American Security Project White Paper

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Posted by Rezwan Razani on Apr 02, 2012 at 02:04 PM
What do you think about this? Let us know in the comments below!

The American Security Project’s White Paper makes a compelling case for American leadership and action in fusion.

Download (pdf, 14 pages)

Fusion Energy: An Opportunity for American Leadership and Security

Reasons to Pursue Fusion

The White Paper points out that:

  • Electricity is the lifeblood of the American economy;
  • We have a choice between business as usual vs. American leadership in clean, sustainable energy production;
  • Renewables are great, but only fusion can meet the increasing need for baseline power.
  • During the last 30 years, there has been great progress toward achieving controlled fusion energy.

Top reasons given for immediate action (“apart from the obvious need for energy independence achieved from clean and inexhaustible sources,”) are American competitiveness and nuclear proliferation.

American Competitiveness

China has a major program in fusion based on the EAST superconducting tokamak and plans for breakeven machines. They have announced a fast-track goal of net-power demonstration facilities in the 2021-2040 time frame, and the enrollment 1,000 graduate students in fusion studies. In America there are barely 400.

South Korea has the superconducting KSTAR tokamak and has announced plans to supply power to their grid in the 2040s. Japan, with its JT60-SA, likewise intends to “lead the world.” The Europeans have ITER and an active public support organization.

By inaction, the United States will accept a position in the second tier; a customer, not a seller of fusion energy technology.

Proliferation

The second, and very strong, reason for rapid action is based on a recent analysis from both Lawrence Livermore and Princeton of the consequences of increasing dependence on traditional nuclear power on worldwide stocks of plutonium.

Increasing energy demand, and the relative cheapness of nuclear power, even compared to coal, will drive nations toward uranium and fission.

Experience shows that countries with such reactors will tend toward reprocessing fuel and purifying plutonium.

According to the report, a ten-year delay in commercialization of fusion power, from first implementation in the 2030s to the 2040s, would result in the additional world-wide availability of from 800,000 to 4,000,000 kilograms of plutonium by the year 2100. Just 8 Kg is enough to make a bomb.

“Leakage” of just one one-hundredth of one percent of this plutonium will create an unacceptable added risk of nuclear terrorism. The major implications for national security need no emphasis.

What will American Fusion Leadership Cost?

Without going into detail, the White Paper provides a ballpark budget for the resources required to achieve fusion leadership.

To achieve a fusion power demonstration of the kind described above would require a total investment of approximately $30-40 billion invested over a period of about 15 years.

This breaks out approximately as:

  1. $15 billion for an American magnetic pilot plant (“PILOT”) and Component Test Facility (CTF);
  2. $10 billion for Laser Inertial Fusion Energy (“LIFE”); and
  3. $10 billion for associated and necessary research and development activities.

In addition, the United States has a commitment of an additional $2.8 billion to support our small fraction of the ITER program.

In constant dollars, the above investment is less than one-third the cost of the Apollo program that put a man on the moon—a program that, it should be noted, once involved fully six percent of all the scientists and engineers in the country.

The sum is less than invested recently to maintain the viability of General Motors, and only about 10% of the cost of saving the nation’s banks. [Note:  See Billion Dollar Gram for more ways to put this cost in perspective]

It would be invested over a period of years, but would require a stable funding platform to enable rational planning and staff recruitment and development.

The white paper is of necessity brief.  It thus limits its description of fusion to two mainline approaches to fusion, Magnetic Fusion Energy (MFE) as exemplified by the Tokamak and Inertial Fusion Energy (IFE) as exemplified by Laser Inertial Fusion Energy (LIFE).  In the budget breakout above, item #1 corresponds to MFE work, Item #2 to IFE work. 

Item #3, the $10Bn for “associated and necessary research and development activities,” relates to MFE and IFE work, but there is also room for more.  A portion of this $10Bn is intended for fusion alternatives.  At present, the US budget for fusion alternatives is $11 Million (yes, million).  Alternatives have effectively been shut out of the fusion game.  Many have sought funding in the private sector. 

Support for Alternative Approaches to Fusion

The ASP White Paper does not explicitly mention alternatives.  It was through conversation with the authors that I was assured the $10Bn is designed to include alternatives.  The ASP paper also does not mention Aneutronic fusion (advanced fuel fusion).  It only describes the better known fusion of Deuterium and Tritium (DT fusion).  However, in the “Key Facts” on page two, we read the following:

The process [of fusion] is very different from a nuclear reactor, which splits large atoms to create energy but leaves long-lived radioactive byproduts.  Fusion combines small atoms together. In doing so, energy is released and the byproduct is simply helium gas.

This is true for aneutronic (advanced fuel fusion), which produces ionized helium gas (also known as alpha particles).  These positively charged particles are electricity directly, so you save on converting heat to electricity.  With DT fusion, the byproduct is helium gas and neutrons and the energy comes in the form of heat.  Ed Moses explains the capture of energy for an inertial system in minute 3:23 of this video.

Support for a Massively Parallel Approach to Fusion

The last part of the ASP white paper invokes a quote from the October 2007 FESAC report summary.  This quote highlights the importance of a massively parallel approach to fusion as well as permission to try (and fail at) many things on the road to ultimate fusion success:

“The main risk faced is delay in deployment of fusion energy due to unforeseen technical difficulties in carrying out the plan, to costs which make the first generation of fusion reactors economically uncompetitive or to insurmountable problems along the development path chosen. At some point delay is equivalent to failure, as government and industry conclude that no solution will be forthcoming.

That is, a program carried out so slowly and deliberately as to never make a wrong step may carry more risk than one which tries to move more boldly and accepts that it will make some mistakes and follow some blind paths. The principal strategy to mitigate risk is to implement a sufficiently broad program so that alternative approaches or technologies are available at each step” (p 202) [emphasis added].

Note, the risk of “insurmountable problems along the development path chosen” can be mitigated by choosing many development paths (a parallel approach).

While the subtext of this quote is clear, we would like fusion advocates to always include explicit description and support of underfunded alternatives.  If not officially stated, the alternatives are easily overlooked.  Historically, they have been decimated without fanfare.  We look forward to white papers specifically focused on the alternatives.

We note that broadening the scope and variety of the fusion program would reinforce the American exceptionalism theme.  American creativity may help us come up with routes to fusion that leap ahead of the present plan.  Investment in alternatives may help provide shortcuts that enable America to regain its edge.

We heartily concur with the overall theme of the ASP White Paper:

We have a clear choice now before us as a nation - leadership, or second-rate status.

 

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