The world's biggest ever nuclear fusion reactor is about to begin construction in the hills of Provence. But with persistent doubts over fusion's capacity to generate energy efficiently and a raft of engineering conundrums, is this really money well spent?by Fred Pearce / July 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
They call themselves “fusion gypsies”—scientists who have travelled the world, moving from one nuclear reactor to the next, living the dream that some day, somewhere, they can re-create the reactions that take place in the heart of the stars to generate huge amounts of cheap, clean electricity for the world.
Their goal is nuclear power, but not as we know it. This is fusion and not fission. Fission involves mining, processing and irradiating vast amounts of uranium, and leaving behind an even larger legacy of radioactive waste with half-lives stretching into the next ice age. Whereas, say the fusion gypsies, a small vanload of fuel supplied to a fusion power station could supply the electricity needs of a city of 1m people for a year, and leave behind only paltry amounts of radioactive waste that will decay to nothing within a century.
Fission reactors split atoms to make power; fusion reactors force the elemental particles of the universe together till they fuse, releasing energy in the process. Fusion powers the sun, the gypsies say, and one day it could power the world’s electricity grids too.
Fusion research got going in the 1950s. The first fusion gypsies are approaching retirement. But scientific progress has been slow and funding sporadic. They have yet to see a watt of power delivered to any grid anywhere. But earlier this year, after more than a decade in the doldrums, the gypsies had their biggest boost, when governments representing most of the world’s population decided to invest $10bn in trying to make the dream come true.
This summer, the fusion gypsies are reassembling in the wooded hills of Provence in southern France, where a new machine is to be built. Britons, Australians, Russians, Americans, Germans, Chinese, Japanese Czechs and many others are united now in a last stand to prove to the world they were right all along. John How, a bearded, sandalled Brit was the pioneer. He bought himself a farmhouse a couple of years ago in Provence in anticipation of just this moment. Now he can settle down at last, he told me, after a career stretching from Australia to Germany, France and Britain. “It’s now or never for fusion power,” he said.