Monday, 30 June 2014

Nuclear Fusion - Is there an 'I' in 'Team'?

We all want to get to the point where we are producing electricity from fusion power- but is it a race with China to the finish or a combined world effort? I did some reflecting on the past and some pondering about the future...  

Nuclear fusion – the legacy of the hydrogen bomb

Nuclear fusion has a slightly turbulent history. A lot of the knowledge of fusion came about in the 40s when the Manhattan project explored the potential of using it in atomic bombs. In 1951 any nuclear fusion research was classified in the UK due to Klaus Fuchs affair.  Any research going on in the Soviet Union was also confidential at first, but when the Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Bulganin came to the UK in 1956, there was an attempt at collaboration for the first time. The Soviet Union started releasing their research on fusion, and leading nuclear physicist Igor Kurchatov gave a talk at the Harwell Atomic Energy Research Establishment, Oxfordshire. The UK then finally decided to publicly release their data. In 1958, the Atoms for Peace conference in Geneva became a platform for the Soviet Union, the UK and the US to discuss their fusion research. 

Fusion is now a really nice example of a worldwide scientific collaboration where all results are public. ITER is funded and run by the EU, India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea and the United States. All have a vested interest in its success and are also pursuing their own projects. The question is will it stay this way beyond ITER? Since CCFE recently strengthened its collaborative efforts with China I wanted to find out what their plans are. 

Nuclear Fission in China 

The huge population of China is ever expanding; it consumes the most energy of any country, imports the most oil, and burns as much coal as the rest of the world combined. It has a big pollution problem because of all of this and faces bigger problems in the future. There has been huge investment in nuclear fission and renewables for several years.

Since the Fukushima incident in 2011 countries have had a mixed response. Germany decided to phase-out nuclear energy completely by 2022. Italy, Switzerland and Belgium each had a national referendum and decided against building any new nuclear reactors. France’s strongly pro-nuclear government was voted out in 2012 and replaced by Francois Hollande’s Socialist party, who promised to reduce the amount of nuclear power by a third, instead planning to invest in renewable energy. Plans for nuclear power were abandoned in Malaysia, the Philippines, Kuwait and Bahrain.  The UK however, kept its expansion plans for nuclear power as did Russia, India and South Korea.

After Fukushima, China suspended its nuclear programme, did a nationwide safety review, but then continued to increase the amount of nuclear power. China now has 21 nuclear power reactors in operation, 28 under construction, and more to come. 

China- a forerunner in nuclear fusion? 

There has also been a huge injection of support for Nuclear Fusion research over the last few years in China. There are over 10 university programs in fusion physics and three theoretical research centres spending 40-60 million USD per year. China has 3 tokamaks of its own in operation (HT-7, HL-2A and EAST). China is also contributing to ITER, and has strong links with EFDA (European Fusion Development Agreement).  It is designing the Chinese Fusion Engineering Testing Reactor (CEFTR) which will complement the research done by ITER. It aims to produce 300MW of fusion power by the mid-2030s.

Of course, Europe is planning a demonstration nuclear fusion power plant (DEMO) beyond ITER, which will power the grid.  China also plans to concentrate on its own demonstration projects. If Europe loses its focus, we could get left behind if the momentum from ITER doesn’t continue. But does it matter?

China aims to have electricity from fusion well before 2050, and the fact that they really need it will surely spur them on. If they succeed this will quickly pave the way for the rest of the world. In terms of the pending energy disaster this would be fantastic. However, Europe still needs to stay in the game, even if the need for fusion energy isn’t as pressing as it is for China. Fusion power could quickly become a massive industry, comparable to the current oil industry, and Europe doesn’t want to get left behind.

So even though it may be tempting for many to sit back and let China do the work, then hop on the bandwagon, this could be a dangerous attitude for Europe, and the rest of the world. 

Author: Ailsa Sparkes

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