International group to secure energy for future

By Ritu Gupta
Published: Sunday 31 December 2006

Delegates at the ITER project< an international consortium of countries, including India, has signed an agreement on November 21, 2006, to build an experimental nuclear fusion reactor to meet the future energy need of the world The multi-billion-dollar (about us $12 billion) project called iter has the eu, the us, Japan, Russia, South Korea and China as its members. The project will be set up in about 10 years, beginning 2008, at Cadarache in southern France. The decision to invite India as a full partner was taken at the iter negotiations held at Jeju, South Korea, on December 6, 2005.

The plant is expected to create energy by replicating the process that takes place in the sun. Instead of splitting the atom as happens in existing nuclear fission reactors, the project seeks to release energy by fusing two light atomic nuclei--hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium--together to form heavier atomic nuclei. It would be necessary to heat to temperatures exceeding 100 million degrees c.

The likelihood of a catastrophic accident in fusion reactors in which injury or loss of life occurs is much smaller than that of presently used fission reactors. The primary reason is that the fuel contained in the reaction chamber is only enough to sustain the reaction for about a minute, whereas a fission reactor contains about a year's supply of fuel. Fusion also requires extreme and precisely controlled conditions of temperature, pressure and magnetic field parameters. If the reactor is damaged, these will get disrupted and the reaction will be rapidly quenched (extinguished).

According to supporters of fusion technology, its biggest advantage is that it needs very little fuel. The release of energy from a fusion reaction is 10 million times greater than from a typical chemical reaction, such as burning a fossil fuel. "Fusion has the potential to provide abundant and clean energy based on resources available everywhere without significant ecological issues associated with mining of earth's resources," says Anil Kakodkar, chairperson of the Atomic Energy Commission (aec). Skeptics, however, point out that it could take too much time before a commercially viable reactor is built.

"The main concern relates to putting all pennies in a single basket; this implies investing huge funds in a technology that may materialise after 50 years. To raise concerns about its safety and environmental aspects right away is not feasible because of the uncertainty in technology development and the time required for development. Anyhow, the saftey aspect only relates to whether the fusing two light atomic nuclei plasma can be kept stable for a long time. It is yet to be seen whether that can happen or not," says A Gopal Krishnan, the ex-chairperson of aec. Besides, environmental groups argue that the enormous cost of the project will suck funds away from alternative energy research, with no guarantee that an effective method of using the fusion process will be found.

But the project proponents are hopeful. "This kind of energy generation is the best for environment. Waste product is helium which is benign and does not cause global warming. Fusion produces no high-level radioactive waste either," says S K Mattoo, project director, iter , Institute for Plasma Research, Ahmedabad.


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