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Power Science Technology

If Fusion Is the Answer, We Need To Do It Quickly 305

Lasrick writes: Yale's Jason Parisi makes a compelling case for fusion power, and explains why fusion is cleaner, safer, and doesn't provide opportunities for nuclear smuggling and proliferation. The only downside will be the transition period, when there are both fission and fusion plants available and the small amount of "booster" elements (tritium and deuterium) found in fusion power could provide would-be proliferators what they need to boost the yield of fission bombs: "The period during which both fission and fusion plants coexist could be dangerous, however. Just a few grams of deuterium and tritium are needed to increase the yield of a fission bomb, in a process known as 'boosting.'" Details about current research into fusion power and an exploration of relative costs make fusion power seem like the answer to a civilization trying to get away from fossil fuels.
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If Fusion Is the Answer, We Need To Do It Quickly

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  • by smittyoneeach ( 243267 ) * on Tuesday August 19, 2014 @06:58PM (#47707717) Homepage Journal
    Fusion confusion
    With facial hair cruisin'.
    Fission frission
    Bears smooth-faced derision.
    Burma Shave
    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 19, 2014 @07:04PM (#47707769)

      Confusion is correct. This guys damn confused. I'd love to have the problem hes talking about as that would mean that we actually have working fusion reactors. Wake me from my grave when we have one actual working power producing fusion reactor (I'm in my early 30s).

      • Transfusion, transfusion
        My red corpsuckles are in mass confusion
        Never, never, never gonna speed again...
        Pass the crimson to me, Jimson!

      • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

        by bobbied ( 2522392 )

        Confusion is correct. This guys damn confused. I'd love to have the problem hes talking about as that would mean that we actually have working fusion reactors. Wake me from my grave when we have one actual working power producing fusion reactor (I'm in my early 30s).

        Good Morning Sleepy head! We do have working fusion reactors, they just don't work long enough or well enough to get much energy out of them.

        • Re: Fusion Confusion (Score:5, Interesting)

          by gewalker ( 57809 ) <Gary.Walker@Ast r a D i g i t a l .com> on Tuesday August 19, 2014 @08:27PM (#47708351)

          Well, since the whole purpose of fusion reactors is to make commercially useful power, it is pretty clear that we do not have a working fusion reactor by any reasonable definition.

          Despite having spent billions (22 Billion USD on hot fusion research by US alone) on the problem so far, with billions yet to come, we do not have working fusion reactors. Even ITER will just be a prototype with no power generation at all. Cost to develop commercially, unknown but bound to be a lot of money.

          The US alone has also spent around 15 Billion developing Fast Breeder reactors, and has little to show for it. Other countries have similar experience.

          Estimated cost to develop commercial LFTR reactors seems to be in the range 3 - 20 Billion USD. A commercial LFTR prototype seems to be likely 1 billion USD by most observers.

          And you still have to build the reactors -- that won't be cheap either. Every known possible solution to replacing our energy infrastructure has a large economic cost, and significant to large environmental cost as well. Kind of the way large-scale engineering works.

          Yet the cost of doing nothing will be larger yet, at least eventually. Peak fossil fuel is coming sooner or later, even if you master shale and methane hydrates with high recovery rates and limited environmental impact. There are a lot of third-world people in this world that would gladly join the first-world lifestyle which puts a severe constraint on expanding fossil fuels usage to match the growth in demand.

          Personally, the combination of LFTR and renewable sources seems most likely to me to be commercially successful by 2050. Why, because the needed development seem to be within or nearly withing the capabilities of current engineering in both cases. Engineers are very happy to deliver good enough when the perfect seems unattainable.

      • by K. S. Kyosuke ( 729550 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2014 @08:56PM (#47708535)
        I find it hilarious that the supposed downside of having a future-proof source of energy is that on the unlikely occasion that a terrorist group gets their hand on plutonium, the resulting threat is going to be in the 50kt class instead of 20kt. Any larger entity most likely wouldn't have a problem with generating it for themselves anyway.
      • by rubycodez ( 864176 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2014 @10:19PM (#47708995)

        We do have a functioning fusion reactor. It has about four and a half billion years left worth of fuel. It pours more energy into the earth alone than a hundred civilizations could use, to say nothing of the untapped energy it pours elsewhere.

    • Yes, we were definitely confused. Back in the 80's, we were trying to do the fusion "cold".

      Instead, this guy suggests now that we do the fusion "quick" instead.

      I see an Ig Nobel coming for "quick" fusion.

  • Ready in 30 years (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Moof123 ( 1292134 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2014 @07:04PM (#47707767)

    As it always has, and likely always will be.

    • by bobbied ( 2522392 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2014 @07:39PM (#47707993)

      As it always has, and likely always will be.

      I don't think you are correct. Fusion seems to be quite doable to me. Right now we have some issues with materials and reactor designs, but the basic physics are in place and understood. I think we are closer than 30 years myself.

      Of all the things we spend money on, the national ignition facility seems to be one of the best scientific investments we can make and IMHO we should redouble our investments in similar research equipment.

    • by rossdee ( 243626 )

      We have had a working fusion reactor for over 5 billion years, and it should keep going for a few billion more.

    • I have been hearing that fusion is about 30 years away since I first heard about fusion power 32 years ago. So, it was funny to read TFA and see the date of when it might be available as 30-odd years away.

    • by NoKaOi ( 1415755 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2014 @10:50PM (#47709149)

      Perhaps if Fusion is the answer, then the question is "What should we be spending money on developing?"

      Which makes more sense:
      1. Spend a trillion or so dollars (it's been about $400Billion so far, and rising) on the F-35, which won't be viable for a long time but has already been making a few rich people richer. Money comes from taxpayers, and it's the ultra-wealthy who directly benefit from the contracts who get richer. In reality our actual military power is unchanged.

      2. Spend that money instead on R&D for fusion (spend a bit of it on battery research too for electric cars/trucks). The US saves $380Billion per year on oil imports. The economy and thus quality of life for everyone improves. The rich still get richer because manufacturing and transportation costs have been reduced. F-16's, F-18's, etc and UAV's continue to give us military superiority.

    • by jo_ham ( 604554 ) <joham999@gmai[ ]om ['l.c' in gap]> on Tuesday August 19, 2014 @10:58PM (#47709197) []

      Pretty much covers it, even with the speculative forecasting. The money put into it is equivalent to throwing the spare change you have in your car's ashtray toward a new car fund every year.

  • by sphealey ( 2855 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2014 @07:04PM (#47707771)

    Did I miss the part where the human race had a miraculous breakthrough in fusion technology? Even setting aside the expected issues with neutron radiation (sorry, no Mr. Fusion Home Energy Kit) there isn't any fusion technology today that is even close to breakeven on an experimental basis. As for commercial operations...

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      What you've missed about fusion technology could fill a journal. Maybe even more than one.
      • by sphealey ( 2855 )

        " If JET can reach break-even point, there’s a very good chance that the massive ITER reactor currently being built in France will be able to obtain the holy grail of everlasting green power generation: self-sustaining fusion.

        Dozens and dozens of journal summaries with that miraculous word 'if'


        • by jo_ham ( 604554 )

          They never ran JET above Q = 1.0 because they were doing other experiments with it (mainly relating to material research on what to make the walls out of that don't become brittle due to neutron flux over time) but the data that was collected was conclusive enough that they felt confident that they could if they wanted to.

          As it stands, they reached the point where the time and energy is better spent on the ITER experiment as the next stage of the research.

          Of course, the funding is still tiny trickle compare

      • by Jeremi ( 14640 )

        What you don't know about fusion
        Could fill a shelf of books
        You are the type of man who looks
        For new miraculous advances
        But overestimates the chances
        Of breaking-even on the power flow
        You only have to open up your mouth to show
        What you don't know

    • Did I miss the part where the human race had a miraculous breakthrough in fusion technology?

