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Implications of Fusion Power

October 24, 2014

The hype accompanying the Lockheed announcement of its fusion power development distorted the potential benefits of fusion power.

There is no question that fusion power has great potential, and could be the primary source of electricity when other power generation methods are no longer available, but it has limitations.

The hype surrounding the Lockheed announcement included making electric cars viable, allowing farming in deserts, providing clean electricity for millions and powering airplanes.

There was little explanation about these claims in the announcement. In fact, little is known about how the energy will be extracted from the fusion reactor, and how the energy it produces can be used in applications such as power generation.

The inference in the announcement was that there would be a heat exchanger inside the fusion reactor that would carry the heat away from the reactor. This is essentially the same as in present day fission reactors.

In present day nuclear and coal-fired power plants, some form of energy is used to boil water, which becomes steam that can drive turbines that drive electric generators to produce electricity.

The transfer medium leaving the reactor doesn’t have to be water. It can be sodium, or any material that can absorb and then release heat, which can be used to boil water and produce steam.

The University of Washington claimed its reactor could produce electricity at the same cost as a coal-fired power plant. Its cost for the fusion reactor, and presumably the related generation equipment, was $2,700 per KW, which is about the same as an Ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plant.

If that is true, then the fusion reactor wouldn’t be able to compete with natural gas in the United States for generating electricity, as a natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) power plant costs $1,100 per KW, and the added fuel cost, at $3 /Million BTU, wouldn’t justify the difference in construction costs.

The University of Washington’s fusion reactor could compete with coal in countries where low-cost natural gas isn’t available. India lacks both coal and natural gas and could be a major beneficiary of fusion reactors.

For comparison purposes, current nuclear reactors cost around $6,000 per KW.

The Lockheed announcement indicated its fusion reactor would be smaller. If so, its reactor and power plant might be less costly, but the cost would have to be around $1,800 per KW for it to compete with low cost natural gas.

The fusion reactors being proposed by the University of Washington and Lockheed probably wouldn’t be the low-cost producer of electricity in the United States, but could be elsewhere in the world.

NGCC power plants would remain the workhorse for power generation in the United States and Canada, and possibly other countries, such as Argentina, if they are able to obtain cheap natural gas from shale.

Another potential benefit of fusion reactors would be for them to replace, at a lower cost, nuclear reactors in aircraft carriers and other U. S. Navy ships, assuming the University of Washington’s cost estimate is correct. Fusion reactors would also eliminate nuclear waste and costly refueling cycles that affect time at sea.

The Lockheed announcement contained some hype that should be examined.

  • Fusion power would have little effect on the development of EVs and PHEVs as it is the cost of the battery, not the cost of electricity, that is the deciding metric. Fusion reactors would probably have little direct effect on the oil industry as most oil is used for transportation.
  • Creating agricultural abundance in desert areas as the result of fusion power seems unlikely.

The claim is based on low-cost electricity for use in the desalinization of sea water.

Countries, such as Saudi Arabia, already use desalinization to produce fresh drinking water. Virtually free natural gas, such as in Qatar, or very inexpensive oil, such as in Saudi Arabia, produce low-cost electricity, and it’s doubtful fusion reactors, as described in the various press releases, would displace natural gas or oil in these situations.

The cost of converting deserts to green agriculture would be prohibitive unless fusion reactors would cost far less than is now being claimed.

Fusion reactors could have some important secondary consequences.

  • Fusion power plants would probably be used in Europe, where the cost of natural gas is very high. This would eliminate Russia’s cash cow of supplying Europe with natural gas. Russia’s economy is largely based on exporting natural gas and without an export market Russia would have serious financial problems.
  • If fusion reactors were used in countries such as Japan and China, it would probably destroy the LNG export market. LNG imports, by countries needing natural gas, are very expensive at around $16 per million BTU. Australia, the United States and Qatar could see this market disappear.
  • Except for the manufacture of steel, coal would have few uses.

The development of fusion reactors would have important far-reaching consequences, but both Lockheed and the University of Washington need to provide more information before it’s possible to reach firm conclusions about their proposals.

Everything about future consequences and benefits are pure conjecture at this point in time, as fusion is still confined to the laboratory. Even Lockheed admits it will take a decade or more before it could build a working model.

Currently, Lockheed and the University of Washington have very intriguing proposals that would give the United States a huge advantage if they are successful in developing a working power plant based on a fusion reactor.

It would result in American companies building and exporting fusion reactors to the rest of the world.

While the risk of failure is great, this is an instance where government funding could reap huge rewards if private capital is unable to take the risk.

DOE funding of ITER in United States

DOE funding of ITER in United States

DOE funding of over $632 million has primarily been in support of ITER technology, or the Tokamak process.

For those who worry about CO2 emissions, fusion power would produce electricity without CO2 emissions.

Funding for determining the viability of the Lockheed and University of Washington’s proposals should be done first, and quickly, before spending huge sums on either proposal.

It certainly makes more sense for the United States to fund these homegrown alternatives if they are viable, than to fund ITER.

 

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