Nuclear fusion is coming, but will it power peace or war?

opinion January 12, 2018 01:00

By John Draper, Peerasit Kamnuansilpa 
Special to the Nation 

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Source of near limitless energy could bring an end to international conflicts – or spark another arms race 

Last month, the European Union-hosted International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) announced it was halfway to completing initial operation, meaning it will begin testing of fusion power generation around 2035. Meanwhile, a dozen private companies are looking to create their own fusion reactors within the next 10 years. The implications of private companies overtaking the government-backed ITER project require the attention of the UN, not just in fighting global warming via its Environment Programme but also in its oversight of global economics via the World Bank and the UNDP, and the effects of scientific developments on geopolitics, via Unesco.

Largest public fusion project

ITER is the world’s largest publicly funded fusion project, at US$22 billion on completion of phase one in 2035. It symbolises international cooperation in advancing nuclear fusion, the same process that drives our sun. The EU bears approximately 45 per cent per cent of costs, and China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States contribute 55 per cent, with Australia also contributing in kind. Sometime after 2035, ITER is expected to produce 500MW of fusion energy for 50MW of input energy by combining deuterium and tritium, isotopes of hydrogen.

However, ITER has been heavily criticised for its escalating costs and for falling over a decade behind schedule. ITER has admitted that multiple major public participants being involved in a highly technical megaproject introduces bureaucratic complications and has delayed progress. This is unlikely to improve and will affect the subsequent phases, designed to introduce the world’s first commercial fusion reactor prototype sometime in the 2040s, and commercialise the technology in the 2050s. These developments are so far in the future that they have no effect on market expectations in the energy sector.

Because of the delays, spiralling costs, and unclear timetable and outputs, ITER is opposed by numerous environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace, which argue funding should be diverted to renewable energy such as solar and wind power. In addition, the belief that other technologies can beat ITER was endorsed in a 2014 American Security Project white paper co-authored by leading American nuclear physicists at MIT and General Atomics.

Private efforts 

Private companies are making progress toward faster development of fusion power by taking advantage of the latest breakthroughs in physics, materials, engineering, computer science, and by working without the bureaucracy. If successful, they can build and commercialise improved versions of their technology much sooner than ITER.

For instance, TAE Technologies, begun in the US in 1998, proposes using a colliding beam fusion reactor technology, similar to a particle accelerator. TAE is backed by over US$500 million of private funding by investors like Goldman Sachs and venture capitalists such as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. In a vote of confidence last year, former US secretary of energy Dr Ernest J Moniz joined TAE’s board of directors.

Another competing technology is that of the Canadian-based General Fusion, backed by over $100 million in venture funding, including from the Business Development Bank of Canada and Khazanah Nasional, a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund. This technology is based on a 1972 US Naval Research Laboratory concept. Essentially, the design uses mechanical pistons to compress and therefore heat a plasma within a liquid lithium liner. General Fusion is now collaborating with Microsoft and the Canadian engineering firm, Hatch, to develop the reactor design.

Room-sized reactors

A third private company making progress toward achieving a net energy fusion reaction is the US-based Energy Matter Conversion Corporation (EMC2). Its design builds on advanced magnetic confinement technology combined with a fusor, a tiny “sun in a box” design first developed in the 1960s. EMC2 announced in 2014 that it could trap a 70-million-degree plasma within a form of magnetic box, a major step towards fusion. A US Navy independent technical review declared EMC2’s progress to be some of the most significant fusion advances in the past 50 years. EMC2 is presently undertaking high performance computer simulations to optimise its design to accelerate a development timetable.

TAE, General Fusion, and EMC2’s reactor designs are all approximately room sized, as compared to ITER’s massive tokamak design. As such, these reactors could be mass manufactured on a smaller scale and on a faster timeline. In this way, entire countries’ future electricity needs could be rapidly supplied by fusion energy. Successful fusion energy development would consequently reduce global warming by ending the world’s reliance on fossil fuels, aiding UNEP in its mission to stabilise the global climate. 

However, these nuclear fusion developments neglect the moral implications of fusion energy on global economics. Though supposedly international, the Global South (developing countries), especially those affected by resource extraction during the colonial period, have no real input into fusion’s development and consequently may miss most of its benefits. Both ITER and the private companies’ pathways essentially perpetuate a neo-colonial approach to the energy sector. This is unfortunate, especially if private companies develop fusion energy first, in secret, as this could cause devastate fossil-fuel dependent economies, clearly an issue for the World Bank and the UNDP.

Furthermore, the geopolitics of privately produced fusion have not been publicly explored. Without the UN regulating commercial fusion through the IAEA and emphasising that fusion should be employed for peace via Unesco, it could spark another arms race. For example, public funding would be spent on fusion-powered aircraft carriers and anti-ship weapons such as railguns, furthering confrontation and preventing the global commoditisation of an energy technology that should end conflict.

Instead, fusion opens up a new possibility: global peace-building. While potentially destabilising, fusion brings near-limitless energy and will reduce conflicts over fossil fuel reserves in places like the Spratly Islands. Fusion-powered rockets will facilitate a united humanity’s exploration of space.

For millennia, humanity has existed in a state of perpetual war. The alternative, perpetual peace, has found form in treaties prioritising respect for culture over war, beginning with the US-backed 1935 inter-American Roerich Pact and most recently embodied in the 911-triggered Unesco Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. Although private fusion companies operate in secret, the UN must now begin discussions with them to address the issue of equitable benefits for humanity.