Experts Fuss Over Cost Of Nuclear Fusion Research A group of nations, including the U.S., wants to invest in nuclear fusion as a source of energy. But adopting the process that fuels our sun to create power on Earth won't be easy -- or cheap. On Tuesday, the group called ITER will decide whether to spend another $17 billion on a lengthy experiment.
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Experts Fuss Over Cost Of Nuclear Fusion Research

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Experts Fuss Over Cost Of Nuclear Fusion Research

Experts Fuss Over Cost Of Nuclear Fusion Research

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DON GONYEA, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

CO: 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: 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.

MIKE ZARNSTORFF: 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: 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)

STEVE COWLEY: Have I heard the joke? Yes.

BRUMFIEL: Steve Cowley is head of the United Kingdom's Atomic Energy Authority.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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.

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: Mike Zarnstorff says that making it work is like trying to inflate a balloon made of rubber bands.

ZARNSTORFF: 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.

ZARNSTORFF: It's not impossible, but it requires careful thought.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ZARNSTORFF: And careful design.

BRUMFIEL: Thomas Cochran studies nuclear issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council. He says nations are struggling to find the cash.

THOMAS COCHRAN: 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.

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: Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

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