The New Atomic Age: Nuclear Fusion And Beyond

Authored by Gary Norman via,

The energy market is undoubtedly in a state of flux. The current power play between the U.S., OPEC and Russia is symptomatic of the changing geopolitical and economic dynamics of the entire market, U.S. tight oil seems set to completely upset the apple cart, and rapid technological advances are putting hitherto unattainable reserves within our reach. These are just a few of the factors that are currently calling to question everything we know about the market, but perhaps the biggest paradigm shift is still on the horizon - the shift from fossil fuels to clean energy.

When we think of clean energy we usually discuss wind, solar, hydro and geothermal.

Hydro and geothermal are extremely good sources of reliable energy, but they are of course location specific, meaning you either have access to it or you don’t.

Another type of clean energy that has enormous potential is wave, or ocean energy. However, as of writing, this potential is yet to be cost effectively harnessed. Although we are making great strides in this field, we can hardly include it as an energy game changer until we see much more substantial progress.

That leaves us with solar and wind energy. Solar can be split into several types, most notably photovoltaic solar energy and solar hot water. Aside from issues with efficiency, wind and solar share a common problem - availability. We can only generate power when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, and that means that we cannot rely on them as a primary power source. Efficiency is constantly being improved in both areas, and breakthroughs in energy storage mean that both systems are on their way to usurping the dominance of fossil fuels. That day is still a long way off, so for now at least, it seems fossil fuels are in complete control.

But what about atomic power? What happened to the promise of clean, inexpensive and abundant energy that so many households in the 50s were seduced by?

While some may argue that nuclear fission is vastly cleaner than the burning of fossil fuels, incidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima are still very fresh in our minds. Indeed it is Fukushima that led to a dramatic shift in German energy policy which has set them on a path to completely phase out its nuclear reactors by 2022. Germany is certainly not alone in this decision, and with phasing out being the rule rather than the exception, we appear to be at the end of the era of atomic power.

This is where another player steps in - nuclear fusion. Nuclear fission generates energy by the splitting of large and unstable isotopes (atoms with the same number of protons but different number of neutrons) into smaller ones, which in turn go on to create a chain reaction. Fusion occurs when 2 light isotopes are combined to create a single heavier isotope, and a much vaster amount of energy. The major disadvantages of fission are the byproduct of radioactive waste, and the potential for the failure of containment of the chain reaction, such as happened in Chernobyl.

The reason it has taken us so long to turn to fusion is the extremely high temperatures and pressures involved. In order to successfully create a fusion reactor we need to heat and pressurize plasma to equal those found on the surface of the sun. Perhaps surprisingly, it is not achieving this heat that is the challenge, it is sustaining it.

Now it seems that feat is within our grasp. Scientists from 35 nations are currently building the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter) in Southern France. This vast and extremely complex undertaking is currently at around 50 percent completion, putting the team on course for their initial firing, when they will generate ‘first plasma’. This plasma will reach 150,000,000?C, which is ten times hotter than the sun, and then be contained in giant magnets that are cooled to -269?C. Should this test be successful, the team anticipate that we could see our first fusion reactors coming online by 2040.

Director general of ITER, Dr Bernard Bigot talked with no uncertainty about fusion being a viable energy source that will replace fossil fuels, going on to say that “[p]roviding clean, abundant, safe, economic energy will be a miracle for our planet.” This may sound very familiar to those that were sold on the idea of nuclear fission, but we will soon see whether the new atomic age can deliver where the previous one failed.


Perimetr FireBrander Mon, 03/12/2018 - 17:48 Permalink

Contrary to widely held opinion, renewable energy sources are quite sufficient to provide ample and reliable electricity for the United States.

For instance, the wind energy potential of Midwestern and Rocky Mountain states is 2 1/2 times the entire electricity production of the United States. Utah's neighbor, Wyoming, has almost as much wind energy potential as all 104 U.S. nuclear power plants combined. Solar energy is even more plentiful. The sunshine falling on rooftops and parking lots alone can provide much or most of the electricity requirements of the United States. Utah also has geothermal resources it can tap.

Wind energy is already competitive with or more economical than nuclear energy — about 8 cents per kilowatt hour in very good areas. A recent independent assessment by the Keystone Center, which included industry representatives, estimated nuclear costs at 8 to 11 cents. Intermittency is not a significant issue until very high levels of penetration. For instance, a 2006 study prepared for the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission found that an increase of just over 2 percent in operating reserves would be sufficient to underpin a 25 percent renewable energy standard supplied by wind.


In reply to by FireBrander

FireBrander Perimetr Mon, 03/12/2018 - 18:06 Permalink

The year is 1717:

>83 years until the invention of the battery.

>120 years until the invention of the telegraph.

>155 years until the liquid-fueled internal combustion engine.

>213 years until the Jet Engine.

>228 years until the microwave oven.

>279 years until the first Teraflop Computer.

>300 years until Hilary Clinton runs for President and is defeated by a Homophobic, Misogynistic, Narcissistic, Womanizing, Racist, Right-Wing-Nutjob, Anti-Immigrant, Low IQ, Dangerous, Pussy-Grabbin, Reality TV show host.

....all well worth the wait...


In reply to by Perimetr

DownWithYogaPants Synoia Mon, 03/12/2018 - 23:22 Permalink

Running tally of rongness in this arty

  • Petroleum is pretty clean any more.  So is coal.
  • Hydro is by no means steady.  It is spikey especially with smaller installations. You get one big spike after a rain then nothing.
  • Tidal power will slow the rotation of the Earth: Join "Terrans Against Rotational Decay" to help fight this.
  • Fusion will still take forever in spite of the fact ITER might be energy positive.
  • Wind is just too fucking dilute.


