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EU Fusion Experiment's Financial Woes Get More Concrete 173

Posted by timothy
from the next-year-in-a-fusion-reactor dept.
fiannaFailMan writes "An international plan to build a nuclear fusion reactor is being threatened by rising costs, delays and technical challenges. 'Emails leaked to the BBC indicate that construction costs for the experimental fusion project called Iter have more than doubled. Some scientists also believe that the technical hurdles to fusion have become more difficult to overcome and that the development of fusion as a commercial power source is still at least 100 years away. At a meeting in Japan on Wednesday, members of the governing Iter council will review the plans and may agree to scale back the project.' Iter will be a Tokamak device, a successor to the Joint European Torus (JET) in England. Meanwhile, an experiment in fusion by laser doesn't seem to be running into the same high profile funding problems just yet."
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EU Fusion Experiment's Financial Woes Get More Concrete

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  • by cashman73 (855518) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @05:37PM (#28366665) Journal
    We're supposed to have Mr. Fusion [wikia.com] by 2015, you know,... Of course, we were supposed to have flying cars 9 years ago, too,... ;-)
  • by spyfrog (552673) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @05:38PM (#28366671) Homepage

    The saying has always been that "fusion is still 50 years away", for fifty years ago and recent.
    Now EU has managed to make it 100 years away - it's an impressive achievement: they have managed to double the time we have to wait. Great use of money. Since fusion was only "50 years away" when we started we where actually better off before we started to build that reactor (or the scientists where to optimistic, but whats the fun in that?).

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by roc97007 (608802)

      Or is it possible that since governments fund research, not solutions, that's what they're getting -- research, not solutions. Practical fusion will always be 50 years ahead, because that's what we are (inadvertently) paying scientists to say.

      • Re:I am impressed (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @06:31PM (#28367281)

        Practical fusion will always be 50 years ahead, because that's what we are (inadvertently) paying scientists to say.

        Scientist in lab: "Ha! Another positive energy run! Well, we'll just fudge the numbers so it looks like it took more energy to start the fusion than we got back. Can't jeopardize our funding..."

        Nope, I don't buy it. Once fusion hits positive returns, there will be more money spent on it, to develop it to practical status. And the lab that first hits positive return will go down in history, famous forever.

        Scientists working on fusion would love to succeed.

        since governments fund research, not solutions, that's what they're getting -- research, not solutions.

        I don't know how you can skip the research and go straight to the solution. If you know how, then please go do it for fusion, and make yourself fabulously wealthy as you solve all our long-term energy problems.

        And if you don't know how, then stop bad-mouthing the fusion scientists. Kthxbye.

        • by Chris Burke (6130)

          Nope, I don't buy it. Once fusion hits positive returns, there will be more money spent on it, to develop it to practical status. And the lab that first hits positive return will go down in history, famous forever.

          And the researchers could get a Nobel Prize and could name their price for a job with a company building commercial fusion plants, and...

          Yeah, score one for common sense there. Mod the AC up.

          • by RsG (809189)

            And the researchers could get a Nobel Prize and could name their price for a job with a company building commercial fusion plants, and...

            Yeah, score one for common sense there. Mod the AC up.

            Forget the Nobel Prize, they'd be looking at their names in the history books. Nobel winners come and go, but technological breakthroughs of this magnitude happen a couple times a century, max. Do you know what most researchers in science and engineering would do for that kind of legacy?

            The problem is not foot dragging (except on the part of the bean counters). Simply put, the problems associated with building a working fusion power plant, while not insurmountable, are still very difficult. Net energy o

      • Even if there is a breakthrough it is likely that some or all of the scientists will immediately quit the project and attempt to jump on board with "investor" companies as they rush to patent the fruits of what was formerly publicly funded research. It would become yet another classic case of privatization of profits and socialization of costs, losses, and risks.
      • by Goldsmith (561202)

        I don't know whether to find this comment funny or depressing...

        For ITER specifically, one of the reasons the US wasn't involved early on was that ITER was promoting itself as a test for a commercial reactor. The US science community and the DOE didn't buy it, but were willing to fund a research focused reactor.

    • Since fusion was only "50 years away" when we started we where actually better off before we started to build that reactor

      Congratulations, you have just proven that time travelers coming back from the future are clearly meddling in our affairs in an ongoing basis. I can only hope that it's a better future than Skynet - unless it's full of those hot Terminator babes!

    • Better off than when we started indeed:

      Some scientists also believe that the technical hurdles to fusion have become more difficult to overcome

      Somehow we have changed the universe to make fusion more difficult. We'd better be careful just how much research we do into it - if we do too much, the sun will stop working!

