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ITER Fusion Reactor Enters Existential Crisis 470

Posted by timothy
from the sartre-says-it's-meaningless dept.
deglr6328 writes "The long beleaguered experimental magnetic confinement fusion reactor ITER is currently in what some are calling the worst crisis of its 25 year history. Still existing only on the paper of thousands of proposed design documents, the latest cost estimates for the superconducting behemoth are soaring to nearly 20 billion USD — roughly twice the estimates from as recently as a few years ago. Anti-nuclear environmentalist organizations have seized upon the moment as an opportunity to use the current global economic crisis as a means to push for permanently killing the project. If ITER is not built, the prospect of magnetic confinement fusion as a technique to reach thermonuclear breakeven and ignition in the laboratory would be in serious question. Meanwhile, the largest laser-driven inertial confinement fusion project, the National Ignition Facility, has demonstrated the ability to use self-generated plasma optical gratings to control capsule implosion symmetry with high finesse, and is on schedule to achieve ignition and potentially high gain before the end of the year."
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ITER Fusion Reactor Enters Existential Crisis

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 11, 2010 @08:06PM (#32544536)

    Is the Polywell, which uses inertial electrostatic and magnetic confinement. And if physicists cared about actually giving the world nuclear fusion power they would cease work on the futile ITER project, which at this point is little more than a jobs program for some nuclear physicists, and start work on the Polywell fusion device, which only needs millions of dollars to be proven correct, not the countless billions that have been squandered on the ITER.

  • Still kinda dumb (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Chris Burke (6130) on Friday June 11, 2010 @08:37PM (#32544836) Homepage

    Now, it's debatable whether the US government is capable of offering such regulation, especially after the BP disaster. But nevertheless, asking for regulation does not make them "anti-nuclear".

    Okay, but the problem is that if you think you need successful regulation to prevent a BP spill-like disaster, then you still kinda don't understand fusion power.

    The problem with the BP spill is that once a problem occurred and oil leaked, the oil does what it naturally does and continues to be pushed out by the pressure underground. The problem with fission reactors is that when the control rods fail, the enriched uranium does what it naturally does and continues to release neutrons in a chain reaction.

    When a fusion reactor fails, the fusion stops on a timescale that to human eyes would be called "instantly". The whole reason nuclear fusion is such a hard thing to make into a power source is that it takes so much damn effort to make the source material actually fuse because that is not it's natural state until you get enough of it in one place that you call it a star. It's inherent in the nature of the power source that it can't go out of control. "Out of control" means "stopped".

    I'm an environmentalist, but also pro-fission. Yet I do think concerns about regulation of fission reactors are valid. How worried am I about regulation of fusion reactors? None worried.

  • Re:Point proven (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Captain Splendid (673276) * <capsplendid@gmail . c om> on Friday June 11, 2010 @08:48PM (#32544946) Homepage Journal
    So, what's the deal with that? Irrational fear or nuclear energy, or just a general hatred for humanity?

    (Relatively) cheap oil. Give it another 5-10 years and those same clueless environmentalists will be the first ones calling for fission.

    That's right kids, Nuclear power plants are the next 'tech boom' so be sure to bone up on your physics and chemistry and math. There's money in them thar cooling towers!
  • by maxume (22995) on Friday June 11, 2010 @08:58PM (#32545040)

    You have out-obtused me, I have little idea what your localities share in common.

    Do you mean to insist that they lack the money or stability to operate nuclear plants? That isn't exactly entirely attributable to fission itself. And Toshiba wants to sell them safe, small scale, self contained nuclear generation. The U.S. could be tasked with providing the islands with power, the U.S. Navy has long experience safely operating floating reactors (money is an issue there, but if we want to 'continue living in a civilization', we might have to stop worrying about it so much).

