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Friday, March 25, 2011

Nuclear energy should evolve from fission to fusion sooner rather than later

Atomic energy technology evolution should remain a key cornerstone of American energy policy in the wake of the Japanese reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Evolution is the operative word, however. We need a "New Manhattan Project for Energy Independence" and there is a Virginia Congressman offering just such an innovative plan.

There is a very significant difference among nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, and nuclear fusion-fission hybrid reactors. Permit me very briefly to seek to differentiate the three energy technologies so we may better understand the options ahead.

Nuclear fission brought us the powerful atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and an American nuclear missile arsenal second to none in the world. The same fission nuclear energy has brought us disastrous partial or full atomic reactor core meltdowns at Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima in 2011. Peaceful nuclear fusion at 104 nuclear plants spread throughout the United States has brought us electricity for decades. Nuclear power will continue to serve us in the years ahead as a part of the American energy strategy.

Fission energy is an inherently dangerous way to generate large amounts of electricity. Fission leads to radioactive byproducts that are very nasty to the environment for hundreds of years and require expensive geological repositories, such as the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste planned for Nevada. Globally, we have balanced the health and environmental risks with the ravenous energy demand for fifty or so years, mostly with success. There is a much better way for atomic energy, however. We do not face a Hobson's choice.

Nuclear fusion is a cutting-edge energy technology yet to materialize on commercial-scale. Called a 'Star in a Jar' - scientists seek to replicate the energy of our sun on Earth. Nonetheless, nuclear engineers and atomic physicists have been working for years to create fusion reactors that will produce clean and relatively cheap electric power without any of the risks associated with bomb-grade plutonium, radioactive core meltdown or spent fuel rods. Post-modern fusion power will generate hot plasma contained in a magnetic bubble to turn steam turbines for electric power. Experts say that the technology is still years away from a successful commercial fusion power plant, yet we must be determined to perfect it. Fusion is the goldilocks of the energy grid and space propulsion without the harmful side effects associated with fission. We must build the demonstration plants to get there in the years ahead.

One of the key leaders of fusion energy technology presented to the Southwestern Virginia Technology Council's Energy Summit- 3 held in Wise in April 2010. Dr. George Miley, a distinguished Professor of Nuclear Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has pioneered an innovative approach generating useful energy from fusion. The award-winning professor now has former graduate students-turned-professionals working for fusion energy solutions. There are, nonetheless, fusion demonstrator efforts underway around the globe today.

Unlike the conventional fission reactor, the fusion-fission hybrid can consume almost all of the uranium fuel without enrichment or reprocessing thereby reducing the fuel cycle costs. This has the major advantage for non-proliferation of nuclear weapons production associated with enrichment and reprocessing technologies. The cost of reactor construction is more expensive than the traditional fission reactor, leading to the early evolution resistance. While only an interim step to pure fusion energy, the United States should lead with new fusion-fission hybrid reactors in the next decade as we press forward with fusion plasma reactors, as suggested by one insightful member of the Congress.

Virginia Congressman J. Randy Forbes, a conservative Chesapeake Republican, has introduced Congressional legislation, which may provide a pathway forward to energy independence in the next twenty years. His bill would nurture the promising nuclear fusion technology forward calling for a large-scale 300-megawatt fusion power plant as a part of a "New Manhattan Project for Energy Independence."

CNN and The Wall Street Journal have hailed the Forbes energy bill as one of the most innovative solutions for energy now before the Congress. The measure relies on innovation rather than taxation to pursue alternative energy. Two years ago, the New Manhattan Project for Energy Independence legislation was an alternative to the controversial cap-and-trade bill; the House, unfortunately, rejected the measure in 2009.

Congressman Forbes points out, "While we sit back and allow our gasoline prices to climb, nations like China are racing ahead in their efforts to achieve energy independence by seizing technological innovations and making marked progress in relatively unknown areas like fusion. The Chinese Academy of Science announced in December 2009 that it had begun a new round of controlled nuclear fusion experiments. Their success has already exceeded the progress of both the European Union and American nuclear experts, who recently reengaged in fusion research."

Nuclear fusion remains relatively unexplored in the United States and is a promising source of energy that can move the United States toward energy independence in the next two decades. The New Manhattan Project for Energy Independence is a means to harness the best in American creativity and ingenuity by creating a competitive environment for scientists and researchers to achieve nuclear fusion energy evolution. Full implementation of the Forbes fusion energy bill may catapult the United States into a worldwide energy producer and exporter again, in my judgment.

Congressman Forbes merits the attention of his Congressional colleagues in seeking to advance the cause of nuclear fusion in this session. It is clear that the Atomic Age has changed significantly with the meltdown of the Fukushima fission reactor cores in Japan. We need to embrace better fusion energy technology, as opposed to continuing with more fission reactors. The United States can lead the way in an evolution from radioactive fission to essentially harmless fusion over the next twenty years. H.R. 301 merits a Congressional hearing in the House Science, Space & Technology Committee's subcommittee on energy & environment and passage by the House.

A short-time colleague of mine while we served together in the Virginia House of Delegates in the late 1980's, it pleases me to see Congressman Randy Forbes leading where too few members of Congress are comfortable. Forbes would have our nation lead in advanced energy technologies through innovation, tax incentives, and a meaningful policy that will result in astounding energy evolution: fission to fusion energy production, sooner rather than later. Our national and global energy and economic future may depend upon elected officials and utility company leaders forging new energy policy like new fusion energy technologies.


Steve said...

Great piece, Jack. It is time to look forward, rather than running away from nuclear at this critical time in the world's need for energy.

Fusion powers the sun and it is the answer to the world's energy needs. I attach link from the National Ignition Facility's web page which gives a great overview.

Steve said...

Great piece, Jack. It is time to look forward, rather than running away from nuclear at this critical time in the world's need for energy.

Fusion powers the sun and it is the answer to the world's energy needs. I attach link from the National Ignition Facility's web page which gives a great overview.