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Superconductor tech will make fusion reactors economically viable


October 2, 2015
By Anthony Capkun


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October 2, 2015 – Researchers at Durham University and Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire conclude fusion reactors could become an economically viable means of generating electricity within a few decades, and policymakers should start planning to build them as a replacement for conventional nuclear power stations.

“Obviously we have had to make assumptions, but what we can say is that our predictions suggest that fusion won’t be vastly more expensive than fission,” said prof. Damian Hampshire, who led the study.

The researchers re-examined the economics of fusion, taking into account advances in superconductor technology for the first time. Their analysis of building, running and decommissioning a fusion power station shows the financial feasibility of fusion energy in comparison to traditional fission nuclear power.

Such findings, the researchers say, support the possibility that, within a generation or two, fusion reactors could offer an almost unlimited supply of energy without contributing to global warming or producing hazardous products on a significant scale.

Fusion reactors generate electricity by heating plasma to around 100,000,000°C so that hydrogen atoms fuse together, releasing energy. The advantage of fusion reactors over current fission reactors is they would create almost no radioactive waste.

“Fission, fusion or fossil fuels are the only practical options for reliable large-scale base-load energy sources. Calculating the cost of a fusion reactor is complex, given the variations in the cost of raw materials and exchange rates. However, this work is a big step in the right direction” he said.

Fusion energy is also politically safer, say researchers, because a reactor would not produce weapons-grade products that proliferate nuclear arms. It is fuelled by deuterium, or heavy water, which is extracted from seawater, and tritium, which is created within the reactor, so there is no problem with security of supply either.

“While there are still some technological challenges to overcome we have produced a strong argument, supported by the best available data, that fusion power stations could soon be economically viable. We hope this kick-starts investment to overcome the remaining technological challenges and speeds up the planning process for the possibility of a fusion-powered world.”

PHOTO: Illustration of a tokamak with plasma courtesy ITER Organization.