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Understanding Fusion

The Merits of Fusion

Today, the European Union imports more than 50% of its energy, mostly in the form of oil and gas, from outside the Union. The European energy bill amounts to a negative trade balance of 240 billion Euros every year. The EU Member States consume more than 1 725 million tonnes of oil every year at a cost of 500 billion Euros. By 2015, it is expected that European energy demand will grow to 1 900 million tonnes.

Many of the regions of the world that supply our energy are geographically remote and some may be politically unstable. With current trends, it is predicted that by 2030 the EU will depend on imported energy for 70% of its total needs.

Over the next 50 years, the global demand for energy may double in countries such as China and India, where they would need increasing amounts of power for their growing economies and their standards of living. For a world critically dependent on energy, maintaining a reliable and secure supply is essential.

Europe needs to develop a wide sustainable energy mix. According to the Eurobarometer, 82% of Europeans acknowledge that the way they consume and produce energy has a negative impact on climate. At the same time, 50% perceive climate change as one the most serious problems our world faces and call for immediate action. In this respect, European citizens tend to agree in their majority that the EU has to take the lead in this particular field of decision-making in order to decrease Europe’s energy dependency through investment into alternative sustainable fuels. So how does fusion fit with the above concerns and why is it an attractive source of energy? Fusion presents the following advantages:

  • abundant fuel

    The basic fusion fuels from which deuterium and tritium are extracted and generated are water and lithium. 70% of the earth's surface is covered by water and 30% of the earth's surface is covered by rock. There is enough deuterium for millions of years, and easily mined lithium for several hundreds of years. Deuterium can be found everywhere on Earth. There are around 0.033 grams of deuterium in every litre of water. We all carry lithium around: it is a component of batteries in mobile phones and laptops. It is also plentiful and readily extractable. If used to fuel a fusion power station, the lithium in one laptop battery, complemented with half a bath of water, would produce the same amount of electricity as burning 40 tonnes of coal. Natural reserves of tritium do not exist on Earth, but it can be made easily from lithium. In fact, tritium can be made using the high-energy neutron released from the fusion reaction and offers the possibility of making tritium in situ in a fusion reactor. The neutron is absorbed by the lithium to produce tritium.

  • very low global impact on the environment – no CO2 greenhouse gas emissions

    A 1 000-megawatt electric fusion power plant would consume around 100 kg of deuterium and three tonnes of natural lithium in a year whilst generating 7 billion kilowatt-hour. To generate the same amount of electricity, a coal-fired power plant would need around 1.5 million tonnes of coal. Our use of fossil fuels produces pollutants, including nitrous oxides and carbon dioxide. In particular, the increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to burning fossil fuels are a significant contributor to global warming. Continued and increasing use of fossil fuels, with the consequent increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emissions, could have a profound effect on local climates. Energy consumption results in 78% of EU greenhouse gas emissions.

  • power stations would be inherently safe, with no possibility of “meltdown” or “runaway reactions”

    A fusion reactor is like a gas burner with all the fuel injected being ‘burnt’ in the fusion reaction. The density of fuel in the reaction chamber will be very low at around 1 gram of deuterium/tritium fuel in a volume of 1 000 cubic metres. Any malfunction will cool the plasma and stop the reactions – a runaway situation is impossible. The fusion fuels, deuterium and lithium, and the helium produced by the reactions, are not radioactive. Tritium is radioactive but decays quite quickly (a half-life of 12.6 years) producing a low-energy electron (beta decay). However, the tritium will be produced and used within the fusion reactor and appropriate safety features will be incorporated into any plant design to avoid its release. Due to its experimental character, ITER is not planned to be self sufficient in tritium, but will use tritium produced in fission reactors.

  • day-to-day-operation of a fusion power station would not require the transport of radioactive materials

  • no long-lasting radioactive waste to create a burden on future generations

    The neutrons produced during the fusion reaction will interact with materials close to the reactor. In future fusion power plants, careful choice of materials around the hot plasma will ensure that no long-term legacy of radioactive waste is produced by fusion power. A careful choice of the materials for these components will allow them to be released from regulatory control and possibly recycled about 100 years after the power plant stops operating. In the case of ITER, the structural material will be conventional steels as used in nuclear technology and a limited amount of radioactive waste will be generated.

  • no requirement for evacuation of neighbouring populations