Originally created 11/30/97

New fusion reactor may provide clean energy



Researchers believe they have an answer to the world's mounting energy problem, and it's not the $10 billion experimental fusion reactor community leaders in the Aiken-Augusta area want for Savannah River Site.

Their proposal: a cheaper and much smaller fusion machine they claim will produce enough electricity to power a city the size of Augusta for just a few dollars a day. Operating the reactor would not involve the hazards or yield the radioactive waste normally associated with nuclear power, they say.

As importantly, "These reactors could replace all gas, coal and oil-fired power stations in the world," said Hendrik Monkhorst, a physics professor at University of Florida and one of the designers of the so-called Colliding Beam Fusion Reactor. "They are absolutely clean."

Electric power has transformed the world, and more people than ever before have utility lines running to their homes. But each time we turn on a lamp or a computer, we could also be contributing to the demise of Mother Earth.

Carbon dioxide gases from coal and oil-burning power plants are being trapped in the atmosphere, causing global warming and a possible environmental catastrophe, scientists warn. Representatives from 150 nations are meeting in Kyoto, Japan, this week to discuss a controversial treaty aimed at curbing such pollution.

The nuclear industry is pushing atomic power as the only viable alternative to the dirty coal, oil and gas plants. But America's nuclear power plants have their own headaches: dangerous radioactive wastes that are piling up with nowhere to go, cumbersome and costly regulations, and a public that continues to worry about Chernobyl-style accidents.

Dr. Monkhorst and his physics colleagues Norman Rostoker and Michl Binderbauer at University of California at Irvine presented their boron-fueled reactor idea in the current issue of Science, a prestigious research journal.

The Department of Energy, which funds energy research programs, has not paid much attention to their project so far. Nor have utilities. But Dr. Monkhorst said three private investment groups have expressed an interest in footing the bill for a $70 million test reactor to be built at a Florida laboratory.

The test reactor should prove that the colliding beam fusion reactor can produce electricity twice as efficiently and 100 percent cleaner than a traditional coal-burning plant, he said.

In their article, the researchers also take a stab at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, which community leaders in the Augusta-Aiken area hope to land at SRS. The $10 billion fusion project is spearheaded by an international consortium seeking a new energy source for the 21st century.

The technology used in ITER would be a doughnut-shaped machine known as the tokamak, the design most fusion research has focused on so far.

Although the Energy Department says the United States is not interested in hosting the costly ITER project, there are still many people in Georgia and South Carolina who haven't ruled out the idea, said Charles DeVaney, the executive vice president of Augusta Tomorrow.

In need of a new mission after Cold War weapons production ceased, SRS would have the infrastructure and know-how to handle ITER or any other fusion project for that matter, Mr. DeVaney said.

Ben Cross, manager of fusion programs for Westinghouse Savannah River Co., also predicted the ITER program will move forward but acknowledged the current design might change and other options be considered over time.

Dr. Monkhorst and his colleagues are skeptical ITER will ever see the light of day, however.

The gigantic facility would be expensive and difficult to maintain because of the structural damage and wear the reactor would suffer as atoms fuse inside the tokamak doughnut, they say.

Like the colliding beam fusion reactor, ITER would produce heat by combining atoms - the same process that powers the sun and the stars. But the reactor proposed in Science would be fueled by boron and hydrogen, materials that react less violently than the deuterium and tritium fuel used in ITER, Dr. Monkhorst said.

The radioactive contamination that would occur inside a tokamak would also be absent in the colliding beam reactor, he said.

ITER presents "too many obstacles," Dr. Monkhorst said. "My vision is that it is too cumbersome a system, too God-awfully difficult to run, and too expensive to build to ever become reality."

But Bill Stacey, chairman of the ITER steering committee for the United States, doesn't take much credence in this new fusion kid on the block, and he wonders why it's getting any attention at all.

"(ITER) is something that thousands of people around the world have been working on for 25 years. Here we've got three guys that spent, what - a year?" he scoffed. "I'm getting things like this (fusion proposal) in the mail all the time. There's nothing special about it."

He predicted it will fade into the background as most new fusion power proposals have in the past.

What Drs. Stacey and Monkhorst have in common are their faith in fusion as a source of clean power for a world that craves more electricity every day.

"If it works," Dr. Monkhorst mused, "it means we can finally tap into a nearly unlimited resource of energy. I think the people in Kyoto should pay close attention."