    • by adavies42 (746183)

      Now EU has managed to make it 100 years away - it's an impressive achievement

      they must be trying to one-up nasa [theonion.com]

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Marcika (1003625)

      The saying has always been that "fusion is still 50 years away", for fifty years ago and recent. Now EU has managed to make it 100 years away

      You make the mistake of believing the summaries of Slashdot editors. ITER is not an "EU" experiment, but as international as can be (the seven parties participating in the ITER program: the EU, India, Japan, PR China, Russia, South Korea, USA).

      (And of course fusion is not 50 years away, it was already achieved 50 years ago in Operation Ivy... Commercially viable fusion - now that's an engineering problem ;-) )

    • Now EU has managed to make it 100 years away

      I propose erooM's law: the time until we have a fusion reactor doubles every 18 months.

  • Bussard (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Garrett Fox (970174) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @05:41PM (#28366699) Homepage
    I'm interested in the work of Robert Bussard's research team, which continued after his death. Last I heard was sometime late last year, when the US military announced a continued grant to that team for their "Polywell" system. The grant suggests that the military saw something it liked in the interesting, but questionable data from Bussard's last experiments. Is there any new info on this?

    Re: fusion research in general, how much of a priority do you think it should be? Is the best way to think of it, "It'll be nice if it ever works, but don't plan on it ever being closer than "40 years away"? (Or 100, now?) There is that one experiment that's been reported on lately with breathless claims that it'll achieve better than break-even energy within "a few years," right? One story from May [guardian.co.uk] says that the new California facility will be the one to achieve net energy gain, but suggests that it might take till 2040.
    • by LWATCDR (28044)

      The Navy is still funding it. Last I heard they are under a publishing embargo again.
      Maybe it is working really well but we will see I hope.

    • Re:Bussard (Score:5, Informative)

      by Jerf (17166) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @06:01PM (#28366967) Journal

      The latest Bussard fusion news, from yesterday [classicalvalues.com]. Fairly encouraging; it's hard to estimate exactly how successful the tests were but we can rule out total failure, I think.

      I would currently place Bussard's success probability as much higher than ITER's.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Chris Burke (6130)

        Personally I'm gunning for Sandia Lab's Z-Pinch device, though mostly because the original looked so unbelievably fucking cool [sandia.gov].

        The last I'd heard from them, they had built a small module that could do inertial fusion, and could fire rapidly and for many cycles. They could be stacked to increase power, and in theory all they had to do (simplifying of course) was stack a bunch of these modules to make practical power generation, and a test product was supposed to be done in a few years.

        Sadly, being small sel

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by KliX (164895)

        Please, please, please tell me you're not a scientist of any sort! I really hope the late Bussard's ideas come to fruition, but the data from their previous experiments is awful (check those error bars people), and the physics dubious (the consensus is mainly on the "it's not going to work" side, but it's not clear cut). ITER on the other hand is an engineering problem; we've done plasma containment. We don't know if a full scale polywell can work, and things look bad - we know tokamak fusion systems will w

        • Re:Bussard (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Jerf (17166) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @08:10PM (#28368049) Journal

          You obviously didn't follow the link. The experiments are being done. It's military funded and they're not telling us everything, but clearly the results were good enough to continue ramping up. (Total failure would either cancel the project or move it in some other direction. Probably the former.)

          and the physics dubious (the consensus is mainly on the "it's not going to work" side, but it's not clear cut)

          The only such "consensus" that I know about is from a guy who used assumptions about how electrons behave based on equations based on preconditions that do not hold; I find Bussard's response compelling. I do not trust that analysis. Bussard fusion may yet not work, but not for that reason.

          Besides, the time for posturing and insulting people for examining data and coming to their own conclusions is coming to a close; experimental data is at hand. It doesn't matter what theories say will or won't work when the experiment is done.

          • Total failure would either cancel the project or move it in some other direction. Probably the former.

            You must not work in the defense industry.

    • How about his collectors? How are those coming? I think we need them by 2151 or so...
    • The current effort will build on what has been completed under these previous contracts as well as requirements to provide the Navy with data for potential applications of AGEE with a delivered item, wiffleball 8 (WB8) and options for a modified wiffleball 8 (WB8.1) and modified ion gun.

      God I hope they fail. I don't think humanity could ever overcome the shame of having something called a wiffleball be the ultimate source of our power.

    • The grant suggests that the military saw something it liked in the interesting, but questionable data from Bussard's last experiments.

      In "Sun in a Bottle", Charles Seife claims that the interest lies in keeping scientists and engineers sharp on the subject matter without violating any test bans.

