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What would it be worth to have a clean technology that could meet all the world's energy needs without producing an ounce of CO2? Today, governments from around the world are meeting in France to discuss exactly that: nuclear fusion.
The process that powers the sun could power the world almost indefinitely, and without creating the dangerous waste that nuclear plants now do. But as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, getting nuclear fusion to work isn't easy or cheap.
GEOFFREY BRUMFIEL: To understand the power of fusion, step outside. It's a muggy summer day in New Jersey, and the sun is beating down. Even from 93 million miles away, it's making me sweat.
I'm at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab with Mike Zarnstorff, the lab's deputy director for research. He says if we can mimic the sun's power source here on Earth, we'd be set.
Dr. MIKE ZARNSTORFF (Deputy director, Princeton Plasma Physics Lab): When we're beyond the era of oil and coal, and beyond even the era of gas, then there aren't the many options. Fusion offers the prospect of thousands of years of energy supply without, really, further issues.
BRUMFIEL: Fusion happens like this: When two hydrogen atoms collide hard enough, they fuse. Out comes helium, neutrons and lots of energy.
The process sounds simple, but it's not. Hydrogen nuclei are positively charged and naturally repel each other. Pushing them together takes incredibly high temperatures and pressures. Researchers have been trying to make fusion work for decades. In fact, it's become a bit of a joke in the field.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Professor STEVE COWLEY (Atomic Energy Authority, U.K.): Have I heard the joke? Yes.
BRUMFIEL: Steve Cowley is head of the United Kingdom's Atomic Energy Authority.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COWLEY: The joke about fusion is that it's 30 years away, and always will be.
BRUMFIEL: When it finally gets built, a new experiment in France hopes to change all that. ITER - spelled I-T-E-R - should produce 10 times the power consumed.
Mr. COWLEY: ITER will be the first demonstration that you could stably do that in the conditions necessary to show that you can make a power station out of this source.
BRUMFIEL: ITER is a collaboration between the United States, Europe, Japan, South Korea, Russia, China and India. It's a fusion project larger than anything the world has ever seen.
The Princeton lab has built a machine similar to ITER, but much smaller. Underneath a mess of scaffolding and cables, you can just about make out something spherical, maybe the size of a U-haul truck. This is the National Spherical Tokamak�Experiment. It uses magnets to squeeze hydrogen together. But the magnetic fields are constantly shifting.
Mike Zarnstorff says that making it work is like trying to inflate a balloon made of rubber bands.
Dr. MIKE ZARNSTORFF (National Spherical Tokamak�Experiment, Princeton University): And you're trying to hold high pressure gas inside an assembly of rubber bands. And the rubber bands are always trying to interchange position with the gas and slice through the gas. And you have to design the rubber bands very carefully.
BRUMFIEL: You've just made it go from sounding hard to impossible.
Dr. ZARNSTORFF: It's not impossible, but it requires careful thought.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. ZARNSTORFF: And careful design.
BRUMFIEL: And a lot of money. ITER will be five times the size of this machine, and will use much more powerful superconducting magnets. The design is already facing huge cost overruns and delays, and it's barely even a hole in the ground.
Thomas Cochran studies nuclear issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council. He says nations are struggling to find the cash.
Mr. THOMAS COCHRAN (Natural Resources Defense Council): And the European community, in order to pay their share of those cost overruns, they're going to take it out of other research and development programs.
BRUMFIEL: Cochran believes the money for ITER would be better spent developing other sustainable sources of energy, like solar and wind power.
Mr. COCHRAN: The economics look so bad that we really ought to just pull the plug and invest in technologies that look far more attractive and can actually contribute to mitigating climate change in the next couple of decades.
BRUMFIEL: For now, at least, governments seem ready to spend on fusion. At this week's meeting in France, ITER's partners are expected to approve a total price tag of somewhere around $17 billion for construction. That's nearly triple earlier estimates.
Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
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