The news of the recent successful plasma experiment at a nuclear fusion research facility in Germany went wild on social media, but a lot of people wondered what kind of sense it makes for a country with a nuclear phase-out to be conducting research in nuclear fusion. In fact, Germany is a leader in nuclear fusion in two ways. Craig Morris explains.
For the first time ever worldwide, physicists from the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald recently managed to use microwaves to create a plasma with a temperature of 80 million degrees Celsius. It lasted for a quarter of a second (press release). At that temperature, the materials used in the reactor would melt, so the plasma has to be suspended in midair magnetically. That description is admittedly simplistic; for a more in-depth (and enjoyable) explanation, I refer readers to the recent New Yorker article, whose title sums up the technology well: A star in a bottle.
Obviously, a quarter of a second is not long; a future fusion powerplant would, of course, run for decades. Furthermore, 80 million degrees is not quite what is needed; the World Nuclear Association (WNA) expects a commercial reactor to reach 100 million degrees (for what it’s worth, the New Yorker says the ITER plant being built in France aims to hit 200 million degrees).
ITER is not, however, expected to go into operation this decade, and the goal is merely to produce more energy than is put into the process for the first time. The plasma is to survive “for at least 400 seconds continuously,” the WNA says, adding: “No electricity will be generated at ITER.” In short, a commercial fusion power plant is not expected until more or less the middle of this century.
As the WNA points out, fusion research began in 1951 both in the Soviet Union and in the US. In 1954, the German foreign policy journal Außenpolitik claimed that nuclear fusion would be “practically ready to use in two years.” In 1955, German nuclear minister Franz-Josef Strauss declared at the Atomic Conference in Geneva that fusion “might be” the conference’s only real sensation. He was referring to Indian nuclear physicist Homi Bhabha, president of the conference, who had stated that the world could expect nuclear fusion in around 20 years, putting us in 1975.
In 1960, West Germany founded the Institute of Plasma Physics (IPP) in Garching, which focused on nuclear fusion under the direction of Werner Heisenberg – who, ironically, stated in 1956 that “nuclear synthesis [meaning “fusion”] is a long way off.” But if the government is handing out money, why say no? General Electric stepped away from fusion research in 1969, and around that time the head of the IPP called fusion “adventuresome… 100 million degrees is a fantastical temperature.” And so, 1975 came and went without nuclear fusion, but the hype remained (all quotes taken from this book). In 1977, an article in Der Spiegel spoke of nuclear fusion as “Europe’s last chance,” with one expert saying fusion would make up “a considerable share of European energy demand” in less than 30 years (PDF).
But what kind of sense does it make for a country with a nuclear phase-out, like Germany, to conduct research into nuclear fusion?
Nuclear proponents would argue that fusion will fix the problem of nuclear waste, which is a main concern behind the nuclear phase-out (though it does not generate nuclear waste, a fusion reactor itself is partly contaminated). But another reason for the phase-out and the Energiewende is the wish for community energy: people making their own energy in smaller, distributed systems. As the WNA points out, fusion plants will have to be big by design. There will be no community nuclear fusion. The technology requires large corporations.
Nuclear research during a nuclear phase-out reveals the dilemma that the nuclear sector currently faces. The headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is located in Vienna. Austria blocked the opening of a finished nuclear plant in 1978 – a year before the accident at Three Mile Island in the US – and adopted a nuclear phase-out in 1997. The country’s utilities have also pledged not to import any nuclear power. But nuclear research still continues in numerous European countries with a phase-out planned or completed (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and Italy) largely because of Euratom (European Atomic Energy Community). Euratom currently focuses partly on fusion research.
In 1957, Euratom was created alongside the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the European Union. Thus, nuclear has been at the heart of the EU since the outset. Oddly, all EU member states are still Euratom members, even those without nuclear power or those with phase-out plans.
Germany is pursuing a two-pronged strategy for fusion, however, just in case the Star in a Bottle never works. Germany is building solar panels as fusion energy receivers. The Sun itself is a giant fusion reactor. Wind turbines are indirect fusion energy receivers (solar energy stirs up the atmosphere). Likewise, biomass stores fusion energy by means of photosynthesis.
So if you are a fan of fusion energy, Germany has you covered.