Guest post by Robert L. Hirsch, Ph.D. Senior Energy Advisor, Management Information Services, Inc.
Imagine you’re an electric utility executive with a strong background in a range of electric power generation technologies. As such, you understand the strengths and weaknesses of the various options, and you have some “scars” from dealing with the challenges associated with nuclear power. Like many in your industry, you hope for a new electric generation technology that will make life better for your company and your customers. Hope springs eternal!
Let’s assume that you’ve not paid much attention to fusion energy research and want to update your knowledge. You Google “fusion research” and start with an article in Issues in Science and Technology, a publication of the prestigious U.S. National Academies. The title of the article is “Fusion Research – Time to Set a New Path” by Dr. Robert L. Hirsch, an old hand in a number of energy technologies, who once headed the U.S. federal fusion research program and later served as a Vice President of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), an organization with a very high standing in the industry.
In his article Hirsch refers to a 1994 EPRI panel report that spelled out three major criteria for practical, acceptable fusion power. Those criteria were Economics, Regulatory Simplicity, and Public Acceptance. You agree with the criteria, but you would have liked to have seen “Environmental Attractiveness” explicitly stated. However, after a little thought you recognize that environmental attractiveness is in fact an element of each of the three EPRI criteria.
The Hirsch article tells you that worldwide fusion energy research is almost totally focused on a concept called the tokamak, a toroidal (donut) shaped system, which uses the deuterium-tritium (DT) fusion fuel cycle. You are reminded that the DT cycle is characterized by the copious emission of neutrons, which will result in the creation of large quantities of radioactivity, no matter what materials are used to build such a system. Opps! Managing large quantities of radioactive material raises a huge red flag with you, based on the experience with nuclear power plants. Not good!
Further along in your reading, you’re told that world fusion research programs have banded together to build a very large DT tokamak experiment that that will produce 500 megawatts of thermal energy. That machine, called ITER, is being built collaboratively in France. As an electric utility executive, you know that building utility-scale power plants is the only way to recognize and address the “real world” issues that are inevitable, so the ITER project sounds like an appropriate step. However, you are told that the cost of ITER has apparently escalated by roughly a factor of ten to over $50 billion and its initial operation has been significantly delayed beyond early target dates. Again, not good!
ITER represents the most realistic embodiment of ITER-Tokamak fusion power, so Hirsch uses it to extrapolate to how a DT ITER-Tokamak power plant might measure up to the EPRI Criteria. First, you are told that the projected capital cost of an ITER-Tokamak power plant core compared to the core of a PWR (Pressurized Water Nuclear Reactor) is inferior by roughly a factor of sixty! That comparison is astonishing to you because a factor of sixty in the cost of a power plant core has essentially no chance of being reduced to an acceptable cost! You almost stop reading, because what is being described is of no practical interest in the highly competitive electric power industry. Nevertheless, you read on.
Next comes Regulatory Simplicity, which will involve nuclear power regulators, who tend to be very cautious, as they should be. Again, ITER-Tokamak reactors appear to be seriously wanting, in part because of the massive amount of radioactivity that will be produced and in part because its massive superconducting magnets could suddenly go normal, resulting in an explosion of the magnitude of a World War II blockbuster bomb. Wow! The regulators will have fits with that situation and will surely demand a hemispheric containment building, which will be enormous and very costly, because of the huge size of these ITER-Tokamak reactors.
You really don’t need to read about Public Acceptance, because what you’ve already read tells you that the public is going to recoil in shock, when they wake up to what world fusion researchers are pursuing. Where are the engineers in this endeavor?
The article ends with some lessons learned from ITER-Tokamak research, which sound useful. It’s clear that fusion research is extremely complicated and has been difficult for outsiders to understand. You can’t help but feel that it’s tragic that fusion research had to go as far as the ITER-Tokamak before the almost certain commercial unacceptability of the concept became so clear.
So why are they still building ITER? Apparently fusion researchers “circled the wagons” and kept the realities of their preferred concept obscured or hidden. Also, responsible people must not have been paying attention. Clearly, U.S. Department of Energy management has not been doing its job of overseeing fusion research; if it had, the U.S. would not have participated in ITER. The media must not be paying attention either. When the truth regarding current fusion research is recognized, embarrassment will be widespread, not only involving fusion program management but also government managers and the Congress.
So at this point you wonder whether there is any hope for fusion power. Continuing your reading, you come across another article by Hirsch entitled “Revamping Fusion Research” in the Journal of Fusion Energy. What he does in that article is to open up fusion power opportunities to other fusion fuel cycles. Of particular interest is the proton-boron 11 (p-B11) fuel cycle, which apparently involves more difficult physics but produces no neutrons directly, thereby dramatically enhancing regulatory simplicity and public acceptance. Thankfully, a few privately funded projects in the U.S. are pursuing the p-B11 fuel cycle, which provides some hope for acceptable fusion power.
After your reading you ask yourself what you should do with your newfound understanding. As an electric utility executive, the first thing that comes to mind is to share and discuss your insights with your company colleagues. Second, you will ensure that that your company’s corporate planning does not include anything related to fusion power in its plans.
Next comes a dilemma. You could bring your new fusion insights to the attention of your company lobbyists or maybe NEI (Nuclear Energy Institute) or maybe EEI (Edison Electric Institute), any of which could bring the issue to the attention of responsible managers in the government. However, the result would likely result in an avalanche of fury, finger pointing, budget cutting, and ill will. But as a utility executive, you and your company have more immediate problems to worry about, and the downsides of speaking up on fusion, however noble and responsible, might be much bigger than any gain. So you let it drop. It’s someone else’s problem.
End Note: The foregoing is admittedly an unusual way to frame an awkward situation. While two of my recent fusion articles were highlighted, there is additional information and insights from others that supports the technical case against the current approach to fusion power. This author continues to have hope for practical fusion power, but it’s clear that a dramatic change in fusion research will be needed for that hope to have a chance of becoming something of commercial
The two articles Dr Hirsch refers to:
Dr. Robert L. Hirsch
Dr. Hirsch is a Senior Energy Advisor at MISI and a consultant in energy, technology, and management. Previously, he was a senior staff member at SAIC & RAND (energy analysis), Executive Advisor at Advanced Power Technologies, Inc. (environmental and defense R & D)), Vice President of the Electric Power Research Institute, Vice President and Manager of Research and Technical Services for Atlantic Richfield Co. (oil and gas exploration and production), Founder and CEO of APTI (commercial & Defense Department technologies), Manager of Exxon’s synthetic fuels research laboratory, Manager of Petroleum Exploratory Research at Exxon (refining R & D), Assistant Administrator of the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration responsible for renewables, fusion, geothermal and basic research (Presidential Appointment), and Director of fusion research at the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and ERDA.
He has served on advisory committees for Department of Energy programs and national laboratories, the General Accounting Office, the Office of Technology Assessment, the Gas Research Institute, and NASA. He holds 16 patents and has over 50 publications. He is past Chairman of the Board on Energy and Environmental Systems of the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academies, has served on a number of National Research Council committees and is a National Associate of the National Academies.