70 years after the first energy was made using nuclear power at an experimental station near Arco, Idaho, nuclear energy remains at the heart of a contentious debate. Nuclear power holds enormous potential as a solution to curbing emissions that contribute to global warming, as splitting atoms to make energy is extremely efficient and produces absolutely greenhouse gas emissions. What it does produce, however, is hazardous waste that remains radioactive for millennia. And then there is the issue of public mistrust, as high-profile nuclear disasters like those at Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island have seared themselves into the global community’s collective memory. But what if there was a way to produce nearly boundless atomic energy without creating any radioactive waste and without any risk of meltdown? Scientists have been chasing this holy grail of clean energy--nuclear fusion--for nearly 100 years. Nuclear fusion, the energy creation process that occurs naturally on the sun, is many times more powerful than nuclear fission, and could solve some of humanity's most pressing and seemingly unsolvable problems with its infinitely renewable and totally clean energy production if we can finally find a way to make it commercially viable.
Building a star here on Earth, however, is far easier said than done. This silver bullet solution to energy and climate change has remained elusive. But we are now closer than ever to making it a reality. The European ITER project has recently surpassed a series of milestones with their tokamak currently under construction in the South of France. The project, a collaboration between 35 nations decades in the making claims that they will achieve first plasma by 2025, and commercial nuclear fusion could be close behind.
But now there is another project underway in the UK that could pave the way for ITER. “Dozens of scientific projects have fought to make commercial nuclear fusion a reality. None has succeeded,” “But in 2021, an ambitious European-funded project in the UK will switch on for the first time in 23 years, and it could be a vital step on the road to fusion.”
This project is, in many ways, a model miniature of the massive ITER tokamak project in France. “Inside a reactor shaped like a giant doughnut, scientists from the Joint European Torus (or JET) project will smash hydrogen atoms together at high speed, releasing a huge amount of energy and heat in the form of plasma. Temperatures will reach a level ten times hotter than the Sun as the plasma swirls around,” the article details. ITER, is relying on the smaller-scale experiments currently underway at JET to fasttrack nuclear fusion for commercialization by “[cutting] down the amount of time required to take fusion power out of the lab and into our homes.”
A tour of this new reactor, starting with the waveguide pipes that transmit microwaves to heat plasma to “temperatures ten times hotter than the Sun.” Operations within the replica tokamak test facility are carried out by “articulated arms.” From a control room, highly trained engineers practice using these robot arms--called the MASCOT-- to move things around so that actual workers will not have to go inside the tokamak to touch potentially radioactive materials. The MASCOT “mimics human arms and hands, and is capable of tightening screws and ‘feeling’ objects on behalf of humans that control it from a safe distance,”. “Robots go into the tokamak when human beings cannot.”
With the huge scale and even bigger stakes for the tokamak project currently being built by ITER, it is essential that the mechanizations and routine operations of the tokamak environment are practiced and perfected before the machine goes online in coming years. When building a machine that could change everything, you better know how to use it.