclear facilities, scientists are not OUTSIDERS (victims).



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  • Sadly, maria, Greenpeace isn’t reliable on the science.

    I had to quit the organisation after I discovered numerous bad choices on their part. I surmise that being supported by the well-intentioned but often under-science-educated folk they chose to go with the better income stream over the strict and more honest science. The least hint of “acceptable and more acceptable RADIATION”, say, I suspect, reduces donations considerably.

    The science matters. All technologies have detrimental aspects and all solutions will involve compromise. It is a pity that Greenpeace don’t do more rigorous science education for their supporters. It will increasingly come to bite them, that they don’t.



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  • 20
    maria melo says:

    Sadly, maria, Greenpeace isn’t reliable on the science.

    (previous comment by phil rimmer)

    The same way that scientists are nor either reliable on human rights, and that no one in a so complex society are not realible on every subject?
    Weighting the harm of non-clean nuclear energy brings to environment and the ignorance of Greenpeace members, I rather prefer the “harm” caused bu Greenpeace mouvement, NO DOUBT.



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  • maria

    The same way that scientists are nor either reliable on human rights, and that no one in a so complex society are not realible on every subject?

    No. Not at all. Scientists include social scientists and those that study the complexities of human societies. It is insulting to scientists that they are nerds who have no understanding of context. When you speak to them you mostly find a very sophisticated and nuanced view of how science can engage with complex societies. Also (because they have to) they fully understand that politics is the art of the possible and scientific solutions need to be sold and often sold in small steps.

    Greenpeace is compromised not on political matters but by its own finances. This makes them a poor friend of eco-science and the eco-tech industry in which I work. Few of us delivering solutions have much specific to thank them for, rather it can prove a negative for potential customers.

    Its message “These (eco) power sources must be afforded,” are to be contrasted with that of the the Chinese government official in charge of all China’s energy policy that “Only investing in the new eco technologies make commercial sense.”

    Because Greenpeace make the wrong argument about Fusion, if by some new insight into efficient plasma control, the problems of energy yield were sufficiently solved, then we would be home free and Greenpeace’s position would be a catastrophic roadblock to a carbon free future.



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  • Alan #16

    The radioactivity of a fusion plant of any significance resides only in the plant itself and has a half life of 50 to 100 years. The potential of a Chernobyl style accident removing big chunks of geography from the map on a semi-permanent basis (thousands of years) is zero. On site decommissioning would be trivial with alternated burial grounds handling the matter in perpetuity. (The tokomaks or whatever will need refurbishing/replacing every 30 or forty years because of neutron fatigue of the metals.)



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  • maria melo #20
    Apr 3, 2017 at 11:47 am

    Weighting the harm of non-clean nuclear energy brings to environment and the ignorance of Greenpeace members,

    How can you possibly “weigh” the harm of either, without a proper scientific evaluation which has been peer-checked by experts on each individual issue?

    and the ignorance of Greenpeace members, I rather prefer the “harm” caused bu Greenpeace mouvement, NO DOUBT.

    Greenpeace has run some valuable campaigns, but from time to time they present themselves as the face of reactionary pseudoscience – and as a gift to the polluters who want examples of “bad science” to use in their propaganda campaigns to con the public!

    When environmental scientists are making very serious points about environmental damage, noisy amateurs shouting exaggerated nonsense, or objecting to the wrong issues in the media, provides a distracting smoke-screen hiding the real issues from the public attention which is needed to produce constructive political action.

    NO DOUBT.

    In the absence of a depth of understanding of properly researched and confirmed evidence, doubt is a virtue, – and should be motivation to seek out relevant information rather than accepting false certainty based on bias or speculation!



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  • phil rimmer #22
    Apr 3, 2017 at 12:51 pm

    Alan #16

    The radioactivity of a fusion plant of any significance resides only in the plant itself and has a half life of 50 to 100 years.

    I tend to leave the physics to the physicists, and concentrate on practical applications, but yes, the helium produced is harmless and potentially useful.
    It is only the neutron absorption by the structural containment which produces limited quantities of contaminated waste for disposal.



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  • OK. Tokomaks are retired, then are sliced into little flakes of alpha and gamma emitting chrome steel and used in smoke detectors in place of americium 241 plaques.

    The short lifespan and low dose dispersal will be less harmful than the americium use.



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  • 26
    maria melo says:

    How can you possibly “weigh” the harm of either, without a proper scientific evaluation which has been peer-checked by experts on each individual issue?