    I'm about evenly split on governments spending $20 billion on new fission generation vs fusion research, but I'm not very optimistic about fusion, mostly based on the numbers in a recent Scientific American article:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=fusions-false-dawn [scientificamerican.com]

    The engineering requirements for the jacket on a tritium consuming fusion reactor are 'hilarious'. There is no better word. The targets for laser ignition also present 'interesting' production challenges. Meanwhile, uranium reactors 'fucking work', with political problems preventing them from being built, not fundamental technical challenges.

  • by Trepidity (597) <<gro.hsikcah> <ta> <todhsals-muiriled>> on Friday June 11, 2010 @09:08PM (#32545104)

    Isn't proposing a reduction in government spending that would slow the economy actually primarily a thing conservatives are doing?

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Friday June 11, 2010 @09:16PM (#32545176) Journal
    If the costs are that low, and the prospects that rosy, how is ITER stopping them? I would think that they'd be fending off the VCs with baseball bats, just to avoid being crushed by the piles of investment money...
  • by girlintraining (1395911) on Friday June 11, 2010 @09:32PM (#32545282)

    Let me just say that fusion power is aweful; we should be using solar power instead.

    The difference is I'm about 93 million miles from the reactor that produces "solar" power, but the nearest nuclear reactor to me is about 15 miles away. Now, considering the one 93 million miles away has been running without any malfunction for about 4.6 billion years, give or take a few million. So far, we've only managed to make a few hundred nuclear plants around the world, and we've had about a dozen accidents since the first one was created in the past 100 years.

    Now, if I had to choose which one was more likely to last and be reliable, I'd pick the one 93 million miles away.

  • Re:Terrible summary (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Burdell (228580) on Friday June 11, 2010 @09:33PM (#32545298)

    And how do you get this enormous amount of power out of Nevada and into somewhere like Los Angeles

    I don't know, maybe the same way you get power out of the Hoover Dam in Nevada into Los Angeles. We have this thing call "the power grid" and "long distance transmission lines".

  • by XiaoMing (1574363) on Friday June 11, 2010 @09:35PM (#32545322)

    Sigh, I normally don't want to bother commenting on articles that have to do with fusion, but given the traffic that /. receives, it seems almost irresponsible to let such bullcrap have its way every time it rears its head.

    First off, even from the getgo, ITER is arguably more pointless than it is purposeful. It's nowhere near a stepping stone towards an actual powerplant, even if this sucker proves to be able to do pulsed Q>10 fusion, the technology required for heating won't be economically or thermodynamically feasible for energy production for decades to come. While it's politically a great way to blow a large sum of money (we pulled out of this program at first, but went back in because Bush needed to kiss France's ass for the Iraq war), the most useful science coming out of it will be materials science in trying to deal with high TC superconductors and blanket materials constantly suffering neutron damage; blanket materials we won't need until a real fusion powerplant comes along (once again, decades). That aside, since its original proposal of sustained thermonuc. fusion has been thrown out in favor of hour-long pulses, probably 90% of the physics it will undergo is either known predictable. (In other words, this is NOT the plasma physics equivalent of the LHC, which is actually necessary to set boundary conditions on many physical models).

    Now that's all a big clusterF* of he-said she-said that political spin gets to amplify 100-fold, but what really gets me is the comparison to NIF. Read the next few sentences very carefully:

    1. NIF requires its tiny fuel pellets to be perfectly symmetrical, encased in a gold hohlraum, and perfectly centered, then shot at by the most powerful laser system ever created in earth.

    2. NIF is a giant weapons research project, funded mostly by the DOD (Department, of, Defense) because we want to play nice and not test full blown warheads, and are instead simulating their fusion reactions in a laboratory (Go google NIF's funding, or enjoy the tid-bit that hohlraum was a classified word less than 30 years ago, the mention of which could get you interrogated by the FBI)

    3. The laser system used to beat the crap out of the carefully assembled perfect heavy-water pellet has less than 1% efficiency. I don't care how big your Q is, the technology to fix THAT problem is way more than decades away.

