June 28, 2005

Nuclear project could solve energy woes–scientist

By Patricia Reaney

LONDON (Reuters) - If scientists succeed in building anexperimental nuclear fusion reactor and making it work it couldsolve the world's energy problems for the next 1,000 years ormore, a leading scientist said on Tuesday.

After months of wrangling, France defeated a bid from Japanand signed a deal to build the 10-billion-euro ($12 billion)experimental reactor at Cadarache in the south of the country.

Ian Fells, of the Royal Academy of Engineering in Britainand an expert on energy conversion, described the ITER(International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) projectbacked by China, the EU, Japan, Russia, South Korea and theUnited States as a huge physics experiment.

It is one which has enormous potential and could lead tothe building of a prototype power station in about 30 yearstime.

"If we can really make this work, there will be enoughelectricity to last the world for the next 1,000 to 2,000years. So it is really quite important but quite difficult todo it," Fells said in an interview.

In terms of the scientific and engineering difficultyinvolved, he compared it to landing a man on the moon.

"I give it a 50-50 chance of success but the engineering isvery difficult," said Fells.

ITER would have an advantage over current nuclear reactorsbecause it would be cleaner. It would not rely on enricheduranium fuel and it would not produce plutonium, which is aconcern from a terrorism point of view.

"The technology of this is the science of the hydrogenbomb," Fells said. "You take a couple of hydrogen atoms and yousqueeze them together, you fuse them together, and they turninto an atom of helium and produce a great burp of energy."

"This is turning mass into energy as with Einstein'scelebrated equation E=MC2 (energy = mass times the speed oflight squared)."

Scientists know it could work because they know thehydrogen bomb works. But the problem they face is trying to doit in a controlled manner so the heat can be used to generateelectricity.

ITER seeks to mimic the way the sun produces energy,potentially providing an inexhaustible source of low-costenergy using seawater as fuel.

The hydrogen atom used is deuterium which is a stableisotope of hydrogen.

"The oceans are absolutely stuffed full of it," said Fells.

Although ITER would be cleaner than current nuclearreactors it does pose some problems.

"In the course of the reaction it produces a lot ofneutrons and they get into the actual fabric of the machine andover years it becomes radioactive, so there is still a problemof decommissioning," said Fells.

But he added that the potential for the technology, if itcan be made to work, is so great it is really worthwhileputting in a large effort to see if it can succeed.