Monday, January 23, 2017

ENERGY - The Nuclear Option

"Is alluring but elusive fusion energy possible in our lifetime?" PBS NewsHour 1/18/2017


SUMMARY:  Limitless power with virtually no greenhouse gases or radioactive waste.  If that sounds too good to be true, that's because it is.  For decades, researchers have looked for ways to control, confine and sustain fusion as an energy source.  But there has been a lot of progress on a small scale, building on years of physics understanding and progress.  Science correspondent Miles O'Brien reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  The hunt to create fusion energy.  While many people remain worried about pursuing further development of nuclear power, some researchers believe nuclear fusion could hold the key to clean and plentiful energy.

There have been many false starts before, but some scientists see real reason for hope that this path will eventually pay off.

Miles O'Brien has a report for our weekly segment 'The Leading Edge,' a co-production in this case with NOVA and his special, “The Nuclear Option.”

MILES O'BRIEN (NewsHour):  In Southern California, this complex, power-hungry machine is hard at work on a seemingly quixotic mission, akin to catching lightning in a bottle.  It is a plasma generator.  Its builders hope it's a key step in the long journey to the Holy Grail of energy production, fusion.

MICHL BINDERBAUER, Tri Alpha Energy:  Fusion is nature's preferred way of making power.

MILES O'BRIEN:  Michl Binderbauer is chief technology officer for a startup called Tri Alpha Energy that is making a $500 million bet on fusion.

MICHL BINDERBAUER:  Think of this like a mini-sun, a very hot mini-sun, and it radiates.  And it's that radiation that is intercepted on the surface of the machine, and then it becomes heat, and then you can process that into electricity.

MILES O'BRIEN:  The promise, no less than limitless power, with virtually no greenhouse gases or radioactive waste.  If that sounds too good to be true, it is.  No one knows that better than nuclear engineer Steve Dean.

STEVE DEAN, Fusion Power Associates:  Fusion is not low-tech.  It's not going to be easy to prove that it's reliable, maintainable, cost-effective, because it is complicated.

MILES O'BRIEN:  Dean is president of Fusion Power Associates, a foundation focused on research and education.  He joined the fusion industry in 1962, working for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, which coordinated and funded the U.S. fusion effort.

STEVE DEAN:  To me, it seemed like it was something I could spend my career on, and we would have electricity on the grid by the time I retired.


STEVE DEAN:  That's what I thought.  So, it didn't happen that way.

MILES O'BRIEN:  Fusion is as old as the cosmos.  It is the nuclear reaction that takes place in our sun and all the other stars in the universe.  In a fusion reaction, hydrogen atoms collide at high speed, fusing together, forming a helium atom, releasing one neutron.

Since the mass of the helium atom is less than the combined mass of the two atoms that collided in the first place, energy is released.

The dawn of man-made fusion broke over the Pacific in 1952, with the first explosion of a hydrogen bomb.

MICHL BINDERBAUER:  The hydrogen bomb was a quick success.  And so a derivative of that was euphoria.  In a few more years, we could do civilian energy production out of fusion.  And while there were glimmers of hope along the way, we all now know, painfully, that hasn't happened.

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