All entries for Thursday 26 January 2006
January 26, 2006
Nuclear fusion and the energy debate
I was reading through bits of the BBC News site this morning as I do these days and found a short (video) report in the Sci-Tech section about the government launching a 3-month public debate about our future energy supplies. The general impression I get is that the government wants to re-invest in the nuclear power program (nuclear fission). I was slightly disconcerted that the BBC News' coverage and also the DTIs report on the subject contains no information about nuclear fusion. I've noticed in general that the vast majority of people have no idea what nuclear fusion is, which is slightly worrying considering the fact that the energy supplies and CO2 emissions debates have become important matters in the past few years.
The DTIs energy review does make one single reference to it:
The following pages provide an overview of those technologies that have a proven capability to generate significant amounts of electricity. It does not include technologies that are still in the early stages of Research and Development, such as nuclear fusion.
While it is a valid point that commerical production of electricity by nuclear fusion is a long way off, I wouldn't say it's "in the early stages of R&D". It's been in R&D since before 1950 and construction is about to begin on the latest large-scale experimental reactor . While I understand that it isn't going to be a direct factor anytime soon and cannot be entirely relied upon to save us from our energy problems, it will almost certainly have a huge impact on descisions made about the long term of energy production for the entire planet so people should at least be aware of it.
The currently known uranium fuel supplies for nuclear fission will only last about 50 years (DTI report) which leads to the reasonable argument that we perhaps shouldn't be building a host of new fission power plants when in half a centuary we will have the same problem all over again and have to start looking to more sustainable sources. Why not just build hundreds of wind turbines and such right now? Well, if fusion will be viable in 50 years time (ok, that's a bit of a stretch, 80 is more likely), in order to take over from fission, using all of our uranium supplies doesn't seem such bad idea. In fact, using all the uranium is surely a good idea since it will become increasing more sensible and economically preferable to use uranium for power rather than for nuclear weapons. In fact the DTI report does suggest that the fuels in old plants and bombs could increase the fission fuel supplies by up to 30 years.
So why does no one know anything about fusion? It's possible that I'm just mistaken and that they really do but just arn't interested. It's a shame really because energy and emmissions are likely to be two of our generation's greatest problems and nuclear fusion, given enough funding and help will be an almost certain and complete end to both for the imaginable future.