  • the technical hurdles to fusion have become more difficult to overcome

    Really? Have they really become more difficult? Like jumping off the high board becomes more difficult after you've climbed up there? Or truly more difficult, like trying to sell tickets to the hockey pool after the playoffs have ended?

  • NIF cost overruns (Score:5, Informative)

    by Super_Z (756391) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @05:47PM (#28366789)

    Meanwhile, an experiment in fusion by laser doesn't seem to be running into the same high profile funding problems just yet."

    According to this article [economist.com], NIF has cost $4 billion so far - almost four times the original estimate. What saved the NIF from cancellation was that its backers persuaded politicians that it was vital for Americas nuclear programme.

    Science at this level is neither easy nor cheap.

    • by bitt3n (941736)

      What saved the NIF from cancellation was that its backers persuaded politicians that it was vital for Americas nuclear programme.

      Science at this level is neither easy nor cheap.

      this is why I fully support North Korea's nuke program. Just think of all the new science we'll get to do on our end as a result (at least in the short term)

  • Inflation (Score:3, Funny)

    by Lars T. (470328) <Lars.Traeger@ g o o g l e m a i l.com> on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @05:48PM (#28366799) Journal
    The number of Slashdot stories on this has also just doubled. http://hardware.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=09/05/29/0511233 [slashdot.org]
  • by Anonymous Coward

    nuclear google [google.com]

    • by Ungrounded Lightning (62228) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @10:16PM (#28368837) Journal

      The Navy picked up the option to fund the next step.

      Now it's funded the step after that, and included a request for a proposal for it to fund the third and final step.

      At the end of that step (if it all works) we have a practical first demo power plant - about 100 megawatts of fusion power out from cheap and very abundant fuel. Proof of concept, a practical design good enough to displace fossil fuel and fission power plants (and perhaps aircraft carrier and battleship engines) that can be replicated, and probably enough engineering data to design something much better.

  • In the middle of the 70s, controlled fusion was just around the corner. Many times. 100 years is some corner. Far as I know there's been no progress, even in the lab, since then.
    • Re:100 years now (Score:5, Insightful)

      by RsG (809189) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @07:43PM (#28367845)

      Far as I know there's been no progress, even in the lab, since then.

      Then perhaps it is time to expand your knowledge?

      We have built working toroid reactors since the 1970s. Just such a reactor, JET, is mentioned in TFA. The problem is no longer whether such a design will work. Nor is ignition the problem; we've achieved that years ago. Controlled fusion exists, here, now, in the present. This wasn't the case in the 1970s (well, there were Farnsworth fusors and H-bombs, but those are both significantly different cases).

      The problem now lies in getting net energy out of it, and keeping the reaction going over long enough durations to generate useful amounts of electricity. This is indeed physically possible (see for instance the centre of the sun), it's just very challenging from a practical standpoint. The engineering hasn't caught up, in part because the number of testbeds for new designs is sharply limited. ITER is supposed to be the next such testing ground for new engineering solutions, but as you can see, it's having trouble getting political and financial backing.

      Also, this "fusion has been 50 years away for the past 30 years" meme gets on my nerves. It's selective perception, and utter bullshit. People remember the promise of fusion, but forget that we were politically and financially unwilling to pay for it. The research wasn't going to just happen magically, someone needed to underwrite it.

      Had we done the needed R&D decades ago, we would be decades ahead of where we are now. We didn't. You get what you put in, and in this case we put in nowhere near what we ought to have. Result is that we're behind.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by locster (1140121)

        For the record there are other Tokamak's, I believe the most advanced to date is KSTAR [wikipedia.org], which uses superconducting electromagnets, which are a critical part of ITERs design.

      • Getting net energy production was right around the corner in the '70s and apparently still is, except now the corner is a century away. There were tokamaks, magnetic bottles, laser inertial confinement systems, and other efforts in the 70s. The primary commercial fusion power developer, General Atomic, said fusion would account for significant amounts of commercial energy production by the year 2000. The milestone everyone was waiting for then, as now, was net energy production. It may well get on your ner
      • by iggymanz (596061)
        it's a fallacy to think that pissing away money on a problem will solve it. We don't have the materials to make an energy positive Tokamak, nor the knowledge if confinement over such a long time period is possible in a toroid bottle. We don't need a solution for 100 years out, we need one now and the fusion reactor in the sky puts out more energy than a thousand earth civilizations could use.
  • Tokamak (Score:4, Funny)

    by HTH NE1 (675604) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @06:00PM (#28366957)

    Iter will be a Tokamak device

    Good choice, since attempts with Zat'nik'tel and Tacuchnatagamuntoron devices failed.

