Unify nations, merge atoms

, by Maël Donoso, Translated by Elena Montani

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Unify nations, merge atoms

To meet the energy and environmental challenges of the twenty-first century, the European Union has to turn to innovative technological solutions, in particular nuclear fusion.

Energy security will be one of the priorities of the French presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2008.

The comparative advantages of fossil energy, nuclear fission and renewable energy will probably be approached, and the question of a balanced partnership with Russia will certainly be on the agenda.

But to renew the European energy policy, it is pertinent to make plans beyond the next two decades, and to reflect upon the technologies which will ensure, in thirty or forty years, our energy supply.

The technologies of today: fossil energy, nuclear fission, renewable energy

It has become obvious that fossil energy (i.e. oil, gas and coal) cannot serve as a base for sustainable development: these exhaustible fuels, harmful for the environment, must sooner or later be replaced. This is an undeniable truth even if systems for sequestering carbon dioxide, still at the experimental stage, could manage to prolong their future use.

Nuclear fission, the physical process used in our conventional nuclear power stations, raises different problems, because the division of heavy atomic nucleuses leads to radioactive isotopes with a very long lifetime. The storage of these materials represents a potential time bomb, because any escape could have disastrous ecological and human consequences.

The transition towards more sustainable energy sources will probably pass through renewable source. The future of energy lies within hydraulics, wind, solar, or even geothermal technologies. However, even these have their limits. The maximum potential of hydroelectric power stations have already been reached in numerous countries. Wind-turbines offer good prospects, in particular turbines placed in open sea, but their output remain limited. If research in the field of solar energy is encouraging, it seems however that renewable energy is deemed to develop slowly, and the mechanisms for storing these energies remain beyond our reach.

It would be absurd to suppose that the energy needs of humanity will not increase during the twenty-first century. On the one hand, constant progress in information technology, in robotisation and communication leads us inevitably down the path of over consumption in energy. On the other hand, the industrialisation of emerging countries will be accompanied ineluctably by an increase in their energy needs, as it is currently the case for China.

Supraconduction, recycling and the optimisation of our domestic and industrial machines will probably afford us major savings. But on the whole, only the increase in our energy production will be able to guarantee the continuation of technological progress, and especially the division of technologies between all people of the planet. Consequently, our industrial societies will be soon confronted with a double challenge, apparently paradoxical: produce much more energy, while polluting much less.

The technology of tomorrow: nuclear fusion

Unlike fission, a process that divides heavy cores such as uranium, fusion is a process that assembles light cores, like hydrogen. The amount of energy produced in this way is much greater, and no radioactive waste with its interminable lifetime is released. Nuclear fusion, when it is controlled, will therefore produce clean and almost unlimited energy.

Therein lies, obviously, the future of our energy production. However, it is not easy to build a miniature star inside an engine. In order to be operational, a power station has to protect the equipment to be merged inside a confinement cell, which presents a formidable engineering challenge. The relevant technology is still experimental, but constant progress is being made in this sense, and, in a few years’ time, we will have reached the critical point where fusion will be a fully functioning energy resource.

Deuterium and tritium, hydrogen isotopes used in the engines, can be extracted from water. There is therefore no need to collect major quantities of a fossil material, like oil, or a rare element, like uranium. An industrial power handling nuclear fusion is never dependent on a third power for its supply of fuel: it must only have scientific and technological competences for building and maintaining its engines. No other source of energy represents such a strong independence from natural resources.

Europe can play a key role in the development of fusion

The development of fusion should be one of the technological priorities of the European Union, for three reasons:

• Europe has exceptional competences as regards physics of the particles, as shown by its important share in the ITER programme (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). It is probably best placed, on a worldwide scale, to cunduct research on fusion.

• Europe is today the world leader as regards environment, and it represents, with the United States, the main scientific and technological power of the planet. It can strengthen this position while entering into major research projects, and by playing the role of pioneer.

• Europe has to find a means of ensuring its energy independence, while freeing itself from the constraints related to the resources. Fusion represents an unexpected chance of developing a clean, sustainable energy resource and with very high capacity, which could ensure our industrial future for the coming decades.

Let us add finally that the political Europe, that we support, was built around federal projects, and that it can only continue with ambitious programmes. Fusion technology supplies a clear, realistic solution, adapted to the energy and environmental issues with which we are currently confronted. Its development has therefore to be fully supported, encouraged by a strong political will, and must be shared and discussed with civil society.

It would be a beautiful image and a major project, both physical and political: unify nations by merging atoms.

Image: nuclear fusion; source: Wikicommons under licence Creative Commons.

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