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[cdn-nucl-l] Fusion Info: Bush team eyes star power for energy needs
Posted on MS NBC on November 26, 2002 and at:
Take special note of the online survey results - 87% of readers say
fusion should get a major increase in commitment from the US. Wow!
Bush team eyes star power for energy needs
Scientists asked to chart path for commercial fusion by 2037
By Miguel Llanos
Nov. 26 - What if you could build your own star and use its
energy to power entire cities - all with much less environmental risk
than traditional nuclear power? It might sound crazy, but scientists
convened at the Bush administration's request are drafting a statement
that it's feasible within the next 35 years to create, contain and then
commercialize what's known as fusion energy.
Should the United States commit more to fusion energy, even if it costs
taxpayers billions of dollars?
* 16515 responses
Can't decide 5%
THE SCIENTISTS met Monday in Washington and are now finishing
up a letter to the Energy Department.
The energy source of the stars, fusion has actually been studied
for 50 years as a potential source of energy that emits no air
pollutants or gases tied to global warming. It does produce some
short-lived radioactivity, but nothing like traditional nuclear power.
Unlike fission - which powers today's nuclear power plants by
splitting atoms, creating significant radioactive waste - fusion fuses
hydrogen atoms and creates energy as a byproduct.
On top of that, its basic fuels - deuterium (a heavy form of
hydrogen) and lithium - are abundantly available. Fifty cups of sea
water, for example, contain enough deuterium to produce the same amount
of energy as two tons of coal. Lithium, for its part, is a common
element that would be used to extract tritium, a yet heavier hydrogen
isotope that would fuse with the deuterium.
But the potential is matched by the formidable challenge
involved: The fuels must be heated to 100 million degrees Celsius, at
which point they become plasma. Then that temperature must be sustained
and controlled so the resulting energy can be turned into electricity.
Last September, the Energy Department asked the 14 members of its
Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee to weigh in.
In a first response ahead of Monday's meeting, the committee
chair said the assumption of a 35-year target was completely sound.
"Accomplishments of the program during the past few decades
have been truly remarkable," wrote Richard Hazeltine, director of the
Institute for Fusion Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. "They
have brought us to a point that makes the forward look described in your
charge, including its explicit time scale, entirely appropriate."
Those advances include scientists' ability to better handle
fusion. Thirty years ago, researchers reached a milestone by producing
one-tenth of one watt of fusion power for one-hundredth of a second.
Today they're able to produce 10 million watts for about a second.
Anne Davies, a senior Energy Department official for fusion
energy, agreed with Hazeltine's view, adding that the biggest obstacles
are financial, not technical. The fusion research program, she added, is
"financially stressed," receiving about $250 million a year now.
A scientist is seen inside a fusion reactor used by the Energy
Department and Princeton to heat hydrogen atoms so that they become
plasma and then energy. The reactor was disassembled last September
after 15 years of research use.
CHENEY TASK FORCE
When the Energy Department asked experts to weigh in, it was
acting on a directive from the national energy task force, chaired last
year by Vice President Dick Cheney.
In the task force's report, fusion energy was described in
glowing terms as not suffering from fission's downside.
"There are no emissions from fusion, and the radioactive wastes
from fusion are short lived, only requiring burial and oversight for
about 100 years," the report stated. "In addition, there is no risk of a
melt-down accident because only a small amount of fuel is present in the
system at any time. Finally, there is little risk of nuclear
proliferation because special nuclear materials, such as uranium and
plutonium, are not required for fusion energy."
The report envisioned fusion power plants that not only deliver
electricity to the power grid but also "power an energy supply chain
based on hydrogen and fuel cells" - technology that could replace the
internal combustion engines in vehicles with zero or near-zero
The advisory committee was asked to report back to the
administration by Dec. 1 with its general advice and note any
significant issues. A second report in March will lay out funding
Fusion researchers have long lobbied for an international
experimental reactor, but the estimated $10 billion cost has unnerved
many governments, including the United States, which backed out in 1998.
The administration asked the committee to take another look at a
scaled-back international effort.
"The administration is trying to assure itself it's the right
thing to do," Davies said.
Background about the committee and the Office of Fusion Energy
Sciences is online at www.ofes.fusion.doe.gov.