Friday, July 01, 2005

The Economist On ITER

The Economist has a brief article up about ITER. Excerpt:
The challenges of achieving fusion should not be underestimated. A large volume of gas must be heated to a temperature above that found at the centre of the sun. At the same time, that gas must be prevented from touching the walls of the reactor by confining it in a powerful magnetic field known as a magnetic bottle. The energy released in fusion is carried mostly by neutrons, a type of subatomic particle that has no electric charge and hence cannot be confined by the magnetic bottle. Ensuring that the reactor wall can cope with being bombarded by these neutrons presents a further challenge.

The costs involved are immense. The budget for ITER involves spending $5 billion on construction, $5 billion on operating costs over 20 years and more than $1 billion on decommissioning. Yet the reason why taxpayers should spend such sums is unclear. The world is not short of energy. Climate change can be addressed without recourse to generating power from fusion since there are already many alternatives to fossil-fuel power plants. And $12 billion could buy an awful lot of research into those alternatives.


Like the International Space Station, ITER had its origins in the superpower politics of the 1980s that brought the cold war to its end as Russia and the West groped around for things they could collaborate on. Like the International Space Station, therefore, ITER is at bottom a political animal. And, like the International Space Station, the scientific reasons for developing it are almost non-existent. They cannot justify the price.

The skeptics are certainly right to focus on the cost. The big concern anyone should have with ITER is that in the end it's not likely to produce anything like cost-effective energy, for the simple reason that governments hide the cost so effectively.

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