    Well, the harm of non-clean (I wanted to put non-clean in bold) energy thatI was talking about in my previous comment was not obviously about nuclear fusion (which is clean).
    ,I guess you didn´t notice the non-clean. term I used (getting confused? A HUGE harm made by friction radioactive use in undeniable, and comparatively there cannot ever be more harmful than the ignorance of any Greenpeace member, EVER! (I mantain this and I am afraid no one can clean the image of science in my imagination, nor scientists who participated, and still participatiing).



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  • 27
    maria melo says:

    How can you possibly “weigh” the harm of either, without a proper
    scientific evaluation which has been peer-checked by experts on each
    individual issue? Alan4discussion



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  • 28
    maria melo says:

    Such negative predictions have been made in the past about many
    projects, – including the idea that iron ships float, trains can
    exceed 60mph., that messages can be transmitted without a connecting
    wire, that aircraft can carry commercial passengers, or that
    satellites or men can fly in space They have regularly turned out to
    false and the result of a lack of foresight or understanding in those
    making such predictions.

    ALAN4DISCUSSION

    Portuguese speakers have an idiomatic expression for this kind of pessimism “The old man of Restelo”. Í don´t think I am one, only that I don´t really feel too much entusiasm about that (not a surprise), I am pessimistic and lately I think I cannot feel entousiasm as much as I would like to. Hope you can feel it, thats a good thing.



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  • maria melo #26
    Apr 3, 2017 at 3:30 pm

    How can you possibly “weigh” the harm of either, without a proper scientific evaluation which has been peer-checked by experts on each individual issue?

    Well, the harm of non-clean (I wanted to put non-clean in bold) energy that I was talking about in my previous comment was not obviously about nuclear fusion (which is clean).

    Nuclear fusion reactions are not completely clean, but are much cleaner than nuclear fission or burning coal or oil.

    phil rimmer explains this @#22, and #25.
    I give a brief explanation @#24.

    When Greenpeace make publicity issues with bad arguments and misunderstood notions, it is very obstructive to the realistic policies which need to be put in place, causing distractions which can be used by charlatans to confuse the public and their leaders, to discredit the valid arguments based on reputable science.

    How anyone “feels about” particular claims, is no substitute for researching factual measurements, nor is it a basis for deciding the weight of the evidence.



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  • There is now an up-date on expected progress!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-40558758

    We will have to wait until the second half of the century for fusion reactors to start generating electricity, experts have announced.

    A new version of a European “road map” lays out the technological hurdles to be overcome if the processes powering the Sun are to be harnessed on Earth.

    The road map has been drawn up by scientists and engineers at EUROfusion.

    This is a consortium of European laboratories and universities that funds research on fusion energy.

    The original version of the road map, published in 2012, forecast that a demonstration fusion power plant known as DEMO could be operating in the early 2040s, in order to supply electricity to the grid by 2050.

    But in the updated version, yet to be released, DEMO would not start running until “early in the second half of the century”.

    A related document that provides more detail on DEMO’s design says that operations would start after 2054.

    The setback has been caused largely by delays to ITER, a 20bn-euro reactor that is currently being built in the south of France to prove that fusion energy is scientifically and technically feasible.

    In fact, according to EUROfusion’s programme manager, nuclear physicist Tony Donné, DEMO’s schedule could slip further, depending on progress both with ITER and a facility to test materials for fusion power plants that has yet to be built.

    “2054 is optimistic,” he says. “It is doable but we need to align political decision makers and get industry involved.”

    Fusion involves heating nuclei of light atoms – usually isotopes of hydrogen – to temperatures many times higher than that at the centre of the Sun so that they can overcome their mutual repulsion and join together to form a heavier nucleus, giving off huge amounts of energy in the process.

    In principle, this energy could provide low-carbon “baseload” electricity to the grid using very plentiful raw materials and generating relatively short-lived nuclear waste. But achieving fusion in the laboratory is a daunting task.

    Doughnut-shaped reactors known as tokamaks use enormous magnetic fields to hold a hot plasma of nuclei and their dissociated electrons in place for long enough and at a high enough density to permit fusion.

    ITER, in fact, represents the culmination of 60 years of research. The world’s largest ever tokamak, it will weigh 23,000 tonnes and is designed to generate 10 times the power that it consumes.

    But the project has been beset by delays and cost overruns. Originally foreseen to switch on in 2016 and cost around 5bn euros, its price has since roughly quadrupled and its start-up pushed back to 2025. Full-scale experiments are now not foreseen until at least 2035.

    As well as being technically very demanding, ITER is also complex politically.

    It is an international project with seven partners: China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States. As host, Europe is paying the biggest share of the costs – about 45%.

    European research organisations set up the road map five years ago to guide the research needed to achieve fusion electricity by 2050. In doing so, they were mindful of competition from other ITER partners; both China and South Korea having started to design their own demonstration reactors.



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