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Fusion Reactor Still in Works

  • George Putic

All today’s nuclear power plants make energy by thge splitting of uranium atoms -- which creates a lot of useful heat but also a lot of dangerous and deadly nuclear waste. The opposite process -- fusion -- also creates heat but with hardly any pesky radiation. The problem is that fusion is way more difficult to achieve. Scientists from 35 nations, including United States, Russia and China, are painstakingly trying to solve the problem -- to create technology that could power the world for thousands of years.

Scientists have long known that fusing atoms of two isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium, releases huge amounts of energy and very little radiation. But doing so requires the kind of heat and pressure found in our sun, though focused on a much, much smaller point, -- about the size of a person's smaller pocket change.

Modern technology says it is very difficult but not impossible to achieve. Powerful lasers would provide pressure and heat while huge magnets would keep the little sun levitating in the middle of a special chamber.

Fusion, It is projected, will yield up to 10 times more energy than it uses.

Started in 1985, a project in Southern France called ITER is slowly plodding along with plans for a working fusion reactor. It's been plagued by politics, and by organizational and funding difficulties.

But its new director general, French physicist and chemist Dr. Bernard Bigot, said the reactor is finally on its way to being built.

“For example the first delivery of what we call the cryostat piece is coming from India, okay. In the U.S., General Atomics has been able for example to deliver the first set of the central solenoid,” said Bigot.

The Congressional committee that approves U.S. participation in the project has seesawed on its support. In 1998 it withdrew from the project, only to rejoin the effort in 2005 and then drastically reduce the funding in 2008. Bigot came to the U.S. to try to persuade it to stay on.

“The U.S. is now wondering if it is worth to move on, okay, forward with project for the next coming years or maybe to step down. And so it was quite important to show them that despite the fact they just have the sharing of 9%, okay, project is moving on and it’s worth for them to stay in,” said Bigot.

Bigot added that if the new schedule is endorsed by seven core members, including the U.S., China and Russia, the assembly of the reactor could be finished by 2025, with first experiments starting in 2028.

Ultimately the reactor will cost billions of dollars to build, but if it works, the results will be literally priceless.