War and energy : nuclear threat or salvation?
Thursday, February 24. It's six o'clock in the morning when Russian president Vladimir Putin orders his troops to cross the border and attack Ukraine. Thousands are leaving the war zones to find refuge in the European Union. The invaded nation is resisting, and the West continues to support it by selling weapons and sanctioning the Russian economy. The growing hostility of Nato and the EU has led president Putin to put his nuclear deterrence forces on alert.
A decision that plunges the world back into the days of the Cold War.
In Russia, there are 38 active nuclear reactors, divided among 11 power plants. Three more are under construction, while a dozen have been officially shut down, and nine more are in the planning phase. In 2021, nuclear power generated 19 percent of Russia's total electricity. The state-owned company Rosatom, the country's leader in the sector, plans to cover 45 to 50 percent of Russia's energy needs by 2050, rising to 70 to 80 percent by the end of the century. To reach these figures, Rosatom is banking on the Proryv (breakthrough) project, which focuses on reactors capable of eliminating the production of radioactive waste. In addition to ongoing projects, since 2000, Russia has increased the production capacity of its older reactors, which have been adequately modernized and made safe. Since the 1990s, production has increased by 25 to 30 percent.
There are four major uranium deposits on Russian territory:
- Transural district between Chelyabinsk and Oms, where the Dalur ISL mine is located
- Streltsovsky District, near the borders with China and Mongolia
- Vitimsky district, where the Khiagda ISL mine is located
- Elkon district, in the Republic of Sakha.
Since 2007, uranium exploration and extraction activities have been in the hands of the state-owned company AtomRedMetZoloto (ARMZ), a subsidiary of Atomenergoprom. The latter was established by a decree signed by Vladimir Putin on April 27, 2007, applying a law passed by the Russian Parliament. Thus was founded one of the largest nuclear companies in the world, part of Rosatom: a company comprising about 350 companies involved in civil and military development in the nuclear field.
The term “nuclear fusion” refers to the reaction involving the Sun and the stars, which leads to the creation of an enormous amount of energy. This phenomenon occurs at high temperature and pressure between two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium (D) and tritium (T): their reaction produces helium and releases energy, according to the principle of mass-energy equivalence.
The nuclei of both elements can interact only at a very short distance. In order for them to get closer, it is necessary that their kinetic energy and, consequently, their temperature are high. At this point, the mixture of deuterium and tritium is raised to 100 million degrees for enough containment times. Thanks to this process, the nuclei of the two elements experience many collisions, this increasing the likelihood of a reaction. In addition, the energy released by these reactions must compensate for both the energy losses and the energy used to reproduce it.
The plasma formed after the combination of the two isotopes can and must be confined by a magnetic field: in its absence, the particles would move randomly in all directions, hitting the walls of the vessel and causing the plasma to cool. Instead, the magnetic field causes them to follow spiraling trajectories around its force lines, thus avoiding the vessel’s walls.
For this purpose, there have been multiple studies around different magnetic configuration for confining the plasma: the most relevant today are the Stellator and the Tokamak. So far, the latter has given the best results in magnetic confinement fusion. It is very stable and allows long plasma confinement times. It’s a toroidal device with a hollow casing, a sort of “donut” in which the plasma remains confined.
Unlike the stellarator, which "tries to solve the problem of magnetic confinement completely from the outside, without the need to induce an electric current in the plasma", as Paola Batistoni, head of ENEA's fusion development and promotion section, explains, «the shape of the chamber is constructed in such a way that, at each point along the plasma's path, a combination of magnetic fields is able to keep it from 'escaping' away». Unfortunately, implementing this technology is still very complex at present, and supercomputers would be needed to manage the magnetic flux point by point.
In order to realize a fusion reactor, there are a few fundamental goals that must be met. In order:
- The breakeven: the moment in which the energy generated by the fusion equals the energy injected from the outside, in order to maintain the plasma at thermonuclear temperature.
- Ignition: it occurs when the self-sustaining fusion reaction is achieved by the generated helium nuclei.
- Technological feasibility: it requires the positive net return of the facility.
FUSION DOES NOT PRODUCE GREENHOUSE GASES
One of the most important aspects of fusion is that it «produces no nuclear waste. In fact, the fusion reaction produces a neutron and helium, which is a noble gas widely used in everyday life. The absence of radioactive waste rules out the possibility of accidents involving the public and any future criticality from residual materials». The only radioactive material is inside the reaction chamber, which has no contact with the outside world. Moreover, «fusion does not produce greenhouse gases and is therefore a technology that supports the fight against climate change» Batistoni adds.