  • that the development of fusion as a commercial power source is still at least 100 years away.

    That's like saying it's never going to happen at all. If we can't solve it in far less time than that, I don't think we'll ever solve it.

  • I mean just consider the state of technology one hundred years ago. Advances in computational power alone should allow useful solutions of the diffeqs governing plasma containment. One might be able to make a case for 40 years but trying to push predictions about the future past that point doesn't seem particularly useful.

    Also I have to wonder how useful it is to learn that some scientists think that iter is going in the wrong direction. Of course some scientists do, otherwise why would we build an *expe
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by hbr (556774)

      To me 100 years sounds like a precursor argument to cutting funding.

      As fusion seems to be the only single approach that is capable of solving the energy/climate/etc crisis by itself, we should be doubling the funding.

      For the promised benefits, nuclear fusion research funding seems disproportionately small to me.

      • I want to agree with you. But the Manhattan project cost ~$24 billion in today's USD according to wikipedia, and at the end they had 2 working bombs. When ITER has spent it's 20 billion, we'll hopefully have the knowledge we need to build a working power reactor.
        Now. You might say that fusion energy is worth more than an atom bomb or two. But I doubt you would convince someone living in 1944 of that.
    • Hey. I'm doing my doctorate in the field. (thus the late comment)

      As for the computers solving the diffeqs. You may be right and you may be wrong.
      The sad thing is, we do not have a set of differential equations that can accurately predict how plasmas will behave across strong magnetic fields. You may have heard that when fluid models are used in turbulent situations, they spit out 'correct' solutions which do not even closely resemble what's actually observed and until recently, the best fluid models pre
      • by logicnazi (169418)
        Just to be pedantic it's not that we lack diffeqs to describe the system just that we can't solve them preciscely enough.

        I mean we are pretty damn sure of the fundamental physics here. There is no quantum field theory weirdness that is needed to do this right (some quantum maybe) and there is enough material that the discrete size of atoms shouldn't make a difference so there MUST be a diffeq that will model it correctly.

        ----

        Seeing as I do computability theory I will tell you with ENOUGH computing power we
  • 100 Years? (Score:5, Funny)

    by divisionbyzero (300681) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @06:17PM (#28367153)

    Wow, in the 50's it was any day now; 70's real soon now; 90's became 50 years; now 2010 we're at 100. That's a heck of a curve. In 100 years we'll be at only 200 years away!

    • by Jesus_666 (702802)
      Obviously that means we already had it in the Thirties but apparently someone lost the blueprints.
    • Estimates for polywell put mass production at 20 years, assuming the test results keep coming in the way they are now.

  • Some scientists also believe that the technical hurdles to fusion have become more difficult to overcome...

    I was climbing the mountain and then it became three thousand feet higher!

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by pimpimpim (811140)

      Hi feepness!

      Thanks! You've given the best description of science I've ever read. Disclaimer: I am a scientist.

      Seriously. A lot of the fancy topics are interesting because they are like a foggy mountain top, you know that there must be a mountain top, but you don't know the way, and you don't know what you will find up there, and which equipment you need to take along. This makes science different from engineering, where you at least would have a map of the mountain roads and altitudes etc.

      As far as funding

      • by feepness (543479)
        That may be the case with science in general, but when you are planning a multi-billion dollar campus you need to have your plans in place before you break ground.

        Similarly, you change your hypothesis between experiments, not during.
  • by johannesg (664142) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @06:26PM (#28367233)

    The EU spends way more than that on agricultural subsidies every single year. I'm probably a cultural barbarian, but I happen to think that developing fusion, even if it will take a while, is more important than subsidising French wine.

    As for all those "fusion will always be 50 years away" remarks: that's what happens if you never start. ITER could have started a decade ago, if everyone hadn't been fighting over where to build it. Fusion would be ten years closer if we had somehow managed to select a piece of ground somewhere in a reasonable amount of time.

  • seriously (Score:4, Insightful)

    by dwarfenhoschi (1494927) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @06:34PM (#28367307) Journal
    They dont mean those 100 years seriously right ? i mean look at it, 100 years ago we were happy to even have Power and just in the last 10 years much has developed. Science these days is exponential so i expect that in 100 years we have either blown ourselves up somehow or we will have really cool stuff...fusion power will be old by then ^^
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Kesch (943326)

      What if we blow our selves up with some really cool stuff? I'm thinking lots of last words along the lines of "Damn! That's awesome!"

