The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

29 June 2005

Nucularity ensues

I hadn't made up my mind yet about the new International Thermal Energy Reactor, a $12-billion fusion reactor to be built at Cadarache, northwest of Marseilles. The theoretical advantages of fusion are considerable: the energy production is prodigious — pound for pound, about 10 million times more efficient than fossil fuels — and waste products are less hazardous than those produced by contemporary fission reactors. Still, the ITER is only a precursor to commercial fusion-power production, which is at least a decade or two away, maybe more.

It was Greenpeace, though, who finally pushed me off the fence:

"Pursuing nuclear fusion and the ITER project is madness," said Bridget Woodman of Greenpeace. "Nuclear fusion has all the problems of nuclear power, including producing nuclear waste and the risks of a nuclear accident. Why is Europe backing a bad energy option, with no prospect of operation in the near future, when alternative, environmentally acceptable options for electricity generation exist now? Renewable energy has massive potential, yet the EU continues to plough billions of euros in research and development grants into nuclear fusion."

In France, where the ITER will be located, nuclear reactors currently produce more than 75 percent of the country's electrical power. And France isn't exactly teeming with vacant locations where one could locate massive wind farms of the sort Greenpeace envisions.

Given the dichotomy for which Greenpeace argues — you can have fusion, or you can have renewables, but you can't have both — I'm inclined to think more favorably of the ITER, if only because I tend to believe that we're going to need every kilowatt we can get in the years to come. We can have both, and I think we will have both.

Posted at 9:10 AM to Family Joules

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I think the ability to control fusion reactions would be a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, we would be able to produce energy efficiently from plentiful resources.

On the other, we'd be like heroin addicts with an infinite supply of cheap opium. Sort of like we are now with oil; only worse.

Posted by: MikeH at 10:10 AM on 29 June 2005

Point taken, but I don't think that energy consumption per se is such a bad thing; consumption is causing us grief these days because of high costs and, in the case of fossil fuels, the possibility of some form of climate change. Assuming we could get cheap energy with few drawbacks, which of course has yet to be demonstrated, I don't see that there's such a tremendous downside, except for the handful of ascetics who object to anything that actually might make life a little easier, especially if it's not immediately available for less than cost in places like Chad.

Posted by: CGHill at 10:54 AM on 29 June 2005