The Joint European Torus (JET) team located in Culham near Oxford has just taken a step forward in the scientific progress of nuclear fusion. Atomic fusion consists of releasing energy by reducing the mass of two light atoms (deuterium and tritium, isotopes of hydrogen) when they fuse into helium atoms. Fission, on the other hand, is the release of energy from heavy atoms such as uranium that split into lighter elements, with this change in mass releasing gigantic amounts of energy. In both cases, these reactions correspond to Einstein’s famous equation E= mc2.
Fusion research has been going on at the JET since it opened 38 years ago. Attempts are being made to achieve reactions on Earth similar to those that take place in the sun. To enable fusion to take place, the atoms need to be at temperatures of around 150 million degrees, so they are plasma at this temperature. It is understood that no material can withstand this temperature, which is why this reaction must take place in a magnetically confined reactor. This huge toroidal magnetic chamber of superconducting magnets is called a tokamak. This is a Russian acronym coined by its designer, the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.
The JET experiment generated 59 megajoules (MJ) of energy for the first time, far more than the previous record set in 1997 when the machine produced 16 MJ for 0.5 seconds. Twenty-five years separates these experiments, so much so that in between these two successes, there has been extensive research to advance knowledge and technology.
Jef Ongena, a leading expert on nuclear fission who works at the Belgian Military Academy and the Jüllich Nuclear Research Centre (near Aachen), considers this breakthrough a triple success. Firstly, JET is the world’s largest fusion reactor and has achieved a world record for the duration and power. Secondly, it is a success for the EU and more specifically for the Euratom Treaty signed in Rome in 1957, because despite the Brexit the project has remained European. And finally, it is a step that will accelerate the implementation of the ITER project, as JET will operate under technological conditions similar to those of ITER on the day it is commissioned.
The aim of the fusion experiments is to self-generate deuterium and tritium to keep the reaction going. This is one of the objectives of the ITER project, but the experiments of JET do not have this objective.
It should be noted, however, that despite this enormous success, the reactor only operated for five seconds, generating 11 to 12 MJ each second for a total of 59 MJ, which represents 16 kWh, or the energy of 1.4 litres of petrol. But to obtain this fission energy, it was necessary to spend three times as much electrical energy. This is much better than in the previous experiment when ten times as much energy had to be used.
This remark is not made to diminish the scale of the success, but to make it clear that for the time being it is only a question of research and that nuclear fusion should not be used as a headlong rush in the race for the energy transition.
The ITER project under construction in Cadarache (near Aix-en-Provence) is also an experimental tool. It aims to demonstrate the feasibility of self-powering the reactor with tritium at a temperature of 150 million degrees. It is so far removed from any industrial application that the EU, Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, India, and the US are collaborating on it by sharing the know-how that will be acquired. The EU is contributing about 45% of the budget, and the other countries each contribute about 9%. Again, as with JET, it will take years of experimentation before we can move on to the next phase. All this is to study physics and start designing future reactors. That is why a possible application of energy generation will not be feasible for probably another 50 years. This is the pace of science; funding, legislation and international cooperation do not necessarily shorten the time of discovery.
Nuclear fusion is presented as an infinite energy of the future. It remains to be seen if it is feasible and, above all, it remains to be confirmed that more energy will be recovered than is necessary to maintain the proximity of the elements that must fuse.
But there is an energy that is also infinite, but which already exists. We are in the midst of a current event, since this is nuclear fission, commonly known as nuclear energy. It too is a success of the Euratom Treaty, which resulted from the observation of the founding fathers of the EU when, meeting in Messina on 2 and 3 June 1955, they realised that there would be no future without abundant and cheap energy, i.e. without nuclear energy.
Let us welcome the scientific progress made at JET, let us hope for even better things for the ITER project, but let us remember that the European Commission has allowed the promotion – that is the term used in the Euratom Treaty – of nuclear energy. It has a definite, immediate, and developing future. In its regulation of 2 February 2022 on green taxonomy, which recognises nuclear energy as meeting the requirements of sustainable development, the European Commission considers that ‘activities related to nuclear energy are low-carbon activities […] These economic activities related to nuclear energy should qualify [as eligible] in the absence of low-carbon alternatives that are technologically and economically feasible on a sufficient scale to cover the demand for energy in a continuous and reliable manner. […] Moreover, the evidence of the substantial potential contribution of nuclear power to climate change mitigation objectives is abundant and clear.’
As for the scarecrow of waste, the Commission explains that for its long-term storage and final disposal, the ‘technical selection criteria should therefore reflect the highest standards of nuclear safety, radiation protection and radioactive waste management, building on the requirements set out in the Euratom Treaty […]. These requirements shall ensure that the impact of extreme man-made and natural hazards, including earthquakes and floods, is minimised and that accidents, abnormal operations and failures or loss of control systems are avoided.’
Let us welcome the about-face of the French President Emmanuel Macron who, like the European Commission, seems to have admitted – after believing for too long that the future lies solely with renewable energies – that nuclear power is the inevitable future of electricity if we want to provide the world’s population with abundant and cheap electricity.
Let us return to the EU’s success at JET. It was Donato Palumbo, an Italian physicist, who was behind the concept in the early 1960s. He joined the European Commission and carried the project forward by forcing cooperation between the Member States. In 1984, at the inauguration of JET, when Queen Elizabeth II asked him how he had managed to get so many countries to cooperate, he replied, ‘Your Majesty… by disobeying.’ The impressed Queen turned to Etienne Davignon, the European Commissioner responsible for energy, and suggested that he provide funding for the research. Later, Palumbo discussed this event with Professor Vandenplass of the Belgian Military School who informed King Baudoin of Belgium. Etienne Davignon summoned Palumbo and told him that the next time he complained to sovereigns he would be fired.
Mentioning Sakharov and Palumbo allows us to remember that science progresses thanks to scientists who have not only knowledge but also determination and courage.
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Par EFDA JET — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27424742
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