So the past few years, being a scientific type, I have been fascinated by our attempts to achieve fusion. Unlike fission which we have already mastered, fusion seems to elude us, or rather, sustainable “energy-out” fusion seems to elude us. Cold fusion has bombed, sonoluminescence seems to be a possibility, Tokamak reactors rarely get more energy out, but now we’re trying something different.
The National Ignition Facility will focus 192 lasers on a Deuterium-Tritium pellet to compress it to 1000 grams per cubic centimetre to attain “ignition” (fusion). Fascinating stuff eh? Also, going to cost you an arm and a leg, current costs are at $4-5B, intended to be competed by the mid 2010s (so you can imagine what the costs will overrun to by then).
What are the upsides to fusion? Well for one – no radioactive waste. If it IS self-sustainable, there is very little energy input required apart from the initial “ignition”. The fuel? Well it’s not exactly rare, deuterium and tritium are easy enough to extract from sea water. The downsides? Well for one, 192 lasers and the sheer cost of this setup. But remember, this is a prototype. If it DOES work, they’ll probably find easier ways as they progress, just like with fission power.
Security risks? No more than any other power generation facility. Perhaps a little more security to protect the chamber and a way is needed to quench the reaction but other than that, no. As mentioned, there is no radioactive waste so there is no need to protect it, or have huge cooling pools for control rods, or disposal/burial facilities to rid ourselves of any waste. The other risk? Well the pressures and temperatures will be greater than that at the centre of the sun, that might be a little bit of a risk.
So is this all part of Bush’s doctrine to find clean power? No. He had nothing to do with this. This was started long before him and more than anything seems to be an extension of the nuclear industry in general. They have always been interested in fusion anyway, master one discipline and try to master similar ones …
Is this better than wind power, or wave power? Well in terms of sheer energy generation yes. In terms of getting energy NOW, no. You could put up wind farms quickly, and we know they work. They be an eyesore but hey, what would you rather have – a bit of wasteland dotted with windmills, or tons of nuclear waste, or tons of SO2 spewed into the air? Easy choice for me. But honestly I think with our technical innovation and genius we should be able to figure out fusion/sonoluminescence if we put enough resources into it. Wind/Wave/Solar is good but they don’t generate near what we need.