9.4 – Waiting for the second third fourth coming of the Fusion age

Another cause for concern is the lengthy timetable towards fusion power. ITER is scheduled to finish operations in 2038 (or more likely the 2040’s at the current pace). As noted, ITER’s goal is merely to prove the concept, not provide a 24/7 operating reactor, never mind a commercially viable one generating electricity. The ITER groups own figures has the design and construction of the follow on DEMO reactor taking place from around 2035-2045. This will be, as the name implies, a demonstration Fusion Reactor unit. While it will run for extended periods it certainly won’t be running on anything like a commercial basis, that will require waiting for PROTO (the first commercial prototype reactor) coming about 10-20 years later. Assuming no hold-ups, either technical or political, to stop or slow down this process (worth noting that the ITER program was held up for 5 years while everyone argued over where ITER was to be built, and indeed its already behind schedule), this puts the first generation of commercial Fusion Reactors as being built around the 2050’s at the earliest and more than likely the 2060’s or even 2070’s if we’re realistic. Indeed its likely even the timetable I’ve outlined above might slip as ITER is now not expected to acheive fully operational status until 2026.

ITER (next set as the PC language above refers to it as) and the preceding phases of fusion development

But we cannot wave a magic wand and the world will start sprouting fusion reactors like daisies. Assuming a well supported government campaign of building (which will be dependent on the costs being reasonable, if they are higher the build rate will be slower) then we should hopefully be able to match the maximum ever Fission reactor build rate of 30 GW/yr (or 235 Billion kWh/yr) after a 15-20 year lead time (i.e. time to train everybody, tool factories, built new ones, sort out planning issues, etc.) Unfortunately if you do you’re sums this would have Fusion power just about succeeding in replacing our existing nuclear capacity of around 5% of global energy use sometime around the 2100’s, quite some time away, with a lot of potential showstoppers in between.

When presented with the above, Fusion power supporters usually react with indignation  and accuse one of “manipulating the figures”. They seem to believe that, cometh the hour, they’ll be given an unlimited budget and unlimited resources to complete roll out of nuclear power at an unrealistically fast schedule – many think the first commercial reactors will be built by the 2050’s. While that is still possible, assuming no hold ups (and as discussed there’s already been a few!), one or two fusion reactors (or even one each in every nation that’s a member of ITER) aren’t going to make a huge difference to the global energy picture, we’d need hundreds or thousands of GWe scale units to achieve that, and it would take a considerable time to build those (decades), especially if they are made out of exotic materials where there is only a very limited manufacturing capacity.

And of course, if the economics of nuclear energy don’t work out as well as hoped (remember these are the same people who told us Fission reactors would be “too cheap to meter”) then they’ll be getting very little government or private industry support, possibly none! And of course there is the possibility that ITER and IFMIF might fail. The whole point of ITER is to prove once and for all if the Tokamak magnetic confinement approach is actually viable….or not. If it’s no, then it’s back to the drawing board for the scientists and we have an even longer wait.

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