Fusion: Ten Times More Expensive Than Nuclear Power
The U.S. and world fusion energy research programs are developing something that no one will want or can afford. The stated goal of fusion energy research is to provide a new source of electric power based on nuclear fusion, the process that powers the sun and the stars. That has proven to be an extremely difficult task because the related physics is extremely difficult. In the 1970s, the Russian tokamak fusion configuration emerged as having great promise for creating and containing the extremely hot gas, known as plasma.
Physicists worldwide adopted the tokamak approach and worked mightily to understand what was going on in the associated hot plasma while scaling up tokamak experiments. The goal was to progress to a system large enough that more energy would be produced in a tokamak system than was required to heat the plasma. Over the past six decades, while substantial progress has been made, ever so slowly the promise of commercially viable fusion power from tokamaks has ebbed away. Some recognized the worsening commercial outlook, but most researchers simply continued to study and increase the size of their tokamak devices -- and to increase the size of their budgets.
At present, there are a number of large tokamak experiments worldwide. The largest such facility is the so-called ITER tokamak experiment, now under construction in France. ITER’s goal is to create a tokamak plasma that is so hot and long lived that it would produce ten times more energy than was used to heat the plasma. ITER was originally envisioned to cost roughly $5 billion, a level that might extrapolate to a reasonably priced tokamak fusion power plant.
However, reality slowly intervened, and the cost of ITER greatly escalated. ITER managers now contend that ITER’s cost is approximately $22 billion. This contention cannot be easily verified, because different parts of ITER are being built in different places around the world, and actual costs are difficult to estimate. The U.S. Department of Energy, which is supposed to be paying 9% of total ITER costs, has estimated that actual ITER costs are much higher, roughly $65 billion.
We calculated that even at a cost of $22 billion, the resulting cost of a power plant based on ITER would be approximately ten times the cost of a nuclear fission power plant, and nuclear fission power plants are considered to be too expensive for further adoption in the U.S. If the ITER cost $65 billion, the resulting cost of a power plant based on ITER would be nearly 30 times more expensive than the cost of a nuclear fission power plant. Thus, no matter how you calculate, ITER is clearly a “White Elephant!”
But the situation is even worse. There are four fusion fuel combinations that might be considered for a practical fusion power plant. The easiest -- but by no means easy -- involves the fusing of two isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium. Deuterium occurs as a small fraction of ordinary water, which is easily extracted. This implies that deuterium exists as an essentially infinite, very low-cost fuel. On the other hand, tritium does not exist in nature and decays radioactively. So, tritium must be produced.
The largest source of tritium in the world is heavy water nuclear reactors in Canada. The combination of very limited world production of tritium and its loss by radioactive decay means that world supplies of tritium are inherently limited. It has recently become clear that world supplies of tritium for larger fusion experiments are limited to the point that world supplies are inadequate for future fusion pilot plants, let alone commercial fusion reactors based on the deuterium-tritium fuel cycle. In other words, fusion researchers are developing a fusion concept for which there will not be enough fuel in the world to operate!
So fusion researchers are developing a fusion concept that stands no hope of being economically acceptable, running on a fuel that does not exist in adequate quantities. The situation sounds impossible. How could this happen? The answer is that the cost escalation happened so slowly that researchers failed to notice. Neither did program managers and those involved in program oversight. The tritium supply issue became known after researchers were very far along with expensive, new tokamak experiments.
In effect “The foxes were watching the chicken coop” because all world fusion oversight over the past 60+ years has been conducted by fusion researchers and sympathizers -- something we unfortunately witness in numerous government R&D programs. Practical electric power engineers, utility executives, and others who are not members of the fusion mafia have been excluded from fusion program evaluation. We recently suggested to the Secretary of Energy that she appoint a panel of non-fusion engineers and environmentalists to conduct the objective, independent evaluation we believe is necessary. The Secretary gave the request to the leader of the fusion program, who responded that the program is guided by two recent fusion panel determinations. Those panels consisted of fusion physicists and related researchers.
The situation is tragic. With so many people and institutions at risk of losing jobs and financial support, the “wagons have been circled,” and programs continue with excuses held in reserve. The waste is enormous. Talented people and large sums of money are being wasted. For example, the U.S. fusion research budget for the current fiscal year is over $600 million.
And that is not all. The ITER fusion experiment, which will soak up a large fraction of world radioactive tritium, will yield an enormous amount of radioactive waste. That volume has been estimated at roughly 30,000 tons. Researchers feel that is not a problem because the radioactive decay of that waste will occur in roughly 100 years, which is a much shorter time period than the decay of radioactive waste from fission reactors. So, the argument is that this rad waste is not so terrible. However, this is debatable.
Is there no hope for attractive fusion power? The answer is yes, because there are a number of other fusion fuel cycles that could be economically and environmentally attractive. The fuel for these cycles is in huge supply, but the physics is much more difficult. Some physicists shy away from even thinking about the related physics challenges. We will not know if one of these fuel cycles could prove viable unless we try. Right now, government support for these higher fuel cycles worldwide is trivial.
We continue to have hope for practical, acceptable, environmentally attractive fusion power. However, without sharp focus, capable management, and careful, independent oversight it will not happen. Change in fusion research will be jolting. It will also take considerable political courage.
Dr. Hirsch is a Senior Energy Advisor at MISI and a consultant in energy, technology, and management. His professional experience is in research, development, and commercial applications of energy technologies. He has done research and managed technology programs in oil and natural gas exploration and production, petroleum refining, synthetic fuels, fusion, fission, renewables, defense technologies, chemical analysis, and basic research. He has been actively involved in fusion research his entire professional career and during the 1970s headed the U.S. fusion program.
Dr. Bezdek has over 30 years’ experience in the energy, utility, environmental, and regulatory areas, serving in private industry, academia, and the Federal government, and is the founder and president of MISI – a Washington, D.C.-based economic, energy, and environmental research firm. His background includes energy R&D, technology, and markets; oil, coal, natural gas, hydrogen, renewable, hydro, and nuclear energy analyses; assessment of DOE energy programs; estimation of the costs and benefits of energy systems; economic analyses of environmental and energy technologies; energy forecasting; and creation, funding, and management of Federal government and private industry energy programs.