Select Committee on Trade and Industry Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by Greenpeace


  Greenpeace believes that nuclear fusion is an expensive distraction from the real agenda of providing environmentally benign, reliable energy supply. There can be no guarantee that fusion would ever actually generate power commercially, and if it did it would quite likely also generate unmanageable nuclear waste.


  There is significant variation in opinion on when fusion energy could become commercially viable. Sober estimates have said about 50 years, [1]although in the context of a recent prospective new funding round in Europe this was reduced to "within 20 to 30 years." [2]However, this estimate assumes that a number of technical obstacles will be overcome. This is after sustained investment and research has already taken place in the technology for at least the last four decades. Even the International Atomic Energy Authority, in its newsletters looking at the future of energy supply, never mentions fusion as a prospect.

  The technical issues illustrate some of the complexities:

    —  Fuel mix; currently the best prospect of generating fusion energy is believed to be from a fuel mix of deuterium and tritium. However the majority of the energy released from such a fuel mix is in the form of high energy neutrons which degrade structural components of the reactor and produce radioisotopes. Note that a deuterium-tritium (D-T) fuel mixture produces four times as many high energy neutrons per kilowatt-hour of energy produced than nuclear fission. [3]Avoiding this heavy loss of energy through high energy neutrons requires the use of so-called second and third generation fuels eg deuterium plus Helium-3, or Helium-3 reacting with itself. However these fuels require temperatures four to five times higher than a D-T mix. One of the main problems for controlled nuclear fusion has been the controlled generation, maintenance and containment of plasmas at high temperature (approx 50 million K). Note that for commercial scale operation using second and third generation fuels would require a source of Helium-3 not available on Earth. The only suggestion for this source to our knowledge has been a mining operation on the moon. [4]

    —  Materials for confinement; a heavy neutron bombardment as outlined above with a D-T fuel mix inevitably generates radioisotopes and also causes embrittlement of the materials in the reactor vessel. Structural integrity cannot be maintained with anything approaching current state of knowledge. Processes that occur on bombardment with high energy neutrons are not understood at a fundamental physical level. We require dramatic steps forward in our fundamental understanding of materials processes before being able to design commercial scale reactors that would survive this kind of treatment. [5]

    —  Plasma confinement; probably the key issue before any progress could be made. Containment by magnetic field has been the preferred option for many years although the difficulties of carrying this through to anything approaching real commercial reactor conditions has led to an interest in pulsed fusion methods, but these still have substantial technical and economic problems of their own for routine operation. [6]


  Any generation of nuclear fusion energy will not come cheap and the question has to be asked why go down this route when other technologies show such definite promise on smaller budgets and in shorter timescales. Total spend to bring nuclear fusion to commercial reality are scarce, although one 1995 estimate put it at US$50-100 billion. [7]The EU commitment to 2020 on fusion research via the ITER project could be around EURO17.6 billion. [8]Fusion research has been funded at the expense of other renewable energy technologies. In EU Framework Programme 4 (1994-98) fusion research got ECU788 million whilst all other (non-nuclear) energy technologies—to include energy efficiency, solar photovoltaies, wind, biomass, geothermal, hydroelectric, energy storage and "clean" fossil fuels research—got ECU1,030 million. A revised format for budget allocations in framework programmes 5 and 6 makes comparisons more difficult but fusion programmes still receive significant investment, especially in examining feasibility of the proposed new ITER programme.

Nuclear Waste

  We see it as even more highly unlikely that approaches not using a D-T fuel mix will become feasible compared to those using it. Using D-T fuel will contaminate the reactor, making it into nuclear waste. Despite decades of effort and expense, there is no safe way of dealing with nuclear waste, so it is irresponsible to produce it.

  The only suggestion for handling the waste from fusion that we are aware of is use of construction materials of low atomic number (and hence generally short decay lifetimes). [9]However, such materials face significant technical barriers to their development. And because the over-riding priority in the fusion programme is to make it work at all, it is unlikely that in practice reactor construction would look to minimise the production of nuclear waste. Indeed in the cited review of investigation of materials, [10]minimisation of nuclear waste arisings is not mentioned. Because the construction materials to be used in any possible future reactor is not known, an assessment of actual waste arisings, their decay lifetimes and radiotoxicity is unknown. However, experience with nuclear fission gives us little confidence that even if "clean" materials (meaning they are "only" radioactive for decades or centuries rather than millennia) are identified in laboratories, reality is unlikely to be so straightforward.

1   Flakus et al. Nuclear Fusion: Targetting safety and environmental goals. IAEA bulletin, 37.4. 1995. Back

2   CORDIS News. Commission's Euratom proposals evoke mixed reactions, 2 November 2001. Back

3   Kuleinski, GL and Santarius, JP 1998. Advanced fuels under debate, Nature, 396 p 724, 24/31 December 1998. Back

4   Ibid ref 3. Back

5   Zankle, SJ 2001 Frontiers of Fusion materials science. Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Presentation at Gaithersburg Maryland, USA. 13 March 2001. Back

6   Key MH 2001. Fast track to fusion energy, Nature, 412, p 775, 23 August 2001. Back

7   Ibid ref 1. Back

8   Fusion Europe, Newsletter No 1, European Parliament backs Fusion, 14 November 2001. Back

9   Ibid ref 6. Back

10   Ibid ref 5. Back

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