Azara Blog: Iter, the latest nuclear fusion reactor

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Date published: 2006/11/17

Kaname Ikeda, director-general nominee for Iter, the (soon-to-be) latest, and therefore biggest and most expensive, nuclear fusion reactor in the world, says on the BBC:

The world faces a huge energy challenge in the coming years.

Not many people would disagree with that statement now, but how we meet that challenge is a matter for intense debate.

One thing is certain though - we need to rapidly develop our best options to tackle the problem, with estimates of energy needs indicating an increase of some 60% over the next two decades, due to projected growth in population and industrialisation of the developing countries.

Add to that the fact that currently over three-quarters of the world's energy is produced by burning fossils fuels producing CO2 and using up natural resources, and the need to develop new sources of energy that do not produce greenhouse gases becomes even more apparent.

Energy efficiency and renewables all have a role to play in tackling the problem, but they are unable to cover this demand alone.

Nuclear fission can help in bridging the gap, but its deployment faces political, technical and environmental concerns. If possible, we need to develop other alternatives. This is the reason for research into developing fusion power.

After decades of research in laboratories all over the world, a consortium of countries representing over half the world's population is now poised to take a major step forward in proving whether fusion power can become a reality.
The raw materials to produce this reaction are water and lithium.
There is enough deuterium for millions of years of energy supply, and easily accessible lithium for several thousands of years.
The aim of Iter is for the first time to put reactor scale physics and technology together in a single experiment to demonstrate that a fusion power plant is feasible.

The European experiment Jet, hosted in the UK, has already produced 16MW of fusion power, but only by inputting 25MW to heat the plasma.

Iter is double the dimensions of Jet, and has the goal of producing 500MW of fusion power, 10 times the input power.
If the Iter project and materials facility are successful, a prototype fusion power station could be putting electricity into the grid within 30 years, with commercial fusion power following 10 years later.

Sceptics make the comment that fusion power has always been - and will always be - 50 years away - but the time horizon seems to be slightly shortening now.

Indeed, in the early 1970s the US Department of Energy was claiming that fusion would be with us by 2000. Oh well, so much for that prediction. But nuclear fusion is worth pursuing, not only for energy reasons but because of basic research. It's certainly worth more to the world than astronomy or high energy physics, and if you only could fund one of the three, it's pretty obvious which it should be. Although it is often portrayed as having near-infinite sources for its raw materials and no really dangerous waste, the real situation is unlikely to be so clear cut. And there is also the question of the eventual cost per unit of energy produced. Of course a cheap(ish), clean(ish), plentiful(ish) source of energy would be a disaster for the so-called environmentalists, because it would allow humans to make an even bigger impact on the environment than currently happens.

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