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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

environmentally attractive. The comparison with fission power does not tell a happy story for DT tokamak fusion. Furthermore, it must be noted that the future of fission reactors isn't at all certain.

Where Things Went Astray

The reason fusion research is in such a sad predicament parallels the situation in fission power development in the 1960s. Recall that a number of interesting fission reactor concepts were being pursued actively, e.g., organic moderated reactors, sodium-graphite reactors, homogeneous reactors, and gas-cooled reactors. All enjoyed considerable federal funding and were shepherded by a multitude of bright, dedicated people. In retrospect, it's clear that the fission development program did not have the benefit of experienced market-oriented utility engineers overseeing and guiding the effort. Indeed, it was the effort of a pragmatic Navy engineer, who hoped to develop reliable fission power for submarines, that led to pressurized and boiling water reactors that power nuclear submarines today and are the backbone of world nuclear power.

Fusion research has not had the benefit of pragmatic, market-oriented engineers, which to this observer is why fusion research is today stuck with a clearly unattractive product. While the U.S. fusion program has undergone a number of reviews over the years, most review panels were composed of fellow physicists along with a few others friendly to fusion.

It doesn't have to be that way, because there are a number of other possible fusion configurations and other fusion fuel cycles from which to choose. Unfortunately, support for those other fusion possibilities was dramatically cut back years ago by physicists enamored with DT tokamaks.

In conclusion, the arguments against the commercial viability of DT tokamak fusion are strong and compelling. Why then spend billions of dollars and a decade or more to build an ITER based on a concept that is almost certainly a commercial loser? Engineering pragmatism must be brought to bear on fusion power and fusion research redirected in commercially viable directions. Only then will the hope for economically and environmentally attractive fusion power have a chance of being realized.

  1. National Research Council. Letter Report From the Burning Plasma Assessment Committee, Dec. 20, 2002.
  2. Hirsch, R.L., Kulcinski, G., Shanny, "R. Fusion Research With A Future. Issues in Science and Technology," summer 1997 & fall 1999.
  3. Perkins, L.J., et al. "Fusion-The Competition and the Need for Advanced Concepts," LLNL. Sept. 22, 1993 and March 30, 1994.
  4. Kaslow, J., et al., "Criteria for Practical Fusion Power Systems," EPRI. Spring 1994.
  5. Meier, W. et al., "Role of Fusion in a Sustainable Global Energy Strategy," World Energy Council. 18th Congress, Buenos Aires. October, 2001.

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