A ‘clean’ alternative to fossil fuels and atomic fission could be less than a decade away
According to the Thai Ministry of Energy’s Integrated Blueprint, up to 5 per cent of the country’s energy requirements will be met by nuclear power by 2036. Nuclear power has advantages over fossil fuels in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, yet the Fukushima disaster reminded the world of the dangers associated with fission plants – radiation during their operation and radioactive waste to subsequently dispose of. There is, however, an alternative: nuclear fusion. Given global climate change, the increased health costs and proven loss of life from air pollution emitted by the Mae Moh and Map Ta Phut coal plants in Lamphang and Rayong, and ongoing protests against the proposed coal-fired plants in Krabi and Songkhla, the “other” nuclear option bears revisiting.
Nuclear fusion uses the same mechanisms for energy as the sun, with the main advantage over fission being that little or no radioactive waste is produced. The aim of fusion is to supersede both fission and coal as it would provide the base load of electricity demand, supplemented by alternative energies like solar and hydro. The technical hurdle is creating the high temperatures required, with the common analogy being that fusion power is like putting a sun in a bottle. Nonetheless, the world community of nuclear scientists is attempting this through investing 13 billion euro (Bt506 billion) in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), located in France. Funding ITER are the main players in the nuclear industry – the EU, Japan, India, China, Russia, South Korea and the US.
However, ITER, due to be completed in 2019, will never produce commercial energy. It is a research facility designed to produce 500MW of fusion power from 50MW of energy input for up to 1,000 seconds. In 2033 it is due to be replaced by a new-generation reactor that could produce 2,000MW of fusion energy. However, this will still only be a prototype and will require yet another generation of reactors before fusion becomes commercially viable, around 2050.
Nonetheless, an alternative, faster fusion development pathway may be realised sooner. While ITER and its descendants will be tokamak reactors – giant “doughnuts” using magnetic confinement, encased in liquid lithium and water layers to produce steam as with conventional reactors – there are alternatives. The main one employs inertial electrostatic confinement, or “polywell” reactors, which look like cubes.
Polywell reactors have been championed by EMC2 Inc, funded by the US Navy for over 20 years. This and similar projects, such as Lockheed Martin’s proposed reactor, use a variety of rapidly evolving technologies. Alternatives to polywells, such as magnetised target systems, also exist.
About a dozen companies are currently exploring low-end versions of fusion, with EMC2 and others expecting proof of the concept in 2018-2020. The logic of buying into these smaller projects is solid: with shorter generations for each test reactor, designs can incorporate new techniques and materials such as latest-generation superconductors. In contrast, ITER requires years for design alteration. Many of these smaller companies are receiving government and venture funding. For example, Malaysia’s national investment fund, Khazanah Nasional Berhad, has bought into General Fusion Co’s magnetised target system.
Thailand can do better. It can provide research grants for Thai universities and commercial partners to build their own fusion reactors. Technically, it is not difficult to achieve fusion using the existing polywell deuterium-deuterium technique, though more energy goes in than comes out. Already, more than 30 individuals worldwide have produced polywell reactors in places like their garages. Among them is a 14-year-old who achieved fusion in a polywell in 2008. The challenge for Thai researchers is reaching higher efficiency levels and achieving a fusion reaction that releases few or no neutrons, the confinement chamber.
Thailand has actually safely operated a nuclear fission reactor for decades. The TRIGA (Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics) Thai Research Reactor 1/Modification 1 (TRR1/M1) at the Institute of Nuclear Technology in Bangkok was installed in 1962. is presently building a second, latest-generation TRIGA at the Ongkharak Nuclear Research Centre. The TRIGA reactor, which uses a very low-risk fuel and emits little radiation, enables Thailand to be self-sufficient in basic nuclear materials like isotopes for scientific institutions, universities and private commercial research.
A Thai polywell reactor programme would complement the TRR1/M1 and achieve the same effects as it did when the TRIGA was first launched. It would herald a new age of “Atoms for Peace”, invigorate the Thai scientific community, and advance the country. Even if the dozen companies currently chasing low-cost nuclear fusion reactors are all overly optimistic, and commercial fusion energy cannot be achieved within the next decade, Thailand, by developing fusion reactor technology, will be in a position to capitalise on a tokamak reactor when the design becomes commercially viable.
For many scientists, commercial nuclear fusion energy has been so elusive that it was always decades away. Early last year, the president of EMC2 delivered a talk at Microsoft suggesting proof of concept for commercial nuclear fusion by 2018. With the time-scale now under a decade, it would be negligent for Thailand – a medium-sized country attempting to escape the middle-income trap – to ignore the opportunity to invest in this scientific endeavour. This is especially true when our neighbouring competitors are already ahead of us in terms of research, development and innovation. Simply put, long-term returns on the research and development are worth the investment whether or not low-end commercial fusion is feasible.
If low-end fusion energy is indeed economically viable, Thailand – presently leader of the G77 – will certainly be ready to assist member countries in embracing an entirely new human development paradigm, one where energy is cheap enough to capture carbon from the atmosphere, thus reducing global warming. It would also cure Thailand’s dependence on coal, which could remain under the ground. As commercial fusion reactors would be scalable, large technology and construction companies would better understand the industry economics and thus buy in. In this paradigm, Thailand could achieve its vision of energy self-reliance.