19.10.20 Nuclear fusion: elation or illusion? Hans-Joachim Ziegler • 5 min.

Scroll to Read

Fusion reactors generate electricity but no nuclear waste. Will this game-changing technology be available in time to propel the energy transition?

To reach its climate targets, Europe will need much more renewable energy. But renewables are intermittent: no breeze or sunshine, no electricity. In the decades ahead, Europe will therefore need additional solutions to keep the grid stable and the power supply reliable power.

Could nuclear fusion be one such solution? Fusion reactors, in whose development Europe has already invested billions, operate like the sun: at extremely high temperatures – around 150 million degrees Celsius – they fuse two atomic nuclei into one. Deuterium and tritium become helium. This process releases a neutron, whose energy heats water into steam, which drives a turbine that generates electricity.

Fusing atoms instead of splitting them has two big advantages: it produces no radioactive waste and is safe. Scientists maintain that it’s impossible for the fusion process to get out of control or threaten the surrounding area. Bernard Bigot, Director General of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), goes further: even a terrorist attack on a fusion plant wouldn’t necessitate the evacuation of nearby residents.

Enter ITER

ITER, located in Cadarache in southeast France, is the world’s best-known fusion project. Its purpose is to prove that fusion is not only controllable but can also produce more energy than it consumes. So far, it hasn’t worked. Still, the entire energy industry has one eye on ITER, which is effectively the global bellwether of fusion.

ITER’s road has been rocky. Originally priced at €5 billion and supposed to begin operations in 2016, the project is now expected to cost just under €20 billion and go online in 2025. But this budget and schedule aren’t certain either. ITER has seven project partners (the United States, Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, India, and the EU), each of which has its own agenda. Fusion also faces a range of technical challenges whose solution still seems a long way off. For example, it’s unclear what material the inner wall of the vacuum vessel should be made. Why? Because no material that can permanently withstand the heat necessary for nuclear fusion. The source of tritium, one of the two ingredients for fusion, is likewise uncertain. Fusion researchers obtain their comparatively small requirements from nuclear power plants. But future fusion reactors will ultimately probably have to produce their own tritium, although how this would work is today a matter of speculation.

Most discouraging of all is the ponderous pace of development. Even the most optimistic timetables estimate that fusion reactors won’t begin delivering electricity to the grid until 2055 at the earliest – five years after Europe is supposed to be climate-neutral. And with the costs of alternative technologies like energy storage and green hydrogen expected to decline going forward, it’s uncertain whether fusion-generated electricity would be competitive.

Forge ahead or fold up shop?

Handelsblatt, a German financial newspaper, estimates that by 2035 the EU’s investments in ITER will total €20 billion. Germany is responsible for its share of these investments and also spends another €137 million each year on its own fusion research. Fusion’s enormous costs, technical uncertainties, and plodding development raise the question of whether further investments make sense. Germany’s Green Party, for one, resolved in mid-September 2020 that the country should spend no more public money on nuclear fusion or next-generation nuclear reactors. ITER boss Bigot naturally sees things differently. He believes that wine, solar, and hydro won’t be enough. As for fusion: “We feel the need for both urgency and patience. We know we need a replacement for fossil fuels as soon as possible. If we succeed, it will be worth all the time and effort that have brought us to this point.“ The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research is also standing by fusion: “From Germany’s viewpoint, the growing global demand for energy requires research into a wide range of energy options and openness to new technologies.”

ITER’s backers are unlikely to pull the plug on a project that has already cost so much money. And maybe nuclear fusion will prove to be a viable energy source of the future. But it’s already clear that this future will be distant.


The contents of this website are created with the greatest possible care. However, Uniper SE accepts no responsibility for the accuracy, completeness and topicality of the content provided. Contributions identified by name reflect the opinion of the respective author and not always the opinion of Uniper SE.

You might also like

Atomkraft, Atomkraftwerk
Energy • Economy • Innovation The future of nuclear power Thomas Schmidt • 8 min.
Energy • Economy Can electricity be both renewable and reliable? Hans-Joachim Ziegler • 5 min.
Energy • Climate Cutting carbon cost-effectively Hans-Joachim Ziegler • 6 min.
Energy • Innovation Will hydrogen’s future arrive? Hans-Joachim Ziegler • 7 min.
Energy • Climate • Economy Can our emissions be undone? Hans-Joachim Ziegler • 5 min.
Energy • Innovation • Science A British biologist’s uncanny clairvoyance Dariush Jones • 6 min.
Energy • Society • Climate A new era, a new color, a new world view Dariush Jones • 5 min.
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
Energy • Society • Economy Russia modernizes its fossil power plants Dariush Jones • 7 min.
Energy • Society • Innovation Less fretting about jetting Thomas Schmidt • 4 min.
Energy • Innovation Harnessing more renewable energy, decarbonizing industry Thomas Schmidt • 3 min.
Energy • Event Debate.Energy Conference: Best of Jochen Brenner • 15 min.
Energy • Society “Corona is accelerating developments that we didn’t expect for several years” Hannah Meisters • 4 min.
Energy • Innovation “As green as hydrogen can get” Hans-Joachim Ziegler • 6 min.
Energy • Climate #Anthropause: is corona climate-friendly? Hans-Joachim Ziegler • 7 min.
Energy • Climate • Politics • Economy Gas is the ideal enabler of a successful energy transition Andreas Schierenbeck, Vorstandsvorsitzender Uniper SE • 4 min.
Joe Biden
Energy • Society • Climate • Politics Biden's climate plan: jobs, workers, unions. Oh, and clean energy too. Dariush Jones • 6 min.
Energy • Innovation • Economy A different incentive for energy efficiency Thomas Schmidt • 7 min.
Donald Trump
Energy • Society • Politics • Climate Donald Trump's climate policy: “A golden age of energy dominance” Dariush Jones • 7 min.
Bremst der Coronavirus die Energiewende aus?
Energy • Climate • Society Opportunity or obstacle? What corona means for the energy transition Hans-Joachim Ziegler • 9 min.
Energy • Innovation • Climate Podcast: "Städte spielen eine zentrale Rolle für die Energiewende" Jochen Brenner • 30 min.
Wasserstoff: Energieträger der Zukunft
Energy • Climate • Opinions Hydrogen: Jules Verne’s vision brought to life Andreas Schierenbeck, Vorstandsvorsitzender Uniper SE • 8 min.
Energy • Economy • Science Fuel cells for passenger cars: hope or hype? Hans-Joachim Ziegler • 8 min.
Energy • Climate Avast those emissions! Dariush Jones • 8 min.
Energy • Economy A solution for Germany’s green power glut Thomas Schmidt • 6 min.
Energy • Society • Climate Corona promotes energy conservation Thomas Schmidt • 6 min.
Energy • Opinions • Society Soll ich mir ein E-Auto kaufen, Prof. Schuh? Jochen Brenner • 25 min.
Follow us on Social Media
Follow us
on Social Media