UK spearheads world search for 'dream energy' of nuclear fusion

Geoffrey Lean,Environment Editor
Saturday 28 December 2013 03:21

Britain is leading a worldwide campaign to harness the sun's energy to beat global warming, the Independent on Sunday can reveal. But environ- mentalists last night condemned the effort – nuclear fusion – as a waste of money on a dangerous technology.

The campaign, led by the Prime Minister, is controversial for backing attempts to recreate the processes that fuel the sun through fusion.

Tony Blair, who has developed great enthusiasm for the energy source, has convinced George Bush, the US President, of the merits of the technology, which could theoretically provide almost limitless energy. But environmentalists dismiss it as a chimera which will probably never work and, if it does, produce radioactive waste.

Mr Blair's commitment – backed by the Government's chief scientific adviser, Dr David King – has brought a dramatic U-turn in Britain's attitude towards fusion. Until recently officials dismissed the technology as unlikely to be economic, after hundreds of millions of pounds of research produced little result.

A leaked Government report, finished last year but never published, said it might never be "technically viable" and recommended that Britain's spending on it should be kept to "a minimum".

The technology involves light atoms – such as like deuterium and tritium – fusing at temperatures of 100 million celsius. Conventional nuclear power – fission – splits heavy atoms, such as uranium.

The fuel is effectively inexhaustible. Just one per cent of the deuterium in the world's oceans has the potential, with fusion, to deliver 500,000 times as much energy as all the oil, gas and coal the world has ever contained. It also emits far less radioactivity and produces much less nuclear waste than fission – though it is far from being entirely clean. Yet so far, scientific effort has succeeded only in sustaining fusion for a few seconds.

Next year, the EU, Japan, Canada and Russia, will embark on a €20m project to build an experimental fusion reactor, in what will be the world's biggest ever collaborative research and development project. Last month the EC committed €750m to fund its share of the project over the next four years.

The project originally was not expected to lead to a functioning commercial fusion power station for 45 years. But this has speeded up following intervention by Professor King, himself originally sceptical about the technology.

Prof King succeeded in getting Europe to agree to a fast-track programme, leading to a power station in about a quarter of a century. He also helped persuade the EC to commit even more money, €810m, to researchrenewable energy over four years, too.

Meanwhile, Mr Blair had converted President Bush at his Texas ranch earlier this year. The US had pulled out of the joint research project, but Mr Bush later instructed his administration "to seriously consider" rejoining.

Environmentalists, however, regard the enterprise as ridiculous, saying that, with a fraction of the effort and expenditure, solar and wind power could meet much of the world's needs long before fusion would come onstream.

Roger Higman, the energy campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said last night: "Mr Blair must be joking. We have spent hundreds of millions of pounds on fusion and got nowhere. Meanwhile, the government will not provide the money needed for renewable sources that already have been shown to work."

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments