Nuclear fusion may still be in the lab, but one New Jersey company is continuing a steady march toward commercializing this powerful energy source.
For decades, fusion has been considered a safer way to generate power from nuclear reactions because it doesn’t produce radioactive waste or create dangerous contamination situations, as in the Chernobyl and Fukushima meltdowns.
Lerner's team has accomplished two of the three steps needed for energy-generating nuclear fusion — achieving the ultra-high temperatures necessary to burn the hydrogen-boron fuel his process uses, and successfully transferring that energy to plasma form.
“It’s 150 times hotter than the center of the sun,” he says of the temperature required, about 1.5 billion degrees Kelvin.
This step in his firm’s “hot” fusion technique requires enormous amounts of energy as well, if only for a few nanoseconds.
But that third step to creating net energy out of the process — to have an environment where energy isn’t transferred, or “wasted” when the superheated particles hit cooler surrounding particles — is a tough one.
“It’s certainly doable but it’ll take some engineering,” admits Lerner, who estimates the cost to get there at “around $30-50 million, a drop in the bucket for a government.”
“There are large efforts going on in fusion,” adds Albert Machiels, senior technical executive with the Electric Power Research Institute, an energy research organization. “But I don’t think in the next 10 years you’ll see fusion projects leave the lab. There’s a lot that must happen.”
Instead, he says, the next generation of nuclear power plants that could be built will likely be updated versions of today’s uranium-powered nuclear fission systems.
In early February, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approvedSouthern Company’srequest to build two new nuclear fission reactors at the company’s Vogtle site near Augusta, Ga., where it currently operates two older reactors. The approval clears the way for issuance of an operating license for the reactors, which could begin operating as soon as 2016.
It’s the first nuclear power plant approved in the U.S. since the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster in Pennsylvania.
Machiels says while it’s fine to keep an eye on fusion in case it hits a potential growth spurt, new developments in nuclear fission shouldn’t be ignored.
He points to new designs for passive cooling at fission reactor plants, where water is available without mechanical pumping to cool the reactor core once the nuclear reaction is stopped by choice or by accident.
The partial meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima power plant in 2011 showed the dangers of the current cooling system that requires human operators and equipment to intervene to cool the core.
Both man and machine could be out of service or destroyed by the event that crippled the plant in the first place, like a tsunami or earthquake.
“You can essentially walk away,” Machiels says of the new technology, and the plant will still cool down.
But even with technological improvements and new plants on the way, the nuclear power industry still faces some battles.
Secure storage of waste products is still an issue, with no long-term plan in the U.S. since the proposed Yucca Mountain storage site was shelved in 2010.
Some companies are finding ways to reprocess this fuel in new ways.
International Isotopes is building a facility in New Mexico to convert uranium enrichment byproduct in more benign forms of uranium while producing specialty fluoride gases.
These gases are used in several industries, from creating thin-film solar photovoltaic materials to computer chips to cell phones.
“This is clean and ‘green mining’ at its best,” says company spokesman Jim Drewitz.
Used fuel rods are now typically stored on-site at nuclear reactors across the country.
Lerner says his fusion process creates helium as a waste product, a gas with an established industrial market.
He also adds that upfront capital costs, another Achilles heel for nuclear energy, are on his side.
He estimates his company's reactor would ultimately cost about $300,000. “It’s a factor of 10 cheaper than the cheapest energy today,” he says, referring to coal.
Compare that to the cost of the existing reactors at Southern’s 1980s-era Vogtle facility, that ballooned from $600 million to nearly $9 billion by the time it generated its first megawatt.
The federal government has offered $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to the new reactors at Vogtle, 17 times the money at risk in the solar companySolyndra, which went bankrupt.
Machiels admits it’s this price tag that could keep nuclear fission reactor development in low gear, allowing time for more breakthroughs for fusion.
Ultimately, he says “we have to prove we can build a new plant on cost, and on schedule.”