There isn’t too much that comes out of President Bush’s mouth that I can agree with. But I do agree with him when he says America needs to repair and improve it’s energy infrastructure to remain competitive.
We do need a means to produce the energy we need in a sustainable and ecologically non-destructive manner. In my view, we should have a crash program to bring controlled fusion online as our principal energy resource.
There is enough deuterium in the oceans waters (approximately 1-in-2000 atoms) to provide all of mankind’s energy needs for an estimated fifteen billion years. What’s more it can do it without releasing an atom of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and without producing any long term high level nuclear waste.
ITER is an international effort to build a burning plasma fusion test reactor capable of sustained operation at commercial power levels. This effort will take ten years to construct and then will operate a projected twenty years. The total cost of construction will be around six billion dollars, and operation over the following twenty years another six billion. Of this, the US total contribution will be around 1.1 billion over the lifespan of the project, about 550 million towards the construction.
To put this in perspective, the United States spends as much in a day on imported oil as we will contribute over a period of ten years towards the construction of this crucial test reactor.
This reactor is the last step before the deployment of commercial fusion reactors. It’s function is to test components and materials at commercial power levels over long periods of time. Present fusion reactors use copper coils to generate the magnetic containment field. Because these coils have resistance, they rapidly heat up limiting power shots to about a minute maximum. The power levels existing reactors operate at are about 5% of the level a commercial reactor would operate at. It is not known how critical components, particularly a device called a diverter that skims off helium waste from the plasma, will hold up to long term bombardment by energetic ions and neutrons. ITER will establish that and allow us to do any material research to make any necessary adjustments.
To take ten years to bring this online and to only spend as much as we do for one days worth of oil imports is insane. It is national, economic, and environmental suicide.
February of 2006, the Chinese started construction of a test reactor which uses superconductive coils and thus will be capable of continuous operation for long periods. September of 2006, this reactor saw first plasma. Why is it possible for the Chinese to do something in seven months that it takes the rest of the world ten years to do? The answer is that the Chinese understand the urgency of providing for their energy needs and the Chinese government isn’t owned by the oil industry.
The United States has become completely unable to compete in the world market for manufactured goods. Initially this was due to low wages, and in the case of goods manufactured in China and India this is still true. In Japan and South Korea where the demand for labor has outstripped supply and wages have risen to higher levels, they have remained competitive through the extensive use of automation and through very effective quality control efforts.
In time, the labor market will saturate in China as well, but if they succeed in bringing controlled fusion online before the rest of the world, they will have a huge economic advantage because of their low energy costs. We need to not be left in the dust on this one. The US space race with the Soviets was largely symbolic, but bringing fusion power online soon is essential to our nations survival. If we do not do this we will simply not have the economic means to compete in any market or to maintain our security.
Presently, the one area that we’ve remained competitive with on the world market is in food production. Rising energy costs and the depletion of natural aquifers faster than nature can replenish them will soon bring an end to our ability to compete even in this area and possibly an end to our ability to feed ourselves.
What has allowed us to compete in the world market for food has been our land, some 46% of American land is arable, contrasted with about 10% of China’s. However, what makes the majority of China’s land unsuitable for food production is the lack of adequate fresh water supplies. Controlled hydrogen fusion will provide the energy they need to desalinate water as necessary and make much of this presently non-arable land arable. Meanwhile, as our aquifers deplete and the cost of energy to run our farm equipment continues to skyrocket, much of our land will cease to be arable, at least from an economic standpoint.
We should be building our own superconducting fusion test reactor and we should be bringing it online rapidly, as China has done, and we should move to commercial deployment as soon as remaining material issues are resolved.
While this is in progress, we should be tapping non-fossil sustainable energy sources here in our country to the fullest extend possible. The western half of the United States has huge geothermal potential. Wind is a resource available almost everywhere in the US. Solar is practical in the southern portion of the country. We need to ramp up deployment of these sources.
There are also fission reactor designs that can burn the actinides and thus produce only short-term fission product waste instead of long lived plutonium and other transuranic wastes. I really believe we need to give these technologies serious consideration. Yucca mountain could be come a reactor farm instead of a waste disposal site, the reactors being used to simultaneously burn actinides instead of trying to store them for ten thousand years and at the same time produce enormous quantities of energy. This is not only the responsible thing to do for our generation, it is also the responsible thing for us to do for future generations.
So how can we get the oil companies hooks out of our government and put these projects into high gear and get our economy rolling again, save our environment, and eliminate a nuclear waste legacy for our children?