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A Star is born

Photo credit: JET

Having recently enthused about novel searches for cheap, endless and thoroughly green energy, lo and behold The Independent (@SteveAConnor, 27 April 2013) has just headlined a phenomenal development that might eclipse these others altogether: nuclear fusion. On the quiet, relatively speaking, an international consortium – including the Russians – has been developing (in like manner to the CERN collaboration and the International Space Station) a huge experimental reactor project in Provence in the south of France, which – contrary to all the world’s current nuclear fission plants – promises endless, non-environmentally hazardous and safe energy. The international nuclear fusion project known as Iter (meaning ‘the way’ or ‘the journey’ in Latin) will be designed in such a way that a Fukushima-like accident will be impossible, apparently – for any disturbance from ideal conditions and the reaction will stop. And a runaway nuclear reaction and a core meltdown are simply not possible, according to a leading spokesperson on the project. The Iter experimental reactor will attempt to fuse together the light atoms of hydrogen isotopes and, in the process, to liberate virtually unlimited supplies of clean, safe and sustainable energy. The project is based on a proven Russian ‘tokamak’ design which has already been copied and tested experimentally at Culham in the UK only it will be 10 times the size of Culham and produce temperatures well over 300 million C – many times hotter than the centre of the Sun! Unlike conventional nuclear-fission power plants, however, fusion reactors do not produce high-level radioactive waste, cannot be used for military purposes and essentially burn non-toxic fuel derived from water. My reaction to this is guarded optimism and general support, but with some serious qualms or misgivings, which mainly centre on its safety really. As Steve Connor readily admits it has had to be built on 493 seismic bearings – giant concrete and rubber plinths – set into the reactor’s deep foundations to protect against possible earthquakes! (my emphasis). Equally, nowhere in the article is there any discussion of the potential security risks from terrorists – groups of which, in the future, might be able to fly into one of these plants or lob an improvised missile into one. What on earth would be the consequences of ‘blowing up’ something already hotter than the Sun, I would like to know? Finally, at an estimated cost of £13 billion to date for just one large-scale experimental reactor (always likely to be exceeded, as is usually the way in these mega-projects) how many solar arrays and other known, safe and proven green energy sources could we have instead do you think?

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