Sunday, August 21, 2005

THE NUCLEAR GRAIL - Financial Times

Financial Times, 30 June 2005

Like the old joke about Brazil, it has long been said of nuclear fusion thatit is the power of the future, and always will be. But the quip may now loseforce with international agreement this week to conduct the Iter nuclearfusion experiment in France. This concludes a long wrangle in which Franceand its European Union partners paid dear - half the overall €10bn (£6.6bn)cost - to get Japan to let Iter go to Provence. The road ahead, too, islong. Iter, standing for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactorand also Latin for "the way", will take a decade to build, and would requirea further demonstration reactor to prove its technology commercially.But the prize is great. Using fusion to combine atoms (instead of today'sfission technique that splits them), Iter would employ elements fromseawater that are far more widely available than uranium to generateelectricity and produce waste matter that is far less radioactive and forfar less long than fission byproducts. This could give fusion a crucialadvantage. The real uncracked problem of nuclear safety lies not in theoperation of reactors, which has greatly improved since the Three MileIsland and Chernobyl accidents of, respectively, 1979 and 1986, but in howto deal with long-life radioactive waste. For this reason, one temptingoption might be to let fission power generation wither away, while forgingahead with fusion research.This would be a mistake. Fusion research, which can already build onEuropean Union work done at Culham in Britain, does not directly hang onfurther improvements in fission technology. But any commercial exploitationof fusion will have to rely on nuclear engineering skills that are inalarming decline. These skills shortages are not only a problem in Britainand the US, which has not ordered a new nuclear power plant since the 1970s,but also in countries such as Germany, which is committed to phasing out itsexisting nuclear plants but whose likely next government evidently wants tokeep them running as long as is safe. It is not surprising that engineeringgraduates have shied away from a sector with such poor career prospects andreputation.This may be changing because of global warming. Most green groups stillrefuse to acknowledge that a carbon-free energy economy can only work ifnuclear power provides the steady base load of electricity that renewable,but intermittent sources of solar or wind power cannot. Some politicians,however, are beginning to see the light. In the US, for instance, SenatorsJohn McCain and Joe Lieberman, who have been pushing for federal controls onthe greenhouse gases that fossil fuels emit, are also talking of trying towrite pro-nuclear fiscal incentives into the energy bill currentlystruggling through Congress. The senators may be wrong about such subsidies- nuclear power must be economically viable on its own - but right aboutnuclear's general importance.


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