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.
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.