In reply to by Synoia

booboo Perimetr Mon, 03/12/2018 - 18:55 Permalink

"For instance, the wind energy potential of Midwestern and Rocky Mountain states is 2 1/2 times the entire electricity production of the United States."

so much bullshit so little time, for starters, define "the wind energy potential" From Missouri to North Dakota, Ohio to Colorado, with a Wind Turbine ever 21,000 sq ft.

Did you ask the migratory birds about this?


In reply to by Perimetr

BrownCoat Perimetr Mon, 03/12/2018 - 19:54 Permalink

"renewable energy sources are quite sufficient to provide ample and reliable electricity for the United States."

Last time I checked, everyone in my neighborhood received energy bills from "the grid." Clear evidence that your statement is hogwash. You were using present tense instead of future tense.

Obviously, you are still sold on the promises of "renewable energy." Progress is slow and renewable energy never seems to achieve what is expected of it. I wish your statement were true, but it is a lie. Keep dreaming.  And keep your idiotic statements to yourself.

In reply to by Perimetr

TheRedScourge Perimetr Mon, 03/12/2018 - 20:03 Permalink

The problem is wind power stops working when it is extremely hot or extremely cold out, and those times are when you need power the most. Solar is less useless in that regard, however you need to have a lot of redundant solar panels crossing many time zones in long countries like Russia or China to take full advantage of it.

In reply to by Perimetr

Kafir Goyim MusicIsYou Mon, 03/12/2018 - 18:07 Permalink

The first fission pile was put together in a week or so, on the floor of a gymnasium.  From there (1942) to atomic bombs (1945) was only a few years.  

Based on how easy fission was, we were cocky with fusion, and thought it would be just as easy.  That was 75 years ago, and we're still not there, but it always seems to be just around the corner.  

The first attempt was a donut shaped hollow tube, but the plasma migrated from the center to the outer wall as it traveled around the donut.  So they made the figure-8 shape, so the plasma would slosh from being near one outer wall, to being near the other outer wall, with the opposing bends.  But that still didn't contain the plasma, so they went to extremely high-tolerance machining of complex shapes that were hugely time-consuming and expensive to machine to spec, but again, they couldn't keep the plasma in a tight enough containment to achieve fusion.  So they started adding electromagnets at various points, to help further contain the plasma.  But those magnets required cooling, so that now, cryofluid needed plumbed in around the magnets.  Then they had to add control logic to pulse the magnets at the right time, and more cooling, etc., etc., etc.  

The problem just keeps growing hair.  The ITER is not some great advancement in theory.  It's just another design in the 70 year string of designs.  Only now, it has grown so fucking much hair, that it now takes the resources of multiple countries and thousands of man years to build the next attempt.

Now, let's imagine they succeed and the damn thing actually creates more energy than they put into it.  Now what?  Build 10,000 of them around the world?  Given it's complexity, even "free energy" won't amortize away the cost of the thing.  Especially when you factor in that eventually, these things have soaked up enough neutrons that they become brittle, and the whole damn thing needs to be replaced.  Oh yeah, and those neutrons that made it brittle in the first place, also made it unsafe to be near, so you still have nuclear waste to deal with, only now, it's big piles of radioactive precision tolerance metal tubes and electronics instead of some used uranium rods and contaminated cooling water.

This ITER beast is just a money suck.  Even if it works, it's too complicated to be used as a model for power plants around the world.  

In reply to by MusicIsYou

mkkby MusicIsYou Mon, 03/12/2018 - 18:38 Permalink

It takes super cooled magnets at minus 269 degrees to contain 150 million degree plasma.  Duh, WTF professor!!!

No way this ever works.  Not in 2040.  Not in 2140.  You can't keep the reactor super cooled and make heat to boil water at the same time.  It doesn't take a physics professor to understand this.  It doesn't take an 8 YO to recognize a financial scam when he sees one.

In reply to by MusicIsYou

AGuy MusicIsYou Mon, 03/12/2018 - 18:51 Permalink

"but they're too arrogant to figure that part out. I get the sense there's going to be a huge nuclear accident in France. It's that the cold vacuum around the sun can't possibly fail and it maintains itself without fail."

Nope. The Fusion process in the Sun drastically differs from ITER, ITER use extremely low pressure plasma. The Sun used extreme pressure. There would never be enough fuel (deutrium and/or tritium) to cause a nuclear explosion. There is only enough energy to damage the reactor from operating.

That said, ITER will never work. it was deemed flawed more than a decade ago, before construction began. But there is a lot of money and jobs created so it was green lighted. Its also obsolete because ITER is designed on low perfomance Superconductors, newer stronger super conductors have been discovered which would allow a very compact reactor could be built (about the size of an SUV instead of a warehouse size ITER) and cost less than $30M USD.

In reply to by MusicIsYou

Automatic Choke andrewp111 Mon, 03/12/2018 - 22:18 Permalink

I worked in fusion (tandem mirrors and tokamaks) for several years after grad school.   It was a lot of fun for a young bright-eyed freshly-minted Ph.D., but it didn't take long for the realization to sink in that the big laboratory politics were standing in the way of real progress.   The labs are strongly motivated to get the biggest slice of the fusion budget, at the expense of the other labs.   This is not an incentive that leads towards a working technology that can be handed off to the utilities.   I left in disgust after a number of years, and never regretted leaving. 

In reply to by andrewp111