About nuclear fusion

Dear Professor Ardon,

I do agree with your considering as an urgent task for the developed countries to reduce emissions of greenhouse effect gas as soon as possible. I do agree too with the fact that wind and sun will remain very small energy sources. However I am not sure to agree with the fusion solution and the subsequent tremendous financial effort you suggest. I would like indeed to stress three points:

1. Reducing gas emissions cannot wait until fusion is industrially operational. As a matter of fact, in the fifties (1950) the best forecast was fusion on operation by the end of the century. To day, the forecast is still "an additional 50 years".

2. The fission solution is available, safe, competitive, reliable, operational. The problem of high activity waste disposal is, objectively, a minor problem, changed into a severe social problem by mass medias. The nuclear waste problem is tiny compared to the gigantic one generated by billions tons of CO2, SO2, NOX sent every year in our atmosphere from fossils fuels.

3. Assuming fusion is made available, safe, clean and competitive it will not be perfectly clean: tritium problem will be, objectively, a very very very tiny problem. But if mass medias behave, regarding fusion, as they behave for fission then, again, a crazy, stupid but major social problem will suddenly appear.

Unfortunately nuclear reactors today operated by developed countries do not match the needs of developing countries; 3 reasons to that: (1) these reactors are too big for scattered populations in countries with no electricity distribution net; (2) these reactors are too expensive; (3) their safe operation implies a very good safety / security culture which, unfortunately, does not exist in poor countries (Chernobyl catastrophe was caused by lack of safety / security culture.)

The need, for developing countries, to have a cheap access to abundant and clean energy still exists. I believe the solution stays rather in small and passive fission reactors. The tremendous amount of money you suggest for R & D would be better used in developing such fission reactors (development of HTR is progressing well in South Africa : Pebble Bed Modular Reactor). This is possible within the 25 years you mention (it is not possible for fusion). In the meantime, for a few decades period of time, electricity could be made available from wind and sun, to some of the 2 billions human beings who still have not it; meanwhile developed countries should, in addition, help developing countries to drastically improve their safety culture.

I would be very honoured and interested in knowing your views on these remarks.

Very truly yours.

Jacques FROT

Oil engineer, Former executive of MOBIL OIL Co.

Member of the Scientific Committee of EFN (Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy)



Promethean response to Global Warming

By Michael Ardon

One of the conclusions to be drawn from the September 11th disaster is that the solution of the problem of North-South inequality in the age of globalization, can not be put off any longer. There seems to be no other way to deal with it, but by extensive development and industrialization of the developing nations. The purpose of this "Think Piece" is not to propose a program for achieving this aim, but to concentrate on one of the pre-conditions for achieving it, the increase of available energy without increasing pollution in general and the Green House Effect in particular.

A new strategy is needed, because we are loosing the battle against global warming. The emissions of Carbon Dioxide continue to increase, despite efforts to reduce them by energy saving techniques. This increase will be accelerated if the developing nations increase their per capita energy consumption to equal that of the industrialized nations. Without such an increase, the achievement of equality is impossible.

Alternative energy sources such as conventional nuclear power derived from fission of Uranium can not be a feasible alternative, because of inherent problems of long-lived radioactive waste. Alternative energy sources based directly or indirectly on solar energy, such as wind-power, photovoltaics, solar ponds, biomass etc. have had only a marginal effect so far and will not be able to replace the bulk of fossil fuels in the foreseeable future.

Even if some or all of these techniques are used in new, subsidized, power plants in the developed countries, the resulting savings in fossil fuel consumption will be wiped out by the enormous increase of fossil fuel consumption by the developing countries in the 21st Century. If alternative cheap sources of energy are not made available to these countries, a disastrous increase in the Green house Effect seems inevitable. Any attempt to keep these countries in their present economic state, is not only immoral but also very dangerous, as the September 11th events warn us.

It is likewise impossible to make the poor countries pay more than the rich, by forcing them to use more expensive alternative energy sources. The only long term reliable and cheap source of energy that might replace fossil fuels economically is Nuclear Fusion, the process by which the sun derives its energy.

In this process atomic nuclei of Hydrogen isotopes fuse to form the nuclei of Helium atoms. It requires only cheap and abundant raw materials, such as Hydrogen and Lithium and does not produce long-lived radioactive waste.

Such a process takes place in the sun and in a thermonuclear bomb (Hydrogen bomb), but attempt to harness it by creating a controlled and sustainable fusion process for production of electric power have failed so far. The difficulty lies in the very high temperatures required for starting and maintaining the fusion reaction (of the order of one hundred million degrees centigrade).

The advances in plasma physics and in experimental reactors already designed or planned for this purpose make this goal attainable; but with the present, very modest financial support of R & D ( several hundred million dollars annually), it will not be achieved before the second half of this century and by then it may be too late. In order to achieve economical fusion reactors within 25 years, an international crash program has to be adopted. The first requirement for such a program is to increase the R&D funds by two orders of magnitude, at least, to tens of billions dollars annually. Once the feasibility of fusion power is demonstrated, there will be an abundance of venture capital, eager to exploit the new opportunities to enter the age of competitive fusion energy production. The end of fossil fuel burning may ultimately be reached, not by environmental preaching, idealistic appeals or government decrees, but by market forces.

A large public education program has to be forged by a coalition of environmentalists, scientists, top politicians and leading intellectuals, in order to get public support for this ambitious goal. But a one hundred fold increase in R&D funds is not enough. Research scientists and engineers of the highest quality will be required and money alone can not supply them.

A new motivation has to be created for attracting to the project the best scientific minds and the most promising young students. It can be done because this is going to be the greatest challenge to mankind since Prometheus to steal the secret of nuclear fire from the sun.

Professor Michael Ardon

Institute of Chemistry

The Hebrew University,

Jerusalem, Israel