Radical potential of nuclear fusion exposes the madness of our net zero deadline


In a key step on the road to harnessing fusion energy, the Lawrence Livermore lab announced this week that it had extracted energy from an object the size of a lemon seed at a reasonable rate. of 10 quadrillion watts (joules per second), but for only 100 trillion of a second. This is about 500 times faster than the entire human population uses energy.

Experience reminds us that the energy density obtained when atoms merge is far greater than anything in a lump of coal, let alone a puff of wind. It is also much larger than what can be achieved by nuclear fission and much safer too: no risk of fusion and with much less high-level radioactive waste.

The problem, of course, is that reliable fusion power plants were 50 years old in 1950 and still 50 years old in 2000, so the milestones on the path to fusion are met with skeptical yawns. But almost everyone in the industry now thinks the jibe is over: the timer has started, as one insider told me. We’re probably less than 15 years away from seeing a fusion power plant start contributing to the grid.

Two pieces of evidence support this conclusion. First, the UK government will soon announce that it has chosen a site for a government-developed prototype power plant known as Step, the spherical tokamak for power generation, which will operate around 2040. Second, it There was a gold rush of nearly $ 2 billion in private money in corporate merger companies: several in the United States, one in Canada, and two in Britain.

In terms of expertise and infrastructure, the UK is close to the pack in this technology. Recent advances are mainly due to technical breakthroughs. In one design, called magnetic confinement, better superconductors resulted in more powerful magnets requiring less cooling, which allows for more compact spherical designs that can stabilize the “plasma” for longer periods of time. In another, inertial containment, lasers developed for the Star Wars missile defense program allowed ignition temperatures to be reached.

Before you get cynical, give yourself a little hope. If that worked, then a device the size of a shipping container could power a small town, running on tiny amounts of fuel: deuterium extracted from seawater and tritium continuously inside. the thing itself from a little lithium. The output is helium-4, an inert, non-radioactive gas. The environmental footprint would be negligible: no carbon dioxide emissions, no waste, no pollution, very few materials and a handkerchief of earth. We could take out the rest of the energy industry altogether – oil rigs, coal mines, wind turbines, solar farms, hydroelectric dams and all – and start raising everyone’s standard of living indefinitely, all the while telling Greta Thunberg to cheer herself up.

Yet even if everything goes according to plan, it won’t be until after 2050 that the merger will start to make a big difference. So countries that rushed to net zero by 2050, like us, using extremely expensive, resource- and land-hungry renewables, will look foolish if the merger comes right after. Much like – but on a much larger scale – how we made a huge mistake by forcing a switch to inefficient, unreliable and dangerous CFLs instead of waiting for more efficient and better LEDs.

The point is not that the merger will certainly come to our rescue, but that there is probably a 50-50 chance that it will, and governments need to clear the trail to ensure it has at least one chance to take off. It means learning the lessons of how we killed nuclear fission by increasing its cost. Far from becoming less expensive like computers, fission reactors have become more and more expensive. This is because we never gave them the chance to benefit from the experience, to learn by doing. Designs were increasingly slowly and expensively approved, gold plated in a doomed attempt to reassure the public, never improved by tinkering during construction, rarely mass produced to lower unit cost, then built by contractors at cost price tearing naïve governments.

We made a start in this country. The Regulatory Horizons Council, on which I sit, recently released a report claiming that it makes much more sense to regulate a smelter as if it were a chemical plant – through the Health and Safety Executive. and the Environment Agency – only through the Office for Nuclear Regulation. This is because the risks do not include melting or high level (or long lasting) radioactivity, but are much more like those of a conventional industrial facility.

Investing in a technical solution like fusion seems more likely to produce a net zero – but not until 2050 – than frantically trying to power up a 13th-century technology to extract energy from an ultra-low density source. : wind.

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