    4. Finally, a real powerplant, using the current studies NIF is undergoing, would require over ~60 perfectly frozen pellets (purpose is for yield, either of turbine-driving energy or more realistically better warhead modeling) per second fusion rate, lasers with a hundred times better efficiency (putting it at, oh say 10%? hah), and quite a bit of gold, that or another mechanism which they aren't studying.

    The next time someone talks NIF like we're not trying to figure out a better way to irradiate large plots of people or land, please just look at them like the idiots they are.
    I'm sorry fusion power is taking so long, we're working on it, and we're working pretty hard. But hey, and near-infinite supply of power from just centrifuged seawater is worth the wait, right? =P

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 11, 2010 @09:46PM (#32545398)

    ITER is the holy grail, but by no means the only way to utilize nuclear fusion for energy production. Hybrid fission/fusion reactors offer a compelling, affordable intermediate step to fusion power. While it's difficult to achieve break-even using current fusion technology, these reactors can still generate plenty of neutrons. And neutrons are exactly what's needed to transmute nuclear waste. Difficult? Sure, but not more difficult than the difficulties faced by the anemic ITER organization, which was practically designed to fail.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 11, 2010 @10:50PM (#32545864)

    20 freaking Billion dollars and the Polywell group who has shown just as much progress with WB7 can't get more then $2M in funding by the Navy.
    Sad

  • by hey! (33014) on Friday June 11, 2010 @11:51PM (#32546190) Homepage Journal

    Citations?

    I think it's very likely you've never worked in an environmental organization. I have. Let me tell you what the single thing they spend the most time obsessing about: the impact of degraded environmental quality on the quality of human life.

    Yes, it is true environmentalists value the environment for itself more than the general population does. There's a simple explanation for that. If you study something, you care more about it. Birders care more about bird conservation. Hunters care more about game conservation. Wildflower photographers care more about plant conservation. It's as simple as that. Of course, to outsiders, birders, hunters and nature photographers seem a little like crackpots.

    Caring about things is not a zero sum game. Just because you care *more* about the forests, or the bottom of the ocean, doesn't mean you care less about people. In fact it works the other way around. Caring isn't a resource, it's a habit of thought. The more you practice it, the better you get at it.

    I'll just leave you with a few quotes from a report I participated in developing:

    *A sustainable economy should provide for basic material requirements and a healthy quality of life.

    * Economic "progress" must be encouraged, measured and gauged in terms of quality of life and development of human potential...

    * The behavior of economic systems today should not diminish the potential enjoyment of life for future generations.

    * Appropriate market incentives (e.g., full cost accounting) are essential to achieve biophysical and economic sustainability, and subsidies for unsustainable practices should be eliminated.

    * The natural and physical environment is the platform which supports all communities and institutions.

    In my personal experience, this is mainstream consensus opinion in the environmental movement, although how such ideas apply to specific policies such as trading pollution credits is often a matter of debate. That's because details matter. It might seem like a minority position among environmentalists to you if your knowledge of environmentalists is second hand, through sources that are interested in playing up controversy or equating environmentalism with extremism.

  • by Shark (78448) on Saturday June 12, 2010 @12:03AM (#32546274)

    The waste is entirely manageable? So you've found a method to reduce physically hot, and radioactive hot materials to safe standards within... say, 100 years? Oh no... OK, so you've found a way to store these materials that doesn't expose the environment, people, or significant sections of aquifer to the lethal materials? Oh... you want to put it in tanks and cool those tanks with AC units for the next 5,000 years or so. Gotcha, Technical perspective absorbed.

    He might not have, but apparently, the French [heritage.org] have. I'm no expert in the matter, but this is definitely not a bad step forward if it's got any truth to it.

  • by timeOday (582209) on Saturday June 12, 2010 @12:19AM (#32546386)

    Who wants to cover the land in PV cells as far as the eye can see when you can build a few miniature stars with a few tonnes of superconducter and a vacuum chamber and have done with it?*

    The land is already covered as far as the eye can see, with roofs, roads, and parking lots. (Which is why cities are so unnaturally hot and a second reason harvesting that energy would be nice to do).

