South Korea, U.S. plan joint project for fusion reactor

South Korea, U.S. plan joint project for fusion reactor

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News & Events - Engineering News

January 4, 2013

A new joint project between the U.S. and South Korea hopes to take engineering research and development in nuclear fusion to the next level by building a nearly commercial-scale pilot power plant.

Announced late last year, the project will provide the U.S. Department of Energy's Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) with funding from the South Korean government's National Fusion Research Institute (NFRI).

Dubbed K-DEMO, the project will rely on research from both countries, and help foster cooperation between the two prominent programs.

"We all share the same vision to deliver a possible DEMO design," Gyung-Su Lee, a research fellow at NFRI, said in a statement. "We will share our expertise so that the outcome will benefit not just K-DEMO, but a next-step U.S. fusion facility as well."

Bigger and better
K-DEMO will follow a similar pattern to the international project known as ITER - a large circular magnetic containment unit known as a tokamok, with fusion powered by high-energy lasers. However, unlike that project, currently being constructed in France, K-DEMO is intended to produce electricity over an extended period.

ITER - a decades old project being promoted by the U.S., EU, South Korea and four other countries - is intended to generate electricity for only 500 second spurts. The researchers at PPPL and NFRI hope that a new array of advanced engineering tools will allow them to create a working fusion reactor capable of serving as a more reliable source of power, potentially operating for weeks at a time.

In addition, whereas ITER is only intended to produce around 500 million watts, K-DEMO aims for a far more impressive 1 billion watts, around the size of many existing large-scale nuclear power plants.

The project is hoped to be completed sometime in the early 2030s, and researchers hope successful testing could quickly lead to a commercial-scale plant.

Unrealistic expectations
Despite the optimism surrounding the project on the part of PPPL, Slate's Charles Seife notes that it features many of the same problems that have sunk previous fusion developments. He notes a recent report from the DOE highlighting the consistent inability of the country's biggest fusion project, the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, to accurately predict its own prospects for success.

ITER itself, though currently under construction, has already been nearly scuttled when the U.S. backed out of the initial project due to cost overruns and technical issues. It only renewed its support years later when designs had been scaled back and costs subsequently lowered. With cost overruns arising once again, the U.S. has already suggested the possibility it might not meet its financial commitments.

Seife notes that fusion research has seen a variety of similar failed projects, or even more outlandish concepts, often pushed by unrealistic optimists focused purely on the potential to solve global energy needs.

Another approach
Instead, some researchers are promoting a new use for fusion reactions that would create hybrid reactors designed to help reduce growing stocks of nuclear waste.

Despite its effective use in power generation, nuclear fission has left many countries burdened with large amounts of highly radioactive waste, much of which will only decay slowly over millenia.

IEEE Spectrum reports that a new adaptation to the Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak in Abingdon, England, could hopefully convert some of this long-lasting waste to fissionable material that could be used in nuclear reactors by bombarding it with the byproducts of fusion reactions. To this point, however, the systems necessary to hold and manipulate the fuel rods have not been designed.

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