«This year, we’ve seen two important steps, albeit not definitive, for the research on fusion: the magnetic field, which holds and contains the necessary Teslas (CFS and MIT experiment) and a JET experiment that prolonged the energy generation». This are the words of Massimo Nicolazzi, ISPI senior consultant for energy security and president of Centrex Italia. Currently, in the world, there are about thirty sources who are investigating in nuclear power. Even in the United States have announced the testing of a prototype, which will be ready in two years. Nicolazzi, however, is skeptical about the success of this experiments: «In 2024, experiments will only be on prototypes. The more optimistic think they will reach industrial production by the year 2030. Even if fusion power plants were built, they could not be mass replicated in a short period of time. Just think that it takes about 10 years to build a simple fission reactor. Maybe, small modular reactors will appear, but I don’t know if they will spread». While in the US private funds are the main investors in nuclear power, in Europe the public sector has the primacy, with experiments such as JET and ITER. ENI, which owns an important MIT share for the development of SPARC, is the one who will build a bridge between the two continents. If the PSFC Tokamak works, it is very likely that they will try to reproduce it in Europe, even if there will not be a monopoly of this technology, due to the multiple companies investing in it.
Simone Tagliapietra has a similar opinion. Professor at the Catholic and John Hopkins – SAIS Europe Universities, he is mainly working in the fields of climate and energy policy, as well as political economy of global decarbonization. The professor agrees on the timing: «It is right to follow developments in nuclear fusion, but we can’t think of this solution as feasible fort the next few years or decades. The fusion would have the potential to solve the energetic problem, but we have not seen any development in thirty years». Batistoni herself does not give a firm date, but she make some predictions about fusion: «If the ITER project achieves its objectives, the Demonstration Power Plant (DEMO) will be built to produce electricity. This is the last nuclear fusion research reactor, scheduled for 2050, before the actual commercial reactors are put into operation.»
In short, the commercial prospect of fusion is still far away; it is prudent to follow, at the same time, other technologies, hoping that, sooner or later, a concrete result will be achieved.
Currently active reactors:
- ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). Currently, this is the most ambitious project in the world, due to become operational in 2035. Located in Southern France, near Cadarache, it involves the collaboration of 35 countries. The aim is to build the largest Tokamak in the world, a magnetic fusion device designed to prove the feasibility of fusion itself as an energy source, based on those the same principles that power the Sun and the stars. The main countries involved in this project are China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States. Actually, Italian companies have won more than €1.8 billion in orders, more than 50% of the total value for ITER (excluding building structures).
Coordinates: 43.68912091014103, 5.761359695409681.
- ASDEX Upgrade (Axially Symmetric Divertor Experiment). Situated in Germany, at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) in Garching. The name refers to its special magnetic field configuration, which allows the interaction between the boiling fuel and the surrounding walls. This reactor and its predecessor laid the basis for the ITER project.
Coordinates: 48.26394105437175, 11.671159249786669.
- Wendelstein 7-X (abbreviated W7-X). An experimental Stellator built in Greifswaldin (Germany) by the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (Ipp). It has been completed in October 2015. This project has been created to demonstrate the suitability of Stellator-type fusion devices for use in a power plant.
Coordinates: 48.26394105437175, 11.671159249786669.
- TCV Tokamak (Tokamak is a variable configuration). Built at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, this experimental reactor is used to understand plasma flows. It features a highly elongated rectangular vacuum vessel and 16 poloidal plasma shaping coils, equally distributed in two stacks located on both sides of the vacuum vessel.
Coordinates: 46.51873068889358, 6.5667005019538145.
- WEST (acronym derived from W – the chemical symbol of Tungsten – and Environment in Steady-state Tokamak). Experimental Tokamak operating at Saint-Paul-lez-Durance Cedex, France.
Coordinates: 43.68912091014103, 5.761359695409681.
- MAST Upgrade (Mega Ampere Spherical Tokamak). A working Tokamak, built at the Culham Center for Fusion Energy in England. This device is based on the original MAST machine, which ran from 2000 to 2013. It has been rebuilt to allow for increased performance – longer pulses, higher heating power and a stronger magnetic field – and a new plasma discharge system. MAST Upgrade is exploring the path to compact fusion power plants and testing reactor technology, as well as addressing physics problems for the ITER project. It keeps the UK at the forefront of global fusion energy research.
Coordinates: 51.657685709734345, -1.2262001073223001.
- JET (Joint European Torus). The most powerful Tokamak in use at the Culham Center for Fusion Energy, it’s the only fusion energy-producing Tokamak in Europe. JET was designed to study fusion in conditions approximating those required for a power plant. It’s the only experiment capable of operating with deuterium-tritium mixture, that will eventually be used for commercially fusion energy. Since it started operating in 1983, JET has made major advances in fusion science and engineering. Its success led to the construction of the first commercial-scale fusion machine, ITER, and increased confidence in the Tokamak as a design for future fusion power plants.
Coordinates: 51.657685709734345, -1.2262001073223001.