    And, though I make no guarantees for the distant future, for the foreseeable future solar is incontrovertibly cheaper than home-grown fusion.

    Granted, solar isn't really an option until we can make it cheaper and store it and distribute it better. A lot of that technology exists but maybe not quite good enough yet, but again... compared to fusion?

  • Re:Terrible summary (Score:3, Interesting)

    by linzeal (197905) on Saturday June 12, 2010 @12:27AM (#32546438) Homepage Journal
    Greenpeace is a fringe group at best, the Green Party in Germany has nearly 200x the claimed membership of Germany's Greenpeace chapter.
  • by tenco (773732) on Saturday June 12, 2010 @01:06AM (#32546674)
    There's a reason why the air smells so fresh after it rained. The rain literally cleans the air by collecting particles on the way down. Rain is far from being clean like the stuff that springs from your water tab.
  • by urusan (1755332) on Saturday June 12, 2010 @04:21AM (#32547736)

    This is the Star Trek fallacy. Technology typically doesn't proceed in tech levels, where new advanced technology replaces older less advanced technology. Certainly there are a few examples where some new technology completely replaced the old technology in practical applications, such as guns replacing swords or automobiles replacing horse-drawn carriages. However, the vast majority of the time old and new technologies co-exist, not because the old technology isn't done being replaced yet but because it is still useful. For instance, although they are extremely ancient technologies we still use bronze and pottery.

    This is particularly relevant in energy technology because what matters is the type of free energy available. If someone lived next to a literal mountain of coal, then why would it be ridiculous for them to dig up and burn it for energy? Sure, it will run out eventually and they'll have to either spend less energy or exploit some other energy source, but there's nothing crazy about using it.

    It should be noted that modern electrical generation still relies heavily on coal and that oil & nuclear electricity generation uses the steam engine.

    The future energy situation will probably have a lot of variety, from coal to fusion and everything in between. The balances will certainly be different, but the old technologies will never be completely obsolete as long as there is fuel remaining to be exploited at a reasonable cost.

  • by ultranova (717540) on Saturday June 12, 2010 @09:22AM (#32548982)

    Just imagine how bad a sane Hitler could have been.

    Not bad at all? He wouldn't had started the Holocaust, wouldn't had started WWII, and would likely not have sought dictatorial power in the first place. He'd been just a politician amongst many, or possibly a painter as he originally wanted to be.

  • by Chris Burke (6130) on Saturday June 12, 2010 @01:35PM (#32550936) Homepage

    The reaction stops all by itself. If you're going to argue against nuclear fission, please base your arguments against current designs.

    No it doesn't. Good fission reactor designs can be made safe by creating a negative coefficient between temperature and reaction rate. Yet the fission reaction continues because uranium is unstable. Which is why bad and dangerous reactor designs are possible. You need regulation to make sure people aren't building them.

    A bad fusion reactor on the other hand simply doesn't produce any power, because the reaction actually stops. That's why regulation isn't a concern.

    We should be building fission reactors -- oh look, I'm arguing for nuclear fission! -- but the difference between them and fusion reactors (aside from one existing) is a simple fact that it does no good to ignore.

  • Re:Still kinda dumb (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Chris Burke (6130) on Saturday June 12, 2010 @01:43PM (#32550994) Homepage

    You and basically every other respondent should learn the difference between the reaction being sub-critical due to a negative temperature coefficient, and the reaction actually stopping. It does not stop. The rate decreases as temperature increases so you don't get a runaway reaction, but it does not stop.

    Also you should stop assuming that when someone points out that fissile materials undergo fission naturally, they're saying the reactors will have meltdowns (I'm surprised nobody decided to "inform" me that meltdows != Hollywood nuclear explosions).

    I'm talking about an inherent difference between fission and fusion. In fission, you can design a reactor such that the reaction will slow if it gets out of control. In fusion, you cannot design a rector such that this doesn't occur, because the reaction actually stops as soon as anything goes wrong.

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