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Nuclear Fusion ITER: Can man really tame the sun?

The fire that is the sun has been burning for billions of years. If it were made out of carbon or oil, then its fuel would have been used up long ago. The magic word for this tremendous energy source is "nuclear fusion" and could also solve our energy worries. But does nuclear fusion actually work on the Earth? And is it then as clean and safe as experts purport?



This nuclear fusion in the test facility Z1 at the Sandia National Laboratories supplied, for one billionth of a second, 60-times the electricity output of all power plants on Earth. The electric flashes of light quiver over a water surface area.
Picture by R. Montoya/Sandia National Laboratory

The story of David and Goliath demonstrates the theory well: One doesn't have to particularly big, to be able to carry a lot. And so physicians have known for more than 60 years that the powers that can unleash minuscule atoms are gigantic in comparison to the energy that we otherwise deal with in this "large" world that we see.

Nuclear fission, whereby very large atoms (Uranium, Plutonium) are split and in the process yield tremendous amounts of energy, was advertised as a "blessing for mankind" in the 50s. The risk of accidents and the strong radioactive waste, that remains dangerous for humans and animals for thousands of years, are still today happily swept under the carpet. Especially, if it is again a question, as it is nowadays, of pushing through the construction of new nuclear power plants in Europe. Austria has thankfully not got itself into this dilemma and has been able to achieve this with its large hydropower reserves. Germany however depends on wind power in its flat, northern states. And in coastal countries such as Norway, they are already installing by way of trial water propellers, where there is tidal movement.

A human is this small in comparison to the French fusion reactor ITER
Picture by ITER

Many experts believe however that the increasing energy requirements of the world will become too high in the next 100, even if we continue to save energy and build just as many economic power plants, in order to use renewable energy. The quality of life in Asia and Africa is improving, and even if they do not reach our European level, the energy demand will explode.

The hope of solving these problems through nuclear fusion is worth an incredible 10 billion euros to the EU, the USA, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea. With this money for a short time the first nuclear fusion research reactor is being developed in French Provence, on the romantic river of Verdon. "ITER" is meant to demonstrate, whether it is possible to tame the sun’s energy source on the Earth: two special atom variants (Deuterium und Tritium) from the smallest element, Hydrogen, are assembled together like a mini-puzzle, with the help of temperatures of millions of degrees, to form the next biggest element, Helium. Lots of energy and one piece of the puzzle (a neutron) are left over, which will be reinserted in the next round of the "puzzle".

This "game" has been happening without obstruction for billions of years in the sun. Through the immense pressure in its centre, the sun only requires a temperature of 15 million degrees for nuclear fusion. "On Earth", according to Prof. Harald Weber, from the Managing Board of the Atomic Institute at the Vienna University of Technology, in an interview, "we do not have this same pressure. Therefore the researchers must use different ruses to create a temperature of 150 million degrees." These tricks work (see photo), but they use up so much energy, that nuclear fusion has until now cost more than it brings in.

In the vacuum ring, two grams of hydrogen rotate as electro conductive plasma, that was heated to 150 million degrees with the help of non-contact microwaves
Picture by ITER

Nevertheless, a great deal of hope rests on the development of this technique, because the raw materials for it come cheaply from abundantly available sea water and from the mineral Lithium, that is just as widespread. Moreover, as nuclear fusion does not elapse autonomously, unlike nuclear fission, accidents such as that of Chernobyl should be impossible. The waste product is admittedly, next to valuable Helium, very small amounts in comparison to normal nuclear power plants of radioactive material that are "already" harmless after around 100 years. If researchers ever get nuclear fusion under control like the sun, then supposedly no radiation whatsoever would remain.

With "Böhler Uddeholm" and "Plansee" two Austrian high-tech firms are incidentally getting in on the development of ITER. The former has designed a steel alloy for the reactors heat exchanger that allows only very little radiation to be generated. The latter is a worldwide front-runner in the treatment of complicated heat-resistant metals such as Wolfram.

In around 50 years time the first commercial fusion power plant should generate energy. By then we will hopefully know whether nuclear fusion really is as clean and safe as nuclear fission was reported to be before Sellafield and Chernobyl. Such a false estimation must never be allowed to happen again.


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© A report by Tobias Micke (12-03-06) – Contact