Thursday, June 30, 2005

Much fanfare has greeted the announcement that France will get to build the 10 billion Euro International Thermonuclear Experimental Reacter, billed as a cleaner approach to power production than nuclear fission and fossil fuels.

Japan's science minister Nariaki Nakayama gushed; "We believe that the Iter project should start as soon as possible for the sake of mankind's future."

Nuclear fusion, the latest in a series of high tech "saviors" of mankind's energy problems, should be taken with a grain of salt. A quick review of the previous efforts demonstrates the pitfalls.

The original miracle energy source was nuclear power, which was supposed to be so cheap, it wouldn't even need to be metered. But leaks, shutdowns, and the enormous costs of cleanup priced nuclear out of the market. Now uranium production is in decline, effectively eliminating nuclear power as a long term solution.

Beginning in the 1980s, breeder reacters were going to solve the problem of limited fisionable fuel. The first commercial breeder reactor was the Fermi 1, built in the U.S. The plant went into operation in 1963, was shut down in 1966 due to high temperatures and was not ready to resume operation until 1970. It ran until 1972 when its oeprating licence renewal was denied.

The French breeder reactor "Superphoenix" went online in 1985 but only loged 174 days at full power during its first ten years. In 1990 the reacter was shut down because of impurities in the sodium in its core and was not reauthorized until 1994 when it was authorized as a research reactor to determine, among other things, whether it was a "net consumer of plutonium." In 1997, the reauthorization was annulled and the reactor permanently shut down.

The Japanese plant "Monju" came online in 1994, but a massive sodium coolant leak in 1995 shut the plant down. Lawsuits followed and the reacter did not finally gain permission to resart until May of this year.

Last decade the new miracle energy source was going to be fuel cells, but even after billions of dollars of research they continue to be dogged with technical problems, including the scarcity of platinum, the difficulty of storing and transporting hydrogen, and the expense of the fuel cells. The projected date for the commercial use of fuel cells keeps slipping ever farther into the future.

The ultimate solutions may turn out to be the simplest. While wind power is often derided for its unreliability, a study in Britain found that wind generators were able to produce power 97% of the time while the country's nuclear power plants were only generating power 70-77% of the time.

There is no rule that necessarily says that Green equals low tech, but if recent history is any guide, low tech, inexpensive, potentially off grid sources of power may be the way of the future.


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