European Union energy ministers have chosen France as the candidate site for a key international research project that could revolutionize mankind's energy supplies. It is nuclear fusion, a form of atomic energy, which -- unlike the fission process used in present-day nuclear reactors -- does not result in large amounts of radioactive pollutants.
Prague, 27 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Popular belief in the wonders of science is perhaps less than it once was, given the realization that technology alone cannot seem to solve mankind's problems.
No field of science illustrates this better than the nuclear power industry. As the early commercial nuclear reactors for electricity came on stream in the 1950s, enthusiasm was boundless, the belief widespread that man had at last found the source of limitless energy. He would forever be free from the tyranny of uncertain energy supplies through his genius in controlling nuclear fission.
That vision ignored the fact, however, that nuclear fission produces large quantities of highly radioactive waste, which remain dangerous to life for unimaginable lengths of time. As a result of this fact, and of the cost of fission reactors, the nuclear power industry is now in decline. Fifty years on, the dream has faded.
Enter a new dream of nuclear power. This time, nuclear fusion, not fission, holds mankind's hopes for boundless energy. Its supporters describe it as potential source of safe, secure, and environmentally friendly energy. As Jaap van der Laan, a senior scientist at the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands, puts it.
"[Fusion's] advantages over fission are a number -- in particular, we don't deal with radioactive and high-density fuel, so essentially the fuel we have is being burned completely. And the amount of fuel in the reactor is very, very small. It is in the grams range rather than in the tons range," van der Laan said.
Fusion is the energy source that powers the sun and the stars. In fusion, tremendous amounts of energy are released when the nuclei of lighter elements, such as hydrogen, fuse to form heavier elements. But it takes extremely high temperatures -- around 100 million degrees Celsius -- to accomplish the reaction.
So far, replicating the process on Earth exists only in theory. It has not yet been achieved in practical terms.
The lure of this prize has tempted the governments of leading world powers to set up a joint project called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). Members include the European Union, the United States, Canada, Japan, China, and Russia.
The group is expected to decide next month on the site where the first experimental fusion reactor will be built. EU energy ministers yesterday selected the European candidate site for the project -- Cadarache in southern France. Experts say it beat out a bid by Vandellos in eastern Spain because it has better infrastructure.
Cadarache will compete for selection as the final site against candidates in Canada and Japan. Van der Laan says Europe is considered to have the best chance:
"Europe, in particular, has elaborated throughout all the different [EU] member states a very consistent program which gives a wider and broader support for the next step [in fusion research] than probably Japan and others," van der Laan said.
Japan today said it remains confident of winning the race. The Canadian bid is reported to be experiencing funding problems.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the nuclear fusion project, however. Jan van de Putte is a nuclear expert with the Greenpeace environmental organization: "It is very costly research. We are talking about 10 billion euros ($11.9 billion), and it is very doubtful if ever nuclear fusion will be able to commercially deliver electricity to electricity consumers. And it will take at least till 2050 or 2060 before the first fusion reactor will be able to deliver electricity."
Van de Putte says a better road into the future is provided by the simpler, alternative and renewable forms of energy, like wind and solar power:
"This 10 billion euros [is to be spent] only on a research reactor. We are not talking about electricity production, but only a research reactor. We could already produce a massive amount of electricity in the near future if we invest in already proven technology, which is renewable," van de Putte said.
Other estimates put the cost of the project at 5.3 billion euros. In any event, van de Putte sees the fusion project merely as a way for the nuclear industry to draw massive funds into the continuation of its research.
And he says the tendency for the advanced countries to continue to rely on highly advanced and expensive technology acts to the disadvantage of the poorer countries of the globe, which is where the main growth in energy use is set to occur in the next half-century.