Well managed phasing-in and phasing-out could save us yet

1 March 2009

The heady times of confidently expected two-decade maturations have long gone

At the first Atoms for Peace Conference, which was held in 1955, the chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, Dr Homi J Bhabha, predicted that thermonuclear fusion would be harnessed for electrical power generation in a couple of decades. At a press meeting during the following Atoms for Peace Conference, a couple of years later, Bhabha was asked how much longer he then thought the work would take. The eminent Indian did not hesitate to estimate the number of years. Twenty minus two, he said.

Those were the heady times, in which another leading nuclear spokesman could be heard to affirm that the current norm for bringing a new technology into practical use was about twenty years, and that so it would prove for the fast breeder reactor. Some of his audience may have noted that the fast breeder reactor was a fission reactor and therefore less advanced than a fusion project, but that it was still novel. It remains speculative to this day, at least for civil power.

The heady times of such confidently expected two-decade maturations have long gone. The problems of sustaining the world’s power supplies have not. Rather have they changed and multiplied. An article in CERN Courier, the international high-energy-physics journal,* reports some pertinent views expressed by a former director-general of CERN (the Geneva-based European organisation for international nuclear research**), Chris Llewellyn-Smith.

As narrated by his CERN interviewer, Llewellyn-Smith touches on the fluctuating price of oil, the growing media coverage of ‘hydrogen-driven’ cars, ‘solar-fed’ devices and ‘biomasses’, and the International Energy Agency’s acceptance that huge new supplies of energy will be needed in coming decades to lift billions of people out of poverty (including the more than 25% of the world’s population that still lack electricity).

When the fossil fuels run out, he opines, much of their role will have to be taken over by nuclear fission, first using conventional reactors and then – when the cheaper uranium is exhausted – fast breeder reactors, as technological advance and economics allow. Any alternative energy sources that work – wind, biomass and hydro – should also be used, again as technology and economics allow. It is hoped that fusion plants will be called upon to make their major contribution where power has to be produced on a large scale.

CERN is supporting ITER, the international r&d undertaking intended to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion power. Llewellyn-Smith has been chairing the ITER council. He believes that CERN expertise in frontline salient subjects – he instances superconductivity – ‘will certainly help to build up the project and make it work quickly’. But he is aware of the difficulties impeding long-term researchers dependent on politicians exposed to short-term pressures. He thinks it ‘unlikely that very high-tech solutions like fusion will become available in less wealthy countries’. That improbability poses a political problem. ‘Maybe we in the developing [sic] world’, he muses, ‘should be adopting such high-tech solutions and they should be using fossil fuels as long as they last.’

No idealist can but join with Llewellyn-Smith in his hopes and aspirations. The allure of fusion power is undeniable. However, I am reminded of the story of a meeting that took place late last century. Some of the world’s leading fusion researchers of the time were dining after a day in conference. One of them sought to climax the occasion with a toast. ‘May your children live to see fusion power’, he enunciated with raised glass. Two of the others echoed him, but with a corrective murmur: ‘May our grandchildren live to see fusion power.’ But a fourth voice called meaningfully: ‘May our children have electricity’. Then they drank.

By the way, and half a century after Homi Bhabha consulted his crystal ball on the matter, Llewellyn-Smith foresees the passing of ‘considerably more than thirty years before fusion can be rolled out on a large scale’. He thinks that CO2 capture and storage development must be given priority to extend the time for which fossil fuels can be used. But he insists that their consumption will accelerate as the world’s energy need increases and that they will run out, so ‘we have to go on with fusion as fast as we can’.

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