We have a great opportunity
Steven Cowley directs the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, CCFE, UK's leading fusion research centre. In a recent presentation on TED, a renowned online think-tank in the US, he stated that nuclear fusion is the only truly sustainable solution to the fuel crisis. In this week's issue of Newsline we ask the prominent physicist what remains to be done on the way to commercial fusion energy.
''I am a believer,'' says Steven Cowley. ''We can build ITER and we will make it work!''
In last week's Newsline we mentioned that MAST, the UK's sperical tokamak, received £30 million for its upgrade. So you must be a happy man, I guess?
Yes indeed, we are very happy about the upgrade of MAST, which will allow us to test some of the things that ITER will not test. Beyond that, we are hoping that in the 2020s, while ITER is going on, somebody—maybe the British—will build a component test facility to test some of the technologies that can't be tested on ITER. In order to do so we want to build a cheap, small, compact fusion source ...
Would that be a British or European project?
Well, MAST is part British and part European, because we're part of the EURATOM program. There is also great interest from the States in this kind of thing because the US feel that there is a nuclear side to fusion that needs more research. ITER will start that off with the Test Blanket Modules (TBM) which will be the first time that we will breed a little tritium to show that we can close the fuel cycle.
What would be the main issues of the component test facility?
It will take the fuel cycle to full power. ITER will only have one-third or even only one-quarter of the neutron flux of a full-scale reactor. In such a test facility we could test the components in real reactor conditions, right through their lifetime to eventual destruction. ITER won't do that, but ITER will show that you can make a lot of net energy, something a component test facility cannot do.
There are critical voices that say we will not be able to produce enough tritium to fuel future fusion reactors. What do you think?
The calculations and tests at Frascati show that we can make more tritium than we can consume, but the question is can we do it reliably day in and day out. That is, I think, the big test for fusion. But I am a believer and I believe that between now and the time we go to DT fusion we will have learned so much that the performance for ITER will be even better than we predict today.
Some people will be pleased to hear that.
Well, look at the track record. We now know how to make JET work better than ten years ago. There is a distinct possibility that next time we do DT operations in JET it will break its own records. By the time we get to ITER I think we will have learned to operate tokamaks better and more reliably in high performance regimes. ITER will reliably burn at high Q for long periods of time.
Once that is done, what are the main issues in achieving big industrial-scale fusion power?
I think there are two issues. First, we have to make scientific advances so that we get better performance out of what we have now, better materials for example. But probably the most important thing is to build a power plant, one that you turn on and that stays on for weeks producing power. It has to be that reliable. And here is the challenge: in ITER we have very complicated scientific instrument—not a power plant. How to translate that into a reliable engineering machine is the big challenge of fusion now. It is not clear that the walls inside a fusion reactor will survive for very long, therefore it requires a maintenance program and a maintenance scenario that is very easy, cheap and quick. One where you can go in and replace parts of the machine on the timescale of days not months. That's what will make fusion a commercial reality.
Will we see answers to these questions in DEMO?
DEMO will be a combination of smart science and engineering. Of course there is no guarantee that we have all the right answers yet. At this point we are focused on achieving fusion, at some point we have to be focused on achieving commercial reality. And that is a different question. When people look at the cost of ITER and say 'oh, that is expensive,' then you say yes, but it is not in our focus to produce something that is cheap, but rather to burn a plasma for the first time in history.
I love to read books on the history of physics. And there is one with a wonderful description of that very day in Chicago in 1942 when they finally got the first nuclear chain reaction going under Enrico Fermi. It must have been a defining moment for every body in that room, a defining moment in their life and for physics history. And I think the first burning plasmas on ITER will be like that.
I recently met some MEPs in Strasburg and told them that I am at the right age because when the DT shots happen on ITER in the late 2020s I will still be around. And I shall be be there the day ITER burns, I guarantee! That will be a historic moment in science and I will be sitting in the control room.
I can assure you that there are many people around here that surely don't want to miss that party.
I can understand. There are many people who have seen fusion come from something that was not a reality to something that is a reality.
You are speaking to many influential people like the MEPs you just mentioned. What is your perception? Is fusion perceived as a realistic option?
Only recently I participated in a meeting at Whitehall with people from the oil and the gas industry discussing the future energy supply. When one senior oil executive was asked about his vision 40 years ahead from now he said, on 40 years timescale I cannot see anything else but fusion. I can tell you I was very pleasantly shocked by that. We are talking about somebody who is a very senior executive in an oil company.
