Geopolitics of fusion at risk in reactor saga

Geopolitics of fusion at risk in reactor saga

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is an international nuclear fusion research and engineering megaproject, scheduled to become the  world's largest magnetic confinement plasma physics experiment. (Photo provided)
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is an international nuclear fusion research and engineering megaproject, scheduled to become the world's largest magnetic confinement plasma physics experiment. (Photo provided)

Making steady progress, the internationally funded International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) has announced that it will begin experimenting in producing fusion energy via the same processes as our sun around 2035. Yet, there are fears that the move will be eclipsed by recent developments by private companies, which have invested massively with the hope of commercialising fusion energy decades ahead of bureaucratically run ITER.

There are concerns that the private sector's developments may affect the delicate geopolitics of fusion. ITER was announced in 1985 as a Reagan–Gorbachev initiative to promote peace via an endeavour that no one country could afford: a tokamak "donut" design fusion reactor. Despite fears that the Russians would essentially steal US technology, cooperation went ahead. Building a working coalition took years, with the US opting out in 1999, only to re-join in 2003. Canada, an initial member, left because of spiralling costs in 2003. Still, ITER formally began in 2007, with the coalition comprising the EU, the US, Japan, the Russian Federation, China, South Korea and India.

With India being the only representative of the Global South, ITER is essentially a neo-colonialist model of energy research. The Global North is the only bloc capable of coming up with the $22 billion plus needed to finance ITER until 2035, when fusion experiments combining deuterium and tritium, isotopes of hydrogen, will begin, costing billions more. Further, ITER itself acknowledges the international coalition format adds bureaucratic delays. Moreover, numerous NGOs, such as Greenpeace, oppose ITER as a waste of taxpayers' money, arguing funds should be better invested in renewables and solar.

In fact, neither the economics nor the geopolitics of ITER are well understood. The general idea is that, some time in the 2040s, successor machines to ITER, termed the DEMO phase, will be developed. Germany and China are already looking at ways of developing beyond ITER, namely the Wendelstein 7-X demonstration of the stellarator principle, an alternative to the tokamak, and the China Fusion Engineering Test Reactor, an advanced tokamak design. Japan also has a claim to build a DEMO phase successor which is partially-financed by the EU. The DEMO phase would cost billions of dollars more and would result in at least one massive tokamak prototype facility producing 2-4GW of electrical energy. Commercialisation, via smaller, cheaper, commercial facilities, sometime in the 2050s, relies on a successor machine, PROTO. Subsequently, perhaps in the 2060s, private companies would be licensed to commercialise the technology on a global or regional basis. The 2050s are so remote that the exact conditions for commercialising nuclear fusion, together with the geopolitics, are a grey area.

However, ITER's delicate balance involving the 21st century's great powers is breaking down. Private companies are making great progress towards alternative paths to commercial fusion energy. These smaller, leaner alternative approaches benefit from a faster turnover in versions of their machines, ie, a higher iteration rate, as well as cutting-edge developments in electronics, materials sciences, plasma physics, and high-performance computing. A 2014 American Security Project white paper co-authored by scientists including Miklos Porkolab, director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Centre at MIT and Tony Taylor, vice-president of Magnetic Fusion at General Atomics, predicted that a well-organised, well-funded, dedicated team could create a net fusion energy reactor in a decade. As such, commercial fusion energy well ahead of the 2050 ITER timetable is now a serious possibility.

The leading contenders are all based in North America. The US-based TAE Technologies proposes employing colliding beam fusion reactor technology, similar to a particle accelerator. Energy Matter Conversion Corporation's (EMC2) design uses advanced magnetic confinement technology, a classic "sun-in-a-box" fusor design. In Canada, General Fusion proposes using mechanical pistons to compress and heat a plasma within a liquid lithium liner. These companies pay little attention to the geopolitics of fusion. Their business model is to develop a working net energy fusion reactor by about 2030 and then license that to manufacturers, with General Fusion already working with Canadian engineering company Hatch. All three technologies would produce room-sized reactors which could be dropped into any heat exchange system, potentially replacing one gigawatt fission and coal reactors by about 2035, just as ITER begins experimenting with fusion.

Nevertheless, interesting geopolitical developments have occurred involving some of these companies. Russia, through the joint-stock company Rusnano, invested in TAE in October 2012, clearly hedging its bets over ITER. General Fusion, which has received substantial Canadian public funding, has also received major funding from Malaysia's sovereign wealth fund. And, in 2016, EMC2 was involved in discussions with Thailand.

Still, only General Fusion has an investor from the Global South at present. Thus, the private model will perpetuate the neo-colonialist nature of the advanced energy sector. In fact, the private model risks devastating Global South fossil-fuel-based economies and rupturing intra-regional power agreements by developing fusion decades ahead of market expectations.

Moreover, while Russian investment in TAE provides it with a stake, if other companies beat TAE, Russian interests would not be met. Also, these companies are wary of China poaching their technology. The potential therefore exists for fusion to become an antagonistic factor in geopolitics, triggering the collapse of fusion-related intellectual property rights and causing an arms race involving fusion-powered aircraft carriers and submarines.

Ultimately, only the United Nations, especially Unesco, responsible for the peaceful sharing of scientific developments through education, has the moral authority to broker this situation. Unesco's purview includes lobbying for mutual respect between cultures over war, such as via the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. Consequently, fusion could be used to alleviate conflicts over fossil fuel resources, such as the Spratly Islands dispute.

A UN-brokered involvement of national and private stakeholders in the route towards fusion would prevent further technology-related intellectual sanctions, like the US ban on Chinese involvement in the international space station. To safeguard developing countries' interests and avoid conflict, the UN should leverage fusion to bring about a global peace treaty, freeing its use to develop countries, combat global warming, and explore space for the benefit of humanity.

John Draper, director of Social Survey Centre, and Consultant of Khon Kaen Smart City Initiative (Culture), Khon Kaen University's College of Local Administration. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa is a founder and former dean of Khon Kaen University's College of Local Administration.

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