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Fusion Power: The Burning Issue

The Department of Energy is gambling on the wrong fusion approach and may needlessly burn up billions in taxpayer dollars in the process.
Fortnightly Magazine - February 1 2003

piece of equipment, the more expensive it will be. For instance, larger trucks, buildings, bridges, etc., are usually more expensive than smaller ones.

Some Market Realities

The acceptance or rejection of any new energy technology is a strong function of the character of the marketplace at the time of introduction. For fusion, commercial readiness will, at best, be many decades in the future, and the electricity marketplace at that time is difficult to contemplate. Recognizing related difficulties, a panel of utility technologists in 1994 developed a robust set of market acceptance criteria for fusion power. 4 The panel noted that social, regulatory, and energy issues pose moving targets. To compensate for the higher economic risk associated with new technologies, they said fusion plants must have lower life-cycle costs than their competition at the time of introduction. Finally, they categorized the multitude of market acceptance challenges into three interdependent categories: 1) economics; 2) public acceptance; and 3) regulatory simplicity.

Other utility personnel have expressed the view that the costs of fusion power likely would have to be 10 to 20 percent lower than the competition at the time fusion hopes to enter the market because of risks and uncertainties. And it is important to note that the competition-the technologies in commercial use today and tomorrow-represent moving targets, which will almost certainly improve over time. Thus, planning today must take into account advances that will surely occur in the competition.

Since 1994, deregulation of electric power generation has begun in earnest, and cost advantage over the competition is even more important than in the previously regulated market. In addition, it is clear that for any new electricity generating technology, high initial capital cost and long construction times represent significant disadvantages. Both drawbacks are inherent to DT tokamak fusion.

Tokamak Fusion Power

In an important 1994 analysis, investigators at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory compared the core designs (the "heat islands") of ITER and the AP 600 Advanced Light Water Reactor. 3 The rationale for their selection of the ITER core design was that it was a design that technologists were willing to commit to build, rather than a paper study design based on a variety of hopes and assumptions. It is noteworthy that no one knows whether the AP 600 will be the option of choice in the future marketplace. Rather, it is the closest "relative," in that both are based on nuclear processes and both involve copious quantities of neutrons.

In 1994, both core concepts were designed to produce roughly 1.5 GW of thermal energy. Because ITER would represent a first-of-a-kind project, cost reductions based on further development would seem likely. On the other hand, the ITER design did not include tritium breeding and handling-a process that would be complex, hazardous, and costly.

A major conclusion of the Perkins, et al. analysis was that the ITER core would be more expensive than the core of the AP 600 by roughly a factor of 30-an enormous difference! Indeed, their calculations showed that roughly 150 AP 600 cores would fit in the volume of the