- DTT (Divertor Tokamak Test). Its construction should be completed by the end of the decade and it will produce the first plasma by 2028. It will be the largest reactor since ITER. Its aims are: exploring and qualifying alternative power discharge solutions for DEMO; testing the physics and technology of various alternative diverter concepts in plasma conditions, which can be extrapolated to DEMO; showing whether the alternative configuration or plasma-facing components are technologically feasible, technically maintainable, and economically viable; training new generations of engineers and scientists for science and technological transfer. Key features of DTT are advance system design and new technology and engineering solutions in a variety of filed. These include superconductivity, massive heat flow, real-time control, power electronics, innovative material and remote manipulation.
Coordinates: 41.82057671274144, 12.67213692414931.
- FTU (Frascati Tokamak Upgrade). While FTU is a medium-sized Tokamak, it has a significant complexity and requires a large number of systems (or sub-systems) to operate. These sub-plants, many of which are quite large, are physically installed both in the building containing the “torus” (i.e. the central core, consisting of the vacuum chamber and the toroidal and poloidal windings) and in various other buildings located around it.
Coordinates: 41.82057671274144, 12.672136924149314.
- This Tokamak is near completion and it will be ignited in 2025. It’s a project of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC), known internationally as a major university research center for the study of both the science and technology of plasma and fusion, with research activity in four related areas. PSFC researchers are studying the use of strong magnetic fields, to maintain plasma at the high temperatures and pressures required for practical fusion energy. This research is carried out using on-site experimental facilities, theory and simulation, in addition to cooperation with researchers from other institutions. Scientists, students and engineers at PSFC perform experiments and develop technologies to confine and heat plasma, and to manage interactions between plasma and reactor materials.
Coordinates: 42.3591083162673, -71.10405792613737.
- NSTX – U (National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade). A Tokamak commissioned for experimental purposes in 2015. Built at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), the spherical device is shaped more like a cored apple than a doughnut, the traditional design of conventional Tokamaks. It can produce high-pressure plasma – essential ingredients for fusion reactors – with relatively low, inexpensive magnetic fields. This capability makes the compact spherical design of the NSTX-U a candidate to serve as a model for a fusion pilot plant, followed by a commercial fusion reactor.
Coordinates: 40.34948652713213, -74.60124282551195.
- T-15MD (Tokamak 15MD). The T-15MD is a new machine, created to replace the T-15 Tokamak, the second Russian superconducting Tokamak (after the T-7), which operated at Kurchatov FROM 1988 TO 1995. The original machine was completely disassembled in 2017 and all major components were modernized: from auxiliary plasma heating and current drive systems, to new non-superconducting silver-copper magnets and internal graphite surfaces. The upgraded Russian Tokamak will extend the operational scope of the “ITER-complementary” machines, with and experimental program that will help determine the optimal operating parameters for ITER and future fusion reactors.
Coordinates: 55.830527827773736, 37.47286166661784.
- KSTAR (Korea Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research). This is a working Tokamak, located at the Korea Institute of Fusion Energy in Daejeon, South Korea. While operating, it has broken several ignition records. This “superconducting nuclear fusion research device” aims at studying aspects of magnetic fusion energy with relevance to the ITER fusion project, as part of South Korea’s contribution to the ITER effort. The project was approved in 1995, but its construction was delayed by the East Asian financial crisis, which significantly weakened the South Korean economy. However, the construction phase was completed in September 14, 2007. The first plasma was produced in June 2008.
Coordinates: 36.372209156444505, 127.35217610426652.
- EAST (Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak). A Chinese Tokamak, located in Hefei, in use for experimental purposes. On December 30, 2021, a plasma pulse was maintained for 1056 seconds, which set a new world ignition record. China’s “artificial sun” has set a new world record, after superheating a plasma cycle at temperatures five times hotter than the Sun, and for more than 17 minutes. The nuclear fusion reactor maintained a temperature of 158 million degrees Fahrenheit (70 million degrees Celsius) for 1056 seconds. This result brings scientists one small but significant step closer to the creation of a nearly limitless source of clean energy. China’s experimental nuclear fusion reactor broke the previous record, set by French Tokamak Tore Supra in 2003, in which plasma in a winding circuit remained at similar temperatures for 390 seconds. EAST had previously set another record in May 2021: it ran for 101 seconds at an unprecedented 216 million F (120 million C). By contrast, the Sun’s core reaches a temperature of approximately 27 million F (15 million C).
Coordinates: 31.82137402078186, 117.22787181498276.
- JT-60SA (Japan Torus-60). It will serve as a satellite for ITER. JT-60SA is a fusion experiment, designed to support the operation of ITER and to study the best way to optimize the functioning of fusion power plants built after ITER. It’s a joint international research and development project, involving Japan and Europe. It will be built in Naka. Japan, using the infrastructure of the current JT-60. SA stands for “super advanced”, since the experiment will have superconducting coils and will study advanced ways of operating plasma.
Coordinates: 36.47545779590196, 140.53673721712528.