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image European Research News Centre > Energy > Fusion, now or never?
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image image image Date published: 11/07/2001
  image Fusion, now or never?
RTD info 30
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  Climate warming is giving a real impetus to Europe's commitment to fusion research as a possible zero CO2 energy source for the future. Technical studies on the construction of the ITER experimental reactor - the latest key stage in harnessing this 'energy source of the stars' - are now ready. This puts the ball firmly in the court of policy-makers.
   
     
   

'To back-pedal on ITER now would be to abandon for ever the control of this promising source of future energy, squandering the results of decades of research that would never come to fruition.' Such was the message of warning sounded jointly by Umberto Finzi of the European Commission and the Russian academic Yevgenii Velikhov at the Fusion Conference held by the International Atomic Energy Agency last October in Sorrento (IT).


But let us recount the story so far… It was in 1985, at the Reagan-Gorbachev summit, that the idea of cooperating on an extensive international project to build a new large-scale experimental reactor - vital to the progress of fusion research - was first put forward. One year later, under the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project label - iter also means 'the way' in Latin - Europe, Russia, the United States and Japan teamed up to start the definition and design studies for this machine of the future.

The energy source of the stars

Teams of scientists in all four partner countries had been working on this fascinating conquest of the energy source of the stars for a long time. In Europe in particular, since the late 1950s, a network of 20 high-tech experimental laboratories had been actively experimenting on the conditions for fusion. In 1977, the Union gave the green light to build the first joint facility, known as JET (Joint European Torus) which started up in 1983. It is currently the largest nuclear fusion machine in the world. The forerunner of ITER, JET established an all-time record in 1997 when it produced 16 MW fusion power.

At the same time, work continued throughout the 1990s on defining the ITER concept. Initial plans for building the reactor, completed in 1998, involved a high cost of around 7 billion euros. Such an investment, to be made over a limited number of years, proved too much. Especially as in the meantime the United States had decided to pull out of the project and the Russians, while providing a remarkable resource in terms of brain power, were now facing financial constraints.

Consequently, over the period 1999-2000, the three remaining partners - Europe, Japan and Russia - decided to review the detailed technical objectives while retaining the overall scientific ambitions for this experimental reactor. 'Less costly - with an investment of between 3.5 and 4 billion euros - the new version of the machine will nevertheless develop 400 MW power and produce ten times as much energy as it consumes,' explains Robert Aymar, general project director. 'ITER will be a necessary stage, and a sufficient basis on which, finally, to plan a demonstration reactor - the DEMO project. This will be the first operational, fusion-based, electrical power plant.'

The new climate factor

Mastering an energy source which man discovered by studying the stars is a considerable challenge. Triggering a fusion reaction involves raising the plasma's temperature to 100 million degrees and generating very high density magnetic fields to confine it. This requires extremely complex technologies, and a very long and costly development. At this stage, all fusion research must therefore be funded out of the public purse. (1)


But today a new factor - the growing concern at the prospect of climate warming - is sparking an increased interest in fusion as a source of sustainable energy. Forecasts of a doubling or tripling of world-wide energy consumption by 2050, coupled with the need to reduce the high level of dependence on fossil fuels, which are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, is making fusion a particularly attractive 'zero CO2' solution for the future - especially as a source of large-scale electricity production for densely populated areas. However, according to a group of independent experts, who recently published a report favourable to Europe's continued commitment to fusion, a proper approach to energy supply must clearly be based on a shared rather than all-or-nothing philosophy. (2)

But to help satisfy our future energy needs, this promising option, the ITER decision cannot be too long in coming. The project is now on the starting blocks - waiting for the politicians to fire the starting gun.

 

(1) The Union's present contribution to the Fusion Key Action for 1999-2002 is 788 million euros, or 40% of Europe's total public funding.
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(2) Opinion of the External Advisory Committee of the Fusion Key Action.
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Contact

Douglas Bartlett
Research DG
douglas.bartlett@ec.europa.eu
ec.europa.eu/research/fusion1.html

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The European fusion area

Of all areas of scientific research, it is without a doubt fusion which, in the 1970s, best anticipated the concept of the European Research Area. Since then, all the laboratories and researchers working on national programmes have coordinated their efforts, in particular under the continuous series of Fusion programmes funded by the European Commission, which has financed an average of 40% of the research. The flagship of this co-ordination was the construction of the Joint European Torus (JET), which is currently the most efficient test plant in the world and which will continue to play a key role in preparing for ITER.

In 1999 a new European Fusion Development Agreement (EFDA) was signed under the Commission's Fusion key action, bringing together all of Europe's physics and technology laboratories working in this area. EFDA's mission is to carry on the JET research, manage European participation in ITER and continue to explore the technological challenges of interest to the future of fusion energy. JET, like ITER, is a machine whose magnetic confinement has a Tokamak-type toroidal configuration, currently considered to be the most advanced. But other research, also supported by the Fusion key action, is continuing to study possible variants in magnetic confinement which could bring benefits in the future. For example, it will be possible to undertake major research thanks to the new Stellarator W 7-X, an installation currently being built at the Max Planck Institute of Plasma Physics at Greifswald (DE).

 
     
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Fusion: How and Why?

Nuclear energy produces no greenhouse gas emissions. But the traditional fission-based technology generates energy as a result of a process which splits heavy nuclei, resulting in the production of long-life radioactive residues which reprocessing cycles are unable to completely eliminate. It is because of this waste problem - and the shock of the Chernobyl disaster - that this energy source is widely debated in society as a 'zero CO2' option for the future.

Fusion changes all that: 'It is based on hydrogen, one of the most common chemical elements,' explains Jérôme Pamela, responsible for JET research at EFDA. 'By fusing isotopes of this light element at a very high temperature, it is possible to produce a formidable quantity of energy. The hydrogen isotopes are deuterium, found in abundance in the world's oceans, and tritium, generated in the fusion reactor from lithium which is also abundant in nature. Compared with fission, fusion offers a twin safety advantage: the absence of long-life waste and the impossibility of either a meltdown (melting of the reactor core) or runaway (the triggering of a chain reaction). And the day-to-day operation of a fusion electrical power plant would not give rise to any transport of radioactive materials.'

 

 
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The European fusion area

Fusion: How and Why?


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