December 4, 2023
📰 FEATURE STORY
Should India sign the agreement on nuclear fusion strategy?
As the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference or Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC, more commonly referred to as COP28, gets underway in Dubai, everyone’s hoping the year can end on a high with substantive agreements on tackling the climate emergency. How much of a role will fossil fuels play? What will developed countries do? The challenge is to stay below the 1.5 degree Celsius of warming goal.
We’ve got some indication of one strategy. The US is expected to announce a strategy of international partnerships to commercialise nuclear fusion power. Since it’s considered a better alternative than nuclear fission, this could pay dividends. The question is, given some public opposition to anything nuclear, should India sign on?
Countries are desperate for an abundant source of clean energy. For decades, we’ve researched, debated, and implemented various strategies like solar, wind, etc. Nuclear power has been an option but a controversial one.
Since the 1950s, scientists have been studying fusion power. Turning it into a sustainable energy source has been a frustrating exercise. Fusion was recognised as a potential energy source almost as soon as fission was. Enrico Fermi, who led the project to build the first fission reactor in Chicago during World War II, thought fusion reactors could be used to generate power.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “nuclear fusion is the process by which two light atomic nuclei combine to form a single heavier one while releasing massive amounts of energy”. It’s basically the same thing that powers the sun – the fusion of two hydrogen atoms to make helium. When they combine, a huge amount of energy is released.
But what’s the recipe on earth? The most promising one is the fusion of a deuterium atom with a tritium one. It requires temperatures of about 39 million degrees Celsius. The trick is to bottle the energy that’s several times hotter than the sun’s centre. We need a reactor. Initial designs favoured a magnetic confinement. A popular design called a tokamak was proposed by Soviet scientists in the 1950s.
Last December, there was a significant breakthrough. Physicists working on fusion at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California announced they had extracted more energy from a controlled fusion reaction than had been used to trigger it. It was a first. Then, this August, scientists at the California lab repeated the fusion breakthrough.
Over the past two decades, private sector investment in fusion has surged. This includes Microsoft, which signed a deal with the private nuclear fusion company Helion to help the technology giant support its long-term clean energy goals. Some estimates say companies have raised around $5 billion in private funding. In the case of Helion, backers include OpenAI CEO Sam Altman.
India has made steady but limited investments in nuclear fusion. January 2020 marked 30 years of Aditya, India’s first tokamak reactor. The Department of Atomic Energy’s (DAE) goal is to build two 10,000 ME grid-connected fusion reactors by 2050.
As world leaders meet in Dubai for COP28, the United States is expected to announce a global effort to commercialise nuclear fusion. Over 20 countries have called for tripling nuclear energy capacity by 2050 to reduce emissions. Should India join the effort?
VIEW: It’s the right thing to do
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global net zero emissions can only be reached with investment in nuclear energy. Since the start of the 21st century, nuclear energy has helped avoid the release of 30 gigatonnes of greenhouse gases. The breakthrough from last year was timely since the world deals with high energy prices and a need to rapidly move away from fossil fuels.
Scientists have considered the concerns about fusion and ensured that it’s safe. Nuclear fusion can be a clean, safe, and abundant energy source. It doesn’t create any long-lived radioactive nuclear waste. The helium produced is inert, and Tritium has a short half-life. Fusion needs relatively less energy to start and maintain. The necessary material, technology, and equipment are less of a nuclear proliferation concern. All of this is important since the public has to buy in.
Given the practical challenges, India has joined the US, UK, EU, Japan and Russia to establish ITER, a collaborative project to develop fusion for peaceful purposes. A government panel formed by NITI Aayog recommended overturning a ban on foreign investment in the nuclear power sector. While large-scale commercial production via fusion reactors is about a decade away, India is in a good position. It’s where the future lies.
COUNTERVIEW: Need to take a step back
Given the mammoth task ahead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, putting a lot of chips in the nuclear fusion basket might not pay dividends. Producing electricity from nuclear fusion on a large commercial scale that’s needed right now could be unrealistic, at least in most of our lifetimes. This won’t be cheap either. The ITER effort is estimated to cost between $25 and $65 billion. The original estimate was $5.6 billion.
We need to get into the science for a minute. At the NIF breakthrough, the lasers pumped 2.05 megajoules of energy and produced 3.15 megajoules. That 3.15 is only about 0.875 kilowatt-hours. That’s too little. The NIF also said the 192 lasers consumed 400 megajoules in the process. How will a reactor in the future produce more energy than it uses sustainably?
Here’s the thing, we already have carbon-free energy sources that achieve a net gain of energy – solar, wind, and hydro. Solar alone produces four to five times as much energy as it takes to manufacture them. Yes, they had a head start, but they scaled up relatively quickly and cheaply. India is a great example where solar is a success thanks to a risk-free development model and strong regulations.
- US to announce global nuclear fusion strategy at COP28 – Reuters
- What Is the Future of Fusion Energy? – Scientific American
- The Road to Fusion – Scientific American
- What is nuclear fusion? The science – and the latest news on it – explained – World Economic Forum
- India’s activities in nuclear fusion – Nuclear Engineering International
- Nuclear fusion may offer India a clean-energy pathway – Mint
- The ‘Breakthrough’ in Nuclear Fusion Energy Is No Cause for Celebration – The Wire
- Could Fusion Overcome Public Opposition to Nuclear Power? – Foreign Policy
- Nuclear Fusion Is Not the “Holy Grail” of Clean Energy – PBS
What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)
a) India should join the global nuclear fusion mission.
b) India shouldn’t join the global nuclear fusion mission.
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