Nuclear Fusion Is Now a Question of “If”, Not “When”

A small railway town in southern England could go down in history as the place where nuclear fusion kicked off. The reaction process – which would generate vast amounts of low-carbon energy – has evaded scientists for decades, but a private company in Didcot, Oxfordshire says it’s now a question of if, not when.

Tokamak Energy is firing its nuclear reactor up to 50 million degrees celsius – almost twice the core temperature of the sun. By shooting 140,000 amps of electricity into a cloud of hydrogen gas, the team are trying to force hydrogen atoms to fuse, thereby creating helium. These fusion forces are the same ones that power the sun. While there’s no danger that Didcot could become the new centre of the solar system, the industrial estate could spark the start of a cheap, clean energy supply.

We will crack it,” CEO Chris Kelsall told the BBC on a recent trip, “the answer is out there right now with Mother Nature as we speak. What we have to do is find that key and unlock the safe to that solution. It will be found.”

Having ramped the temperature up to mind-boggling degrees, the experiment’s next step is to see if nuclear fusion can produce more energy than it uses. In case it rings alarm bells to anyone in the vicinity, nuclear fusion is very different from nuclear fission and its associated disasters. The process occurs inside a ‘tokamak’ – a device which uses a powerful magnetic field to contain the swirling cloud of hydrogen gas. This stops the superheated plasma from touching the edge of the vessel, as it would otherwise melt anything it comes into contact with. If anything goes wrong inside a fusion reactor, the device just stops – so there’s no risk of this astronomical heat being unleashed.

The plasma has to be heated to 10 times the temperature of the sun to get it going, and is capable of fusing two hydrogen nuclei into a helium nucleus. Nuclear fission, on the other hand, is the dangerous kind. This creates energy by splitting one ‘heavy’ atom (typically uranium) into two. This breakdown generates a large amount of radioactive waste in the process, which remains hazardous for years. Fusion cannot produce a runaway chain reaction, like the one that happened at Chernobyl in 1986, so no exclusion zone is needed around Milton Park, Didcot, where the reactor is based. Laura Hussey, an editor who works minutes away at a publishing office on the business park, says she is “really encouraged to hear how safe it is and really happy to see this big investment in clean energy.”

Source: https://www.euronews.com/