      Maybe not miraculous breakthroughs, but we've been getting better at directly utilising our only currently usable fusion reactor.

      Then again it is ultimately responsible for nearly all our other energy sources too.

    • Did I miss the part where the human race had a miraculous breakthrough in fusion technology?

      Does it matter? Fusion is still nuclear power, so even if we had a working reactor right now we couldn't use it.

  • The answer is magnets. Lots and lots of magnets.

  • Fusion power is roughly 20 years away from being viable...and has been for the last 40 years LOL.

    Seriously, I'll start worrying about proliferation risks when a commercially viable fusion reactor DESIGN is created. Building one -- assuming it's ever viable to begin with -- would take years, which is plenty of time to address proliferation concerns before it came online.

    • That pretty much sums it up. There is no reason to have any expectation fusion will be viable in our lifetimes, and its not clear what we would really learn from ITER that would change that prospectus.
    • by Lennie ( 16154 )

      I'm starting to think it would be easier to solve the energy storage problem than get a working fusion power.

      Because it looks like solar is on a similar exponential improvement cycle as Moore's law: []

    • by Animats ( 122034 )

      Fusion power is roughly 20 years away from being viable...and has been for the last 40 years LOL.

      Longer than that. Fusion power has been hyped since the 1950s. From the article:

      Nuclear fusion could come into play as soon as 2050

      Heard that one before.

      Fusion power has some real problems. After half a century of trying, nobody has a long-running sustained fusion reactor, even an experimental one. The whole "inertial fusion" thing turned out to be a cover for bomb research. There's a lot of skepticism about whether ITER will do anything useful. It's not clear that a fusion reactor will be cost-effective even with a near-zero fuel cost. (Fission reactors

      • by jo_ham ( 604554 )

        Of course, it's extremely hard to do it when the funding is so small.

        That's why it's eternally 20 years away. It's remarkable what we've actually learned despite the issue of funding it with pocket change for 40 years.

    • That's the ITER's goal. Construction has started.

      Seriously, we may be 20 years out yet, but I don't think you have a full grasp on where we really are on this. We have a design and are working the details of the materials and understanding how the materials will react to the neutron flux created by the reaction. There are still valid questions about how viable this design will be, but it's fairly certain that it will work and produce more energy than it takes to get the reaction going.

    • by Alioth ( 221270 )

      No. Fusion power is roughly $80bn of research away. The problem is the funding has been so meagre that we will never actually reach the goal at current rates of funding. If $80bn sounds a lot, it's not - it's only 0.11 Iraq Wars. We saw fit to spend around $750bn (at a highly conservative estimate - that's the US DOD's own estimate) on bombing Iraq, but we don't see fit to spend just more than 1/10th of that amount on freeing ourselves from dependence on that entire region forever.

  • by erice ( 13380 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2014 @07:26PM (#47707907) Homepage

    Fusion reactors capable of producing net power are big, or seem to be being as we haven't actually built one yet.

    However, if you just want to produce tritium for a boosted fission bomb, you don't need to generate net power. A farnsworth fusor [] will do and they are small and inconspicuous.

    As for deuterium: Deuterium is produced for industrial, scientific and military purposes, by starting with ordinary water—a small fraction of which is naturally-occurring heavy water—and then separating out the heavy water by the Girdler sulfide process, distillation, or other methods. []

    So, no point in securing your fusion reactor because the bad guys don't have any real motivation to break in. At least, not to steal anything.

    • by delt0r ( 999393 )
      Replying to this and undoing mods. But man this rubbish has got to stop. A fansworth fusor can at most fuse 10^9 atoms per second. 1 gram of T is .5x10^23. You would need to run it for 15000 years!
  • Other interesting and scientifically sound approaches are limping along on pitiful drips of venture money e.g. General Fusion [].

