Could Fusion Energy Provide a Safer Alternative to Nuclear Power?

"One way to help eliminate carbon emissions and thereby fight global warming may be to exploit fusion, the energy source of the sun and stars..." argues a new article in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (shared by Slashdot reader DanDrollette). Though fusion energy would involve controllng a "plasma" gas of positively charged nuclei and negatively charged electrons heated to 150 million degrees Celsius, progress is being made — and the upside could be tremendous: One major advantage of using fusion as an energy source is that its underlying physics precludes either a fuel meltdown — such as what happened at Three Mile Island and Fukushima Daichi — or a runaway reaction, such as at Chernobyl. Furthermore, the amount of radioactive material that could be released in an accident in a fusion power plant system is much less than in a fission reactor. Consequently, a fusion system has much less capability to damage itself, and any damage would have much less dangerous consequences. As a result, current concepts for fusion systems may not necessitate an evacuation plan beyond the site boundary. Another advantage of fusion is that neither the fuel nor its products create the very long-lived radioactive waste that fission does, which means that fusion does not require long-term, geological storage... When and how can fusion contribute to mitigating climate change? Private companies are in a hurry to develop fusion, and many say that they will be able to put commercial fusion power on the US electric grid in the early 2030s. The total private financing in this sector is impressive, at about $2 billion... After looking over the state of publicly and privately funded fusion research, the National Academies recommended that the United States embark upon a program to develop multiple preliminary designs for a fusion pilot plant by 2028, with the goal of putting a modest amount of net electricity on the U.S. electrical grid from a pilot plant starting sometime in the years between 2035 and 2040, use the pilot plant to study and develop technologies for fusion, and have a first-of-a-kind commercial fusion power plant operational by 2050. The United Kingdom has recently announced a plan to build a prototype fusion power plant by 2040. China has a plan to begin operation of a fusion engineering test reactor in the 2030s, while the European Union foresees operation of a demonstration fusion power plant in the 2050s... We must look beyond the 2035 timeframe to see how fusion can make a major contribution, and how it can complement renewables... [P]roviding low-carbon electricity in the world market, including later in the century, is of great importance for holding climate change at bay.

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