A New Focus on Fusion Energy

By Nancy Spannaus

July 27, 2019—While we in the United States struggle to save our nuclear plants (Fortunately, Ohio legislators just saved two of them for a while), international attention is appropriately shifting toward the next crucial generation of power production, thermonuclear fusion energy. Fusion development represents the kind of scientific and technological breakthrough that used to characterize the American System of Economics, both at home and in collaboration with other nations.[1]

Today the initiative has necessarily shifted toward international cooperation. The focal point is the ITER project underway in Southern France, which aims to build a prototype fusion reactor. ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) was established by China, the EU, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States in 2007, and is working toward a 2025 date for plasma ignition, which will replicate the sun’s action in creating energy. Thirty-five nations are contributing scientific manpower and components to the project.

A New Focus on Fusion Energy

Base of the ITER Tokamak, delivered by India this month.

This month, the massive cryostat base (see photo), which will house the Tokamak, magnetic-pulse fusion reactor, arrived in sections from India, where it was fabricated, and is being installed. Progress has been steady, despite constant threats of insufficient funding by the United States, in particular.

But clearly the ground-breaking work on this project is not center stage internationally, and political leadership toward promoting the construction of viable fusion-powered reactors (which will be fueled by seawater, helium-3, or other superabundant resources, and represent a new plateau in “clean energy”), has been sorely lacking. The time-frame has been and is much too slow, constantly hindered by both political and economic obstacles.

In this context, I want to feature an exception to this process: the recent appeal by Russian President Vladimir Putin for expanded international cooperation on developing fusion energy. Putin addressed the Second Global Manufacturing and Industrialization Summit (GMIS), held July 9 in the industrial city of Yekaterinburg, east of the Ural Mountains. GMIS is a joint initiative of the United Arab Emirates and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). His appeal was included in that address.

Scientific endeavors such as ITER and space exploration have been two of the few areas which have escaped the trap of escalating confrontation between the United States and Russia over recent years.  It is to be hoped that this appeal by President Putin can be heard in the spirit of international cooperation for the “common aims of mankind” which even die-hard anti-communists such as Dr. Edward Teller espoused back in the Reagan era.

 A Proposal for International Collaboration on Fusion

The excerpts below are based on the full text, published on the Kremlin website at http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/60961.

It is not yet clear how to combine long-term development and production build-up while preserving nature and high living standards. How do we prevent the digital technological revolution, robotization and the general move to the “internet of things” from ending in a deadlock without resources and with environmental damage? … Regrettably, instead of discussing essential matters on the climatic and environmental agenda we often see overt populism, false allegations and, I dare say, obscurantism.

Things have reached the point of appeals to give up progress, doing which would make it possible, at best, to perpetuate the situation and create local well-being for a select few. At the same time, millions of people will have to settle for what they have today or, it would be more honest to say, what they don’t have today: access to clean water, food, education and other fruits of civilization.

Naturally, such outdated approaches are a road to nowhere. They can only lead to new conflicts. …

Absolutist, blind faith in simple, showy but ineffective solutions can lead to problems, … such as the total rejection of nuclear or hydrocarbon energy, for example, in favor of exclusive reliance on existing alternative energy sources. Will it be comfortable to live on a planet covered with stockades of wind turbines and several layers of solar batteries? …

Everybody knows that wind power is good, but is anyone thinking about the birds? How many birds die? [Windmills] vibrate so much that worms crawl out of the ground. This is not a joke, really, it is a serious side-effect of these modern modes of energy generation. …

I believe that in order to secure cleaner air, water and food, which also means a better quality of life and longevity for billions of people on our planet, we must offer radically new technologies and more efficient and environmentally friendly devices. Such super-efficient scientific, engineering and manufacturing solutions will help us establish a balance between the biosphere and the technosphere, as well as to minimize and better control the anthropogenic impact on nature, on the environment. This also includes so-called nature-like technologies that reproduce natural processes and systems according to the laws of nature.

National spheric torus experiment at Princeton University, a premier site for thermonuclear fusion research.

It may seem strange at first, but thermonuclear fusion energy, which in fact is similar to how heat and light are produced deep within our star, the Sun, is an example of such nature-like technologies. Potentially we can harness a colossal, inexhaustible, and safe source of energy. But we will only succeed in fusion power and other fundamental tasks if we establish broad international cooperation and interaction between government and business, and unite the efforts of researchers representing different scientific schools and areas—if technological development becomes truly global, and does not get split up, or held back by attempts to monopolize progress, limit access to education and put up new obstacles to the free exchange of knowledge and ideas.

By the way, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) serves as a prime example of open scientific and technological cooperation. Scientists are now planning to use it to achieve controlled thermonuclear fusion. Our country is actively participating in this project, and is now prepared to suggest using Russia’s scientific infrastructure for joint research, joint scientific investigation, for the international scientific teams working on nature-like and other breakthrough technologies, including unique mega-science installations.

With their help, scientists will be able to literally see nature’s processes of creation. I would like to note that such an installation has become an essential part of the interdisciplinary center for nature-like convergent technologies, in operation for more than a decade at one of Russia’s largest scientific centers, the Kurchatov Institute. …

For international research teams who want to work in Russia, and for hosting large-scale interdisciplinary projects and establishing international scientific clusters, we intend to come up with the most comfortable conditions and support mechanisms. …

To accomplish these goals, we intend to use the potential of our major partially government-owned companies. As you may know, I recently visited Italy and spoke to our partners; our colleagues there use partially government-owned enterprises. It might seem strange, but we are following the same direction—first, because this is an international task, and second, there exist state resources that we can use in key development areas. …

I believe that in this era of tectonic changes and, sadly, of increasing uncertainty, absolute values—that is, creating better living conditions and opportunities for unleashing human potential—must be a priority. Impressive technological development should serve this purpose. This is where great responsibility lies with us for the future of our nation and the world in general, and we definitely must work together. Friends, Russia is open to this kind of expansive and equitable cooperation.

[1] The United States made substantial progress toward fusion during the 1970s and 80s, and in 1980 Congress passed the Magnetic Fusion Energy Act, which mandated building a test reactor by 2000. The program was never funded.