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Three Hurdles to Harnessing Nuclear Fusion: The Future of Fusion (Part 2)

MEGAN ZEREZ, HOST: Indian Point, the nuclear power plant just north of New York City, is set to shut down its last reactor by tomorrow. The plant generates around one thousand megawatts, enough to power up to 1,000,000 homes. In the first of our two part series, Kate Stockrahm reported on why the plant’s fission energy may one day be replaced by fusion in New York’s pursuit of carbon-free power. Today, she covers the scientific, regulatory, and political hurdles nuclear fusion faces.

KATE STOCKRAHM, BYLINE: When it comes to clean energy, nuclear fusion is legendary.

CHARLES NEUMEYER: Fusion is kind of the holy grail of energy sources.

STOCKRAHM: Charles Neumeyer was with Princeton Plasma Physics Lab for over 20 years. One engineer told me “anyone who’s in fusion knows about Charlie,” which makes sense: his resume reads like a timeline for fusion’s development.

NEUMEYER: It's a wonderful thing. It's like a gift from God... it doesn't have much of anything that's bad about it, except that it's really hard to get it working.

STOCKRAHM: Neumeyer explains New York’s first hurdle to fusion: it’s just difficult.

Fusion creates energy by forcing atoms together. It’s the same reaction that fuels the sun and stars. But turning that energy into a usable power source here on earth would take enormous magnets and temperatures around 150,000,000° Celsius. Neumeyer says that’s much harder to do than say, burn coal;

NEUMEYER: You dig coal out of the ground, you light it on fire.

STOCKRAHM: Or gas, or oil;

NEUMEYER: The same kind of thing, it comes spewing out of the ground.

STOCKRAHM: Or even run a nuclear fission plant.

NEUMEYER: You mine uranium and then you separate this stuff from that stuff. And you make a big pile and it gets hot.

STOCKRAHM: But New York is closing one of its four fission plants and instead investing two and a half billion dollars in renewables like wind and solar. Though renewable sources provide carbon-free power, fusion would be the more efficient, reliable source of clean energy when it becomes possible. But then, there’s regulation.

LABAN COBLENTZ: The biggest difficulty really is that regulators are used to fission.

STOCKRAHM: Laban Coblentz is with ITER, an experimental fusion reactor being built in France. ITER is a research facility, so regulations there are set to provide a template for fusion regulations all over the world, including New York. But the only regulations we’ve had to create before are based on the old fission standards.

LABAN COBLENTZ: And fission has a safety -- regulation of safety -- as seen even before Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl, and Fukushima. It’s an extremely complex thing that's based on risk, it’s based on emergency systems, backups.

STOCKRAHM: However, unlike fission, fusion reactions stop if conditions aren’t met, so there is no potential for such meltdowns. Because it’s safer, Coblentz expects future fusion plants will have requirements typical for any regulated industrial facility, like a car manufacturer -- plus radiation safety directives.

COBLENTZ: The regulation associated with fusion should be a minuscule fraction of that associated with what we have all come to think of as nuclear fission.

STOCKRAHM: Dave Wilburn is a leading American power generation consultant. He says that same distinction between fission and fusion will also need to be made clear for New York’s politicians and public who pushed to close Indian Point for years.

DAVE WILBURN: My concern is fusion will be reported as fusion “nuclear” power, and it gets all the baggage associated with fission power of the past. You're familiar with the term NIMBY? NIMBY is an old term in the power generation industry. It means: not in my backyard.

STOCKRAHM: Across the ocean from New Yorkers’ backyards, ITER, the experimental fusion reactor, is on track for its first test in 2025. It’s a promising start, but experts say the technology to harness fusion energy in the States is likely still two decades away.

Kate Stockrahm, Columbia Radio News.


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