We in ITER Communication would be very interested to learn his name....
(laughs) Sorry, I am deliberately not giving you his name .... But to come back to the point, the numbers don't add up for most energy supplies beyond 40 to 50 years from now. They don't add up for fossil fuel and eventually they don't add up for fission unless we go to fast breeders, So there are very few options for the long-term future. For the next ten years there are lots of options, but they are all transition technologies that will take us from where we are now to sustainable options. One sustainable options is solar, but solar is only an option if we can lower costs considerably. And that would mean building solar power in the North African desert and shipping the electricity to Europe. The second option is fission with breeders. And fusion is the third option.
All three options need research. They can't be done without improvement of our knowledge. So the governments have to realize that we only have three options for the future and they all need research. We better start investing in all three, it is not a case of picking the best one. Because if you pick the wrong one you might not be ready by the time you need energy. And you don't want to end up explaining to your children 'you know we could have done that research 50 years ago but we couldn't afford it'.
That leads us to talk about money. In a recent interview you drew a comparison between the global energy market and the money spent on energy research ...
... which is peanuts! It is difficult to give an exact figure for the world energy market, whether it is 5 or 6 trillion dollars per year. The amount we are investing in government-funded energy research is about 0.2 percent of that sum,. A high-tech company would not survive if it didn't invest at least 50 times that in research. We are completely reliant on energy and yet 50 years into the future we don't yet have a solution for base load energy. That could mean a return to a very much reduced standard of living for everybody in the world. Our quality of life will very much depend on how much money we spend on energy research today.
If you were the CEO of this company, what would you tell your shareholders? That fusion is a good investment?
The point with fusion is that we will be doing it one day. The impediment to doing fusion is knowledge. And with time knowledge grows. We have got to a point now where we know how to do fusion—we have produced 16 MW on JET. It is clear that we are getting there, although we don't know how to do it commercially yet. When we do operate ITER we come close to industrial scale amounts of fusion (500 MW is the output of a small power station). By the time we move to DEMO we will have all the kinks ironed out.
Talking about time. If you had the power to decide on programs and the money to set them up, what needs to be done to push fusion forward?
You want fusion to be here in a few decades. You don't want to wait for a hundred years because we don't have a hundred years to spare. If we spent ten times as much as we spend today, we would make very fast progress. It would take a lot of planning to use ten to twenty billion euros effectively, but it could be done. If we are really serious about this we need to push forward as fast as possible. I was unhappy that we had to delay the start date of ITER, because we need to be relevant by the end of the 2030s. The world is going to need us.
Is there an option to get more money? How about the situation in the UK?
At the moment, as the UK is cutting back on research, we are very lucky that we have been spared. Even though it is going to be difficult we have new projects: the MAST Upgrade and the testing of the ITER-like wall on JET in the next few years. I believe that when JET restarts in 2011 it will be almost a new machine. It has more power, a new wall ... we can expect some pretty dramatic results.that will help prepare a full scale operation for ITER. So we have some great things going on.
Lately I was asked by a BBC journalist what I would do to push fusion forward if someone gave me a blank cheque? I replied that first of all I would put up parallel production lines for ITER—we need ITER as soon as we can get it. The step that ITER makes is the last crucial scientific step. Whatever you do that step has to be taken. But on top of that, you would have to solve some of the technology problems. You have to get to grips with what material the inner wall is going be made of and for that I would start thinking about making component test facilities to test materials in the right conditions. I would therefore build IFMIF today and not five years from now so that when ITER has done its scientific job and made that crucial step to burning plasma we are ready to put together a demo reactor immediately.
ITER in a way is a beautiful thing. All these countries have come together and said they wanted to do it together and that they believe in this. And we are going to do it together. We'll make it work. We have to make it work. It is a pretty exciting device when you think about it ...
Exciting for sure, but we'll still have to hold our breath to see it up and running.
I know, it takes a long time and it is very easy to get disheartened. But we have an incredible opportunity. Talking to politicians, my reading is that they understand how important this is. But they are pragmatists. If fusion is not going to deliver in the next two years it is not a high priority. But they do understand that we are one of the very few options for the future so they have to pursue fusion. That is very exciting. I dream about these superbudgets where they multiply the budget by ten times. But the reality is we do get a lot of money and we can do something with what we are being given. We can build ITER and we will make it work!
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