Scientists first demonstrated the incredible power of nuclear energy around 70 years ago, but nuclear fusion remained out of reach. As promising as it proves to be, the necessary technology to develop and build viable nuclear fusion power plants haven’t quite reached us, or has it?
Earlier this year, TAE Technologies, claimed to have found a long-awaited solution to generating power from nuclear fusion. Now, a new project is underway looking at several sites across the UK to house its new fully operational power stations.
What Is Nuclear Fusion?
Nuclear fusion is the process of generating heat by joining two lightweight atoms to form a heavier atom. The fact is, these reactions power the Sun and other stars at temperatures exceeding 15 million degrees Celsius.
Now, TAE Technologies claims its reactors could generate energy at a commercial scale producing stable plasma at temperatures of more than 50 million degrees Celsius. To give a simple comparison; this is more than twice the temperature at the core of the sun.
Is Nuclear Fusion Cleaner And Better Than Other Fossil Fuels?
Even though today’s nuclear plants rely on nuclear fission, it is more polluting and hazardous to work with compared to fusion energy. Nuclear power, in, general, is far better than other forms of fossil fuels with regards to generating heat and producing no CO2.
The thermal output of nuclear energy is immense using Uranium pellets in today’s nuclear reactors. Although nuclear fission is not as “good” as nuclear fusion, it’s still economical in a sense. Using 20 grams of Uranium fuel can produce as much energy as 400 kg of coal. And, eight Uranium pellets can provide enough energy to power a house for one year.
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Finding The Right Locations In The UK
The UK Atomic Energy Authority’s STEP (Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production) is leading the charge of finding one site in Scotland and four in England. If all goes according to plan, the nuclear power stations will be completed somewhere in the 2040s. The final decision in terms of locations will be made by the end of 2022.
As impressive and forward-thinking as this may be, it would be naive to think nobody will ask whether it’s safe to live near a nuclear fusion plant. Here’s what the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) had to say.
Are Nuclear Fusion Power Plants Safe?
The IAEA has confirmed that nuclear fusion power plants are perfectly safe and more environmentally friendly. They explained that since it’s not based on a chain reaction as with fission, it cannot cause a nuclear reaction.
For fusion to occur, plasma must be kept at extremely high temperatures but with these facilities, any shift or change of the working configuration in the reactor cools it down and automatically shuts everything down within a few seconds.
This means if anything should go wrong, the device would stop working with no further after effects. Here’s what IAEA wrote on its site:
“Fusion on (…) does not create any long-lived radioactive nuclear waste. A fusion reactor produces helium, which is an inert gas. It also produces and consumes tritium within the plant in a closed circuit. Tritium is radioactive (a beta emitter) but its half-life is short. It is only used in low amounts so, unlike long-lived radioactive nuclei, it cannot produce any serious danger.”
While nuclear fusion may no longer be science fiction, there are still several challenges that companies such as TAE need to overcome. However, Addison Fischer, a TAE investor and board director remains optimistic stating the following:
“TAE’s most recent funding positions the company to undertake their penultimate step in implementing sustainable aneutronic nuclear fusion and power management solutions that will benefit the planet.”
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