    And while some public money goes into Polywell research [], it's produced on a dime when compared to ITER.

    Don't mean to knock the work that's done to advance the Tokamak design, but it shouldn't be the only game in town.

  • Step 1: Collect hydrogen
    Step 2: ?
    Step 3: Profit!

  • I'd really appreciate if somebody with deeper fusion knowledge could take a look at this paper: http://www.aneutronicfusion.or... []
    It's possible that it's wrong, but if true, it would mean that tokamak fusion is fundamentally impossible (which would suck for ITER). The paper is by a bunch of alternative fusion research approach guys, so it's possible they're not objective here (not cold fusion, that's bunk).
  • by slew ( 2918 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2014 @07:52PM (#47708051)

    If it were only just getting a few grams of tritium, it isn't that hard to do. On the scale of a few grams you can just get something like this baby [] and hide it in a commercial seawater desalinization plant to get a few grams after a bit of time (and energy)...

    Of course that isn't the most economical way to do it. I think a common military-industrial method today is to put lithium control rods into an experimental-sized fission reactor and collect the tritium gas that comes off... Still no fusion necessary...

  • by PPH ( 736903 )

    the small amount of "booster" elements (tritium and deuterium) found in fusion power could provide would-be proliferators what they need to boost the yield of fission bombs

    The primary issue of proliferation is getting the bomb grade uranium in the first place. Fission power by itself doesn't lead to weapons proliferation so long as enrichment processes are restricted to producing only 'reactor grade' fuel. Given a source of weapons grade material, the availability of deuterium/tritium boosters aren't going to make a damned bit of difference to rogue states trying to build bombs. Crappy, low yield bombs will suit their purposes just fine.

  • So badly misguided (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <> on Tuesday August 19, 2014 @08:20PM (#47708299) Homepage

    That has to be one of the most misguided ideas I've ever seen...

    Worry about using deuterium and tritium being used to boost the output of a fission weapon is like worrying about whether a heavily armed maniac's getaway car can do 120mph rather than 115mph. The basic problem isn't the speed of the get away car. If a proliferator can get their hands on sufficient U235 or Pu in the first place, they're 99.99996% of the way towards their goal - the extra .00003 provided by the availability of deuterium and tritium is all but meaningless because when it comes to proliferators it's the mere fact that they have a weapon in the first place that's the problem. That they can now build two or more, or increase the yield of a single weapon simply doesn't count for much when even a low kiloton range weapon is sufficient for their needs. (Which is deterrence generally, or failing that attacks against non military area targets. They aren't trying to crack open Cheyenne Mountain.)

  • Fusion isn't developed to the point where it's viable yet. It's currently short-duration and net-energy negative at the moment.

    Second, trying to get to fusion with existing fossil fuel plants will just kill the planet that much faster. DUMB!

    There ARE relatively clean and safe options for fission power. And in the long run, we're better off transitioning base load power to fission plants, eliminating coal, oil and NG now, then chasing fusion while not poisoning the planet.

    Is there a possibility of somethi

  • Boosting a fission bomb entails injecting tritium-deuterium gas into the center of a plutonium core implosion design before detonation. It boost the yield 2x to 2.5x. If an entity can build a reactor to create plutonium then it can create hydrogen isotopes. It would be easier for a clandestine terrorist group to figure out how to steal enough enriched uranium and build a gun bomb then steal enough plutonium to make an implosion bomb. Enriched uranium is safe to handle and figuring out a gun design easier to

  • We have a unlimited supply of energy which will last millions of years. Yet, we cant be bothered to pull our fingers out of our arse and make it really happen.

    Fusion is a great bit of fun years down the line if it works, but we need to think of now.
    Fix now, make solar plants on our planet or in space, then let the scientists play with other methods.

    Either way, energy companies really dont care about the future. All they care for is profits and now. We are going to be stuck in this era for a very long time,

Things are not as simple as they seems at first. - Edward Thorp