Could Experimental Thermonuclear Reactor Save the World From Peak Oil?
By David J. DesLauriers
TORONTO (ResourceInvestor.com) -- The investment community is familiar with the threat posed by 'Peak Oil', and Resource Investor has done its part to keep its readers informed on the situation with articles highlighting some well-known prognosticators including Boone Pickens, Henry Groppe and Matt Simmons, and the threat they see of a crisis emerging.
What investors, and those who ponder the future of cheap energy might not be aware of is an international project at the experimental stage called the "International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)," that could supply "enough electricity to last the world for the next 1,000 years." Indeed, the word ITER means "the way" in Latin.
For those interested in getting down to the scientific nitty-gritty, the ITER website is awash in information. A general overview for the basic speculator/layman follows:
ITER is the experimental step between today’s studies of plasma physics and tomorrow's electricity-producing fusion power plants. It is based around a hydrogen plasma torus operating at over 100 million °C, and will produce 500 megawatts of fusion power.
"ITER seeks to mimic the way the sun produces energy, potentially providing an inexhaustible source of low-cost energy using seawater as fuel. ITER would have an advantage over current nuclear reactors because it would be cleaner. It would not rely on enriched uranium fuel and it would not produce plutonium, which is a concern from a terrorism point of view."
A leading scientist involved with the project said yesterday "If we can really make this work, there will be enough electricity to last the world for the next 1,000 to 2,000 years. So it is really quite important but quite difficult to do it." He went on to compare the level of complexity involved to "landing a man on the moon." Optimists and believers in human advancement will note that this was achieved decades ago.
ITER boils down the aspirations for the project in simple terms.
Controlled nuclear fusion promises:
* To be environmentally benign;
* To be widely applicable;
* To be essentially inexhaustible.
That promise must be demonstrated on ITER and by all future plants.
This promise comes down to understanding:
* How safe is fusion?
* What natural resources are needed to make it work?
In the Joint Declaration of the nations involved, issued from Moscow, the collaborators on the project emphasize "the importance of exploring the long-term potential of fusion energy as a virtually limitless, environmentally acceptable and economically competitive source of energy" and also that the governments involved are "mindful of the critical importance of safe and reliable implementation of the construction, operation and decommissioning phases of ITER, including for the purpose of demonstrating safety and advancing the social acceptability of fusion as an energy source."
The United States, the 25-member European Union, Russia, China, Japan and Korea are the major players collaborating on ITER.
The Boston Globe reported that "The planned $13 billion project is one of the most prestigious and expensive international scientific efforts ever launched."
"Japan and France, backed by roughly equal factions in the consortium planning the project, had competed fiercely for the prestige and economic benefits of hosting the project. But Tokyo agreed to a compromise: The fusion reactor is to be sited at Cadarache, near Marseille in southern France, while Japan will have the next-largest role in the project. Cadarache has one of the biggest civilian nuclear research centers in Europe."
"According to the agreement reached yesterday, the European Union as a whole will cover 40 percent of the cost and France alone will cover another 10 percent. The remaining half will be paid by the other five partners, including the United States, at 10 percent each. France will provide 40 percent of total staffing and Japan 20 percent."
Nuclear Engineering International published a report earlier in the month stating that "The Bush administration is at odds with the House energy appropriations bill, criticising what it sees as underfunding for programmes aimed at supporting new nuclear developments and calling for funds from oil and gas appropriations to be diverted into nuclear efforts."
So much for Bush and Cheney being in the pocket of Big Oil.
"The administration is also critical of the House decision to more than halve funding to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter) development, although the bill does increase fusion research funding to more than that requested, it directs these funds to domestic fusion R&D, rather than towards Iter."
"The experimental reactor project was conceived at an international summit in 1985 as a showpiece for cooperation during the Cold War. Construction of the reactor is expected to take 10 years to complete. The reactor itself is budgeted to cost about $6 billion and will produce about 10,000 jobs. The rest of the $13 billion is for associated research, a significant portion of it in Japan."
The proposed ITER plant at Cadarache has enormous potential and could lead to the building of a prototype power station in about 30 years time.
A detailed technically oriented timeline with four phases is hashed out on the ITER website.
Ian Fells, of the Royal Academy of Engineering in Britain and an expert on energy conversion told the newswires yesterday "I give it a 50-50 chance of success but the engineering is very difficult,"
"Scientists know it could work because they know the hydrogen bomb works. But the problem they face is trying to do it in a controlled manner so the heat can be used to generate electricity."
"In the course of the reaction it produces a lot of neutrons and they get into the actual fabric of the machine and over years it becomes radioactive, so there is still a problem of decommissioning."
Nonetheless, ITER maintains that “the energies are enough to damage the investment, but not to cause sufficient damage to affect the general public. The plant is designed with various lines of defence to avoid the possibility of contamination outside the plant in the case of such hypothetical accidents."
In addressing the potential for a leak of radioactivity, they also find little cause for concern: "Under the worst case accident scenario, the extra annual dose the most exposed individual would receive is about double that of natural radiation (which itself varies by more than this factor from place to place). Even under the worst accumulation of accidents (for which no chain of events can be envisaged), evacuation of the most exposed individual would not be required according to ICRP and IAEA guidelines."
In terms of a terrorist attack, which is playing on everyone's mind these days - prohibiting development of important energy sources like liquefied natural gas (LNG) - ITER concludes that it cannot say that a terrorist attack wouldn't cause serious repercussions, but "protection of any industrial plant against malicious intent is necessarily a high priority in its design these days. ITER is no different or special in this respect than other similarly complex plant (e.g., chemical, pharmaceutical, oil refining) dealing with potentially dangerous substances."
Not surprisingly, Greenpeace has already issued a statement expressing its contempt for ITER. Apparently, energy sources that cause pollution are bad, but so are clean energy sources. The title of the Greenpeace press release is "Nuclear fusion reactor project in France: an expensive and senseless nuclear stupidity."
The group continues, "Greenpeace deplores the agreement by the Representatives of the Parties to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) (1) to construct one of the world's largest nuclear fusion experiments in Cadarache, Southern France. The project, estimated to cost 10bn euros, will not generate any electricity, instead it will need massive amounts of energy to heat up."
Deplores? That's harsh wording. The main area of contention here is that this potentially world-altering project is going to be expensive and will use energy in its testing. Maybe the world should sit on its hands, or return to hunter-gatherer days?
"Fusion energy - if it would ever operate - would create a serious waste problem, would emit large amounts of radioactive material and could be used to produce materials for nuclear weapons. A whole new set of nuclear risks would thus be created."
"Governments should not waste our money on a dangerous toy which will never deliver any useful energy," said Jan Vande Putte of Greenpeace International. Instead, they should invest in renewable energy which is abundantly available, not in 2080 but today."
Vande Putte apparently has not grasped that wide scale implementation of wind farms and solar energy is not yet a viable economic reality. He also seems to miss that the sheer scale of the benefits ITER could deliver if it works are what justifies the cost. It is easy to preach from the Ivory tower when one is not concerned with economic realities.
Despite its detractors, ITER is a project whose benefits could be of literally inconceivable proportions in providing the world with cheap energy. For that reason, every effort must be made to see through the long process of development ahead.
If peak oil has just occurred, or is set to occur in the next few years, ITER based plants coming online in three decades or so could prove very timely. Maybe by then there will be economically feasible ways to harness the wind and the sun, but in the meantime the scientists must apply their trade.
This is a refreshing reminder of mankind's ingenuity, inventiveness and ability to conquer nature in positive ways that continue to boost the world's standard of living.