The Promise Of Nuclear Fusion
KPBS Midday Edition Segments / July 28, 2020
It’s heroic stuff, nothing short of a revolution in energy production that could save the planet! Nuclear fusion holds the promise of endless clean, cheap energy … the big game-changer for climate change. But it’s all been a fantasy, till now.
Speaker 1: 00:00 It's heroic stuff, nothing short of a revolution in energy production that could save the planet. Nuclear fusion holds the promise of endless clean, cheap energy, the big game changer for climate change, but it's all been a fantasy till now. Joining me to discuss how the dream might become reality with a key involvement from a San Diego based company is Rob nickel, Leschi who covers energy for the San Diego union Tribune. Rob, welcome back to midday edition and to be back. Thanks, Mark. We'll start by explaining the theory behind nuclear fusion. What is it, how does it differ from nuclear fission? Which of course has done in power plants across the world, including the now defunct San a no free plant here?
Speaker 2: 00:40 Well, the infusion, basically what you're doing is you're splitting the nuclei of atoms infusion. You're fusing helium atoms, and it requires an incredibly, uh, ma a credible amount of heat. And, um, uh, you have to, um, by fusing those helium atoms, you go to 150 million degrees Celsius. And so that's one of the very interesting things about this story about nuclear fusion. And it's just these astronomical numbers that are surrounded or surrounding this very process. I mean, it's, it's not an exaggeration to talk about this. And one of the, when I've written about this in the past, one of the things that's brought up is you're basically creating a star on earth, uh, which is kind of mine
Speaker 1: 01:35 And no toxic waste left behind as we have with existing nuclear plants.
Speaker 2: 01:40 Yeah. That's one of the things about fusion that's one of its major pluses is that unlike vision, like we see the commercial plant, like at San Onofre nuclear generating station, all the fishing nuclear plants, they leave behind spent fuel rods, which then have to be you out to find a place to put them in a, some sort of repository that we haven't been able to find. But in fusion, you don't have that. There's no long lived nuclear waste trail behind it. And that's one of the, one of its major felony points. And the other major selling point is it produces basically an inexhaustible supply of energy. So if you're able to, and it's a big gift, but if you're able to make nuclear fusion viable, commercially viable, then you would have this energy source that would that's virtually unlimited and has very little or practically no nuclear waste trail behind it. So it's, it's almost too good to be true. And that's what these scientists are trying to do, um, with this latest project that is being constructed.
Speaker 1: 02:51 Yeah. Tell us about that project being launched in France today. What's the device that's being developed or being built there.
Speaker 2: 02:56 Yeah, it's called the eater project. I T E R and that's Latin for the way. And it's, um, it's basically been in existence since about the mid two thousands. And what they're doing is they're putting together this device and it's a very large device. It's in this, uh, area in Southern France. That's about 450 acres. And they're building this project where they're going to have this project that will, as we said earlier, try to find a way to find if, if there's a viable way to make nuclear fusion happen. Now it's very important to state that this very expensive project in Europe is not going to make a nuclear fusion power plant. It's just going to see if it becomes practical, even though nuclear fusion has been around since the 1950s, no research facility has been able to get a nuclear fusion reaction to last more than a few seconds. And the eater project, their plan is to have this go for a few hundreds of seconds, which they feel could be a leap to lead to. And that's what we want to emphasize. This could be either project, if it becomes successful, it could lead to a few years down the road, the construction of commercial nuclear fusion plant,
Speaker 1: 04:28 And you a report in the, uh, in your story today, it was a 10 year project for general Atomics workers in Poway. What exactly did they build? What's their part of this, uh, this project
Speaker 2: 04:38 Part of the eater project is this gigantic Tokamak, which is, uh, is basically this donut shaped, um, uh, chamber that creates a ionized plasma layer, a cloud that which you're able to, to generate these ionized particles and adrenaline Atomics. They've been building the very heart of this project at eater. It's called a central soul. I'd say it's it's. This is the central fill. And it is this incredibly powerful magnet and a general Atomics. They have built six modules, each of them, seven feet, tall, 14 feet wide, 250 pounds. They're going to ship them one by one to France. All six of these are going to be stacked on top of each other, into the heart of this eater project. It's going to be 59 feet high, this central solenoid. So that gives you an idea of the scale of this thing.
Speaker 1: 05:41 And what's this all costs. What's the eater project going to cause it's not true.
Speaker 2: 05:46 The original plan back when they came up with this idea and started this eater project was that the budget would come to about 6 billion euros, which works out to about 7 billion us dollars right now. And this project is just still four and a half years away from being completed. It's already at about 20 billion. And by the time everything gets done, it could be 10 times that original amount, that $6 billion Euro amount of money. So it is an expensive project, but that's really not that surprising when you consider that 35 nations are involved in this and you're talking about something that's well cutting edge technology, it's kind of an untreated.
Speaker 1: 06:34 And, uh, I think your story, uh, pointed out the U S a share that cost is about 9%. So if, if successful, could nuclear fusion plants come online fast enough to make a difference regarding climate.
Speaker 2: 06:47 The, whenever I've talked to the nuclear fusion people, they're always a little bit reticent, I think when they talk to journalists, because we're always asking very specific questions and maybe setting up expectations. Um, but the general feeling is that maybe within 50 years, you'd be able to get some nuclear fusion plants. If what eater does is successful, maybe within 50 years, you could have some applicable nuclear fusion commercial plant operational.
Speaker 1: 07:17 I'd been speaking with reporter, Rob Nikolsky of the San Diego union Tribune. Thanks very much, Rob. Thank you, Mark.
Speaker 3: 07:31 [inaudible].