Fusion Confusion

To clear up any confusion that may be lurking in the research world, two readers sent e-mail regarding a Feb. 10 article, "Nuclear Fusion-Fission Hybrid Could Destroy Waste."

As usual, I am excited to get feedback. Their responses came within two days of posting. Either they are very passionate on the topic (probably) or they were on a roll, responding to everything in their inboxes (does anyone ever get caught up?).

Johann Lindner of JLA Global Consulting quickly pointed out that the article we posted from the University of Texas-Austin (UT) did not contain any news. Then, he offered his reasoning on the topic (The underlining belongs to Mr. Lindner):

Remember -- every freaking NEUTRON -- that is ever flying around in any reactor -- carries a price tag/it has a $-value:

• It can get stuck in structural material (degrading it/limiting the life time of any fusion reactor containment wall)…a total loss...of what this neutron could have produced in an 'alternative life;'

• It could get absorbed in a "mantle/periphery region" of Uranium-238 (made from tails from uranium enrichment, or reprocessed uranium);

• It means the world's entire (not just electricity) energy needs could be met without digging up another single pound of uranium or thorium;

• The current nuclear waste destined for Yucca Mountain could fuel USA energy needs for over a 1,000+ years;

• Why is nobody talking about this? Because the first very economic fusion plants will be "hybrids"..... combining the "worst" attributes of breeders and fusion;

• It means they are not totally fail safe since they combine fission + fusion. In other words, before the beautiful/acceptable fusion power takes over, there will be a period (50 years?) of a "bad compromise" ==> hybrid fusion/fission!

• During this initial period, fusion on its own will not be commercially competitive.

Anyone care to comment?

Weston M. Stacey Jr., agreed that the idea from UT was not new. Stacey is the Fuller E. Callaway of Nuclear Engineering and Regents' Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology's Nuclear and Radiological Engineering Program.

He sent me a copy of a paper discussing the most recent of a series of more mature studies of such devices that have been performed over the past decade. (See "A Tru-Zr Metal-Fuel Sodium-Cooled Fast Subcritical Advanced Burner Reactor," by Stacey et al., Nuclear Technology, Vol. 162, April 2008.)

Stacey also noted that "The fusion part of the Georgia Tech design is based on the same physics and technology as the ITER design (under construction to operate in 2018) and on the fission technology that is being developed for sodium-cooled advanced burner reactors in the U.S. Department of Energy program. So, it is a realistic design concept that could be constructed in 20 years or so using technology now being developed and tested."

But what about the safety issue?

L.K. Williams

Posted by L.K. Williams, EPonline on Feb 23, 2009