  • A back of the envelope calculation says that a paraffin sphere with a 200m radius can absorb the energy of a 2 megaton hydrogen bomb by melting. So we build ourselves a nice strong containment vessel out of a granite mountain, fill the hole with paraffin and set off a bomb, melt paraffin, boil water for a couple of months and then repeat. There is probably a better material than paraffin, but the basic idea is the same. Just a few minor engineering issues to work out and we could have one of these sucker
    • by RsG (809189)

      Believe it or not, that's been suggested, perhaps unsurprisingly in the USSR during the cold war.

      It isn't all that practical a power source. There's no benefit to it over a conventional fission reactor, and several drawbacks. Notably, bombs are more expensive and challenging to make than fuel pellets, the security risk is much greater if somebody hijacks your fuel, radioactive material released in this manner has an annoying tendency to find it's way into the atmosphere or water table, and finally, whatev

    • by tobiah (308208)

      Or we could just start making better use of the monster fusion reactor that is already in the neighborhood.

      Totally, the energy source is already there, and being exploited rather efficiently by many organisms. I feel like we've hit a limit of the centralized power source model, and the practical future of energy is in collecting on the small scale and exploiting local sources. For example, here in San Diego I know several people who produce a net surplus of electricity from their solar panels, without any real effort at conserving use. Big, dirty power supplies with massive infrastructure issues are so very d

      • by Tweenk (1274968)

        Big, dirty power supplies with massive infrastructure issues are so very dated.

        This microgeneration bullshit keeps popping up but it's still bullshit. For example, look at a report about microgeneration in UK: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/06/04/microgeneration_report/ [theregister.co.uk]

        Now my own ideas:
        1. There is no practical technology to store large amounts of energy, except building a very big artificial lake above the ground level and pumping water there.
        2. Power generated locally from renewables has a large seasonal variation in output, and is intermittent (except geothermal, but this is an i

    • That sounds a bit like PACER [wikipedia.org].
  • by mako1138 (837520) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @08:22PM (#28368159)

    Fusion is not 100 years away. It's already been achieved in JET, for example. What's 50-100 years away is a practical commercial fusion power plant with a lifetime measured in years.

    In order to be practical, a fusion plant has to produce net power. ITER is expected to do that.

    However, the materials issue remains. The interior of a tokamak, the "first wall", has to be able to withstand an intense neutron flux without degrading. ITER is going to be made out of stainless steel, which is fine for research; it wouldn't hold up very long in a 24x365 environment. For a commercial reactor, we don't have an ideal first wall material yet.

    These cost overruns and delays over the history of the ITER program have been ridiculous. I'm not sure whether canning ITER is a good idea. Scaling it back might be, but the problem is, a new reactor needs to be significantly larger than existing ones, in order to explore a different part of the parameter space. Large = still expensive.

    At this point, the most important part of the ITER program, IMO, is the International Fusion Materials Irradiation Facility. We need better materials.

    • ...or repair, repair, repair.

      One could make a production line to churn out stainless steel liners for the reactor at low cost.

      TIMTOWTDI

    • For a commercial reactor, we don't have an ideal first wall material yet.

      There are some really good ideas in fact. However we do not have the ability to test these ideas.

      These cost overruns and delays over the history of the ITER program have been ridiculous

      They have been ridiculous, and are 100% political, not scientific. The science of fusion has improved dramatically, confinement has improve many orders of magnitude. And ITER is a logical next step. But its not the only step. We could do smaller experiment on ELM or upgrade JET yet again, or ....

      We don't seem to be very good at "organizing" science at this kind of size, so smaller seems better with more speci

  • EU Fusion Experiment's Financial Woes Get More Concrete

    From the sounds of things, what they want is more money...

  • Anytime you have a large number of countries who are building something in which each is trying to gain control of it, there will be costs overrun. In addition, the IFR is capable of burning the WASTE nuke supplies. If advanced countries put these in, then the world will have but a fraction of the waste. 3rd world countries (developing nations; whatever) can put in older reactors that use simple reaction. And the argument about plutonium going to bomb making is a total fraud. As it is, we have Iran and Nor
  • The longer it takes us to find a clean, abundant, relatively inexpensive power source, the more expensive combating climate change becomes.

  • Plan to build a < insert any large, hi-tech project > is being threatened by rising costs, delays and technical challenges.

  • "The walls of the box, which need to be leak tight, are bombarded by these neutrons which can make stainless steel boil. Some people say it is just a question of inventing a stainless steel which is porous to let these particles through; personally I would have started by inventing this material."

    Maybe, just maybe, they should have checked if the technology was even developped before they started allocating funds and setting deadlines? Then again, I've always been pragmatic.

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