Fall 1999 Update
Fusion program still off track
Since publication of our article, “Fusion Research with a Future” (Issues, Summer 1997), the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Fusion Energy Science (OFES) program has undergone some change. Congress has mandated U.S. withdrawal from the $10-billion-plus International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) tokamak project; the program has been broadened to include a significant basic science element; and the program has and is undergoing a number of reviews. One review by a Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) subcommittee recommends major changes in fusion program management but does not mention the critical change tht we recommended of connecting the fusion program to its eventual marketplace.
Our experience and that of so many others is that one cannot do high-probability-of-success applied R & D without a close connection with end-users and an understanding of the marketplace, including alternative technologies as they exist today and are likely to evolve. The fusion program has never had serious connections with the electric utilities, nor does the fusion program have a real understanding of the commercial electric power generation marketplace.
A closer look at the current OFES budget allocation and plans indicates that although the United States has abandoned ITER, not much else has really changed. The primary OFES program focus is still on deuterium-tritium (DT) fusion in toroidal (donut-shaped) plasma confinement systems. DT fusion produces copious quantities of neutrons, which induce large amounts of radioactivity. Although it can be argued that radioactivity from fusion is less noxious than that from fission, it is not clear that the public would make that distinction.
If at some future date a U.S. electric power generating entity were willing to build a plant using technology that produces radioactivity, it could chose the fission option, which is a well-developed, commercial technology. For radioactive fusion to supplant fission, it will have to be significantly better, many would say on the order of 20 percent better in cost. The inherent nature of DT fusion will always require a physically large facility with expensive surrounding structures, resulting in high capital costs. It’s simple geometry. An inherently large, complex DT fusion “firebox” will never come close to the cost of a relatively compact, simple fission firebox. Our experience with the design of ITER illustrated that reality.
Thus, the fusion research program has to identify and develop different approaches, ones that have a chance of being attractive in the commercial marketplace and that will probably be based on low- or zero-neutron-generating fuel cycles. Thankfully, fusion fuel cycles that do not involve neutron emissions exist, but they will likely involve different regimes of plasma physics than are currently being pursued. Unfortunately, DOE and its researchers are still a long way from making the program changes necessary to move in that direction.