The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report last month stating that there is now upwards of a 95% probability that humans are the main contributing factor behind global warming. It is evident that activists have a point when they call for global cuts to energy consumption and the switching out of fossil fuels for green energy sources. But while most activists focus on international regimes such as the Kyoto Protocol to solve these issues, there is another intergovernmental initiate deserving of attention: the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) and its cutting-edge green energy alternative of the future: nuclear fusion.

Image courtesy of EFDA-JET, © 2011. Some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of EFDA-JET, © 2011. Some rights reserved.

Fusion is what powers the sun, and as such it has always been the main source of energy on earth. According to Pat Pilcher, “While physicists have generated [controlled] nuclear fusion reactions, doing so has involved creating the earthbound equivalent of a small star, which in turn has required [the creation of] ultra-strong magnetic fields to contain [the] superheated plasma [which is] many times hotter than the surface of the sun.[1]” The difficulties associated with controlling such immense energies and extreme temperatures have thus resulted in research emphasis being directed elsewhere. The heating needed to fuse atoms in a fusion reaction has so far demanded more energy input than produced energy output, which means that fusion as a commercially viable project is still quite some way away.

As a project for the future, there are extensive economic arguments in favour of nuclear fusion. Deuterium and tritium (which have so far been the most successful fuels) are easily accessible. Tritium can be produced from lithium, of which we have reserves to supply us for one 1000 years if fusion was to sustain the entire world. Finite resources like oil, gas and coal, in contrast, are quite expensive once the associated externalities are counted. While the consumer pays the cost of the fuel, there are few estimates of the costs associated with the environmental impacts. Consider this: how much money is spent as a result of acid rain, or building sea walls because of rising sea levels? How many medical bills must be paid because of poor public health caused by pollution?

As opposed to the burning of fossil fuels, the use of nuclear energy is clean in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. At present, France generates about 80% of its electricity by the use of nuclear fission, Japan approximately 30%. The result is low per-capita carbon-dioxide emissions compared to other industrialized states. Yet there will always be concern about safe storage of the radioactive waste, as well as the small chance of nuclear accidents. The consequences of this can be devastating, as seen in Chernobyl and Fukushima Daichii. Fusion power plants, on the other hand, bear no risk of nuclear meltdown, although smaller on-site accidents cannot be ruled-out.

Compared to other sources of energy, fusion is a clean alternative. Oil, gas, and coal are also accompanied by huge greenhouse gas emissions in addition to being finite resources. Coal also releases radioactive waste. When compared to these, the materials used for a fusion reaction are also geographically very evenly distributed. This could lessen tension and increase economic and political security on a global scale. Oil, in comparison, is quite unevenly distributed with a large proportion of it being in the Middle East. This makes the material subject to both politics (which creates insecurities in the system), as well as fluctuations in price – especially as demand increases. When we also consider the uncertainties regarding the size of coal, oil and gas resources, as well as the future cost of these (which should increase with increased demand and decreased resource levels, as well as by environmental impact), fusion is an appealing alternative for the future. It provides economic stability, the same benefits as fission, but without the extensive radioactive waste.

Since fusion appears to be a panacea of sorts, why aren’t fusion reactors up and running yet? Well, it is both costly and time-consuming to construct the technologically advanced measures needed to contain and control the fusion reaction. To date, no life-sized fusion plants have been built for commercialized purposes and net energy output over energy absorbed was only achieved last month, at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California. The NIF has not yet achieved a self-sustaining reaction (fusion ignition) due to inefficiencies in the system, but the breakthrough in late September was a step in the right direction.

Whereas NIF is a research facility, ITER is under construction as the first full-scale fusion power plant. It is a collaborative project between the European Union, the United States, Japan, India, Korea, China and Russia. It is also the most expensive joint scientific collaboration since the International Space Station. Its scientists estimate that ITER will be able to produce 500MW output power for 50MW input power. Construction work started in 2010, and will finish in 2019. The first plasma is expected the following year, and the plant should be operational in the early 2030s.

This may seem far ahead for many, and according to Josh Dean in his 2008 article This Machine Might* Save the World, “fusion has a stigma to overcome; the image that it is fundamentally bogus, always and forever 20 years away[2]”. It is true that commercialized fusion power plants are still some time away, but as the ITER Organization states on their website: “By the last quarter of this century, if ITER and DEMO [The Demonstration Power Plant] are successful, our world will enter the Age of Fusion—an age when mankind covers a significant part of its energy needs with an inexhaustible, environmentally benign, and universally available resource.[3]” Although electricity generation by fusion generation is a scientific project far from completion, success will entail security, sustainability, economic stability and living standards gains across the board.



[1] Fusion Breakthrough a Magic Bullet for Energy Crisis? Published in: The Independent. URL: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/fusion-breakthrough-a-magic-bullet-for-energy-crisis-18642

[2] Dean, Josh. This Machine Might* Save the World: *that’s a big fat “might”. POPSCI. URL: http://www.popsci.com/scitech/article/2008-12/machine-might-save-world

[3] The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor Organization, www.iter.org