Hybrid fusion: the third nuclear option
THE long-anticipated nuclear renaissance has arrived. In his State of the Union address last month, President Barack Obama announced plans for the US to build a new generation of nuclear power plants, and his budget for 2011proposes large funding increases for the industry.
Several European countries are also likely to restart their nuclear power programmes soon. The UK plans to increase to 20 per cent the proportion of its electricity generated from nuclear.
A return to nuclear power is attractive right now for many reasons. It promises to help cut carbon emissions and reduce imports of fossil fuel. What's more, unlike renewables, it can ensure a stable baseload electricity supply whatever the weather.
However, nuclear energy also creates problems of its own, not least the risk of Chernobyl-style accidents and the production of radioactive waste that takes tens of thousands of years to decay. One thing Obama did not spell out is how the US will deal with a new generation of waste now that it has abandoned plans for a storage facility at Yucca mountain.
There is a way of returning to nuclear while overcoming all these concerns: hybrid nuclear fusion. The concept has been around for decades, and has been discussed in the technical literature and at the International Atomic Energy Agency. But it has not yet been explained to governments, industry, researchers and the public.
Hybrid nuclear fusion combines the two forms of nuclear power, fission and fusion, in a single reactor. This has several advantages over fission alone: it minimises the environmental impact, reduces risks, enlarges reserves of nuclear fuel and is more flexible to operate.
Fission, the process behind conventional nuclear power, harnesses energy from the radioactive decay of uranium and other fissile materials. Fusion, meanwhile, is an experimental technology that extracts energy from processes similar to those occurring inside the sun, where...