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Fusion through the eyes of a veteran science journalist

Author Daniel Clery recently published “A Piece of the Sun,” a 320-page narrative of the history of fusion research and the personalities who have devoted their careers to it. Clery is a United Kingdom-based reporter for Science magazine who holds a bachelor’s degree in theoretical physics from York University and has covered fusion for more than a decade. While hardly an uncritical flag-waver for fusion, he recognizes its vast potential. He discussed his new book and the future of fusion with PPPL Science Writer John Greenwald.

How did you gather your detailed information from labs like PPPL?

I spent a week at Princeton two years ago and interviewed lots and lots of people. I also visited Culham [a fusion center in England] as a writer for Science, and similarly Garching [in Germany]. In Moscow, people from the Kurchatov Institute came out and talked to me. I went to NIF [the National Ignition Facility in California] as well.

What does the story of fusion suggest about its future prospects?

I think the story so far shows the power of determination to produce fusion energy. People just don’t want to let this problem go. I’m not an expert, but to me it seems that they will get to break-even — meaning that they will get at least as much energy from fusion as it takes to create the reaction. I would be very surprised if ITER [an international fusion experiment under construction in France] doesn’t get to break-even. I would be surprised if NIF doesn’t as well. I know that NIF is having trouble at the moment, but there are a lot of clever people there and I’m sure they will crack that nut.

Then what?

There will still be a great deal of work to do. Just because you can get fusion to work as a science experiment, as ITER probably will, that doesn’t mean that you can inevitably make an economic fusion reactor. There are so many questions yet to answer — that’s why it always seems to be decades away.

So you don’t see a commercial fusion reactor as inevitable?

There are a lot of technologies that people thought were no-brainers that never came to fruition. Fast breeder reactors haven’t happened yet, like a lot of other developments, and its possible that fusion will be another technology like that. But I hope not because it will be such a great technology if it can be made to work.

What intrigues you about fusion?

It has so many positive points. The fuel is abundant and there are no greenhouse gases. There’s very little nuclear waste and none that’s going to last for hundreds of thousands of years. So many clever people want to work in this area and there’s got to be a reason why they’re trying so hard.

Do you see any drawbacks?

Deuterium-tritium-fueled fusion isn’t ideal because it does create a lot of high-energy neutrons and you’re going to get activation of the reactor. But the amount of radioactive waste that is produced by deuterium-tritium fusion is so much less than from a fission reactor that it’s got to be a better solution for producing energy.

What about the role of government funding?

That’s one of the points that I make in the last chapter of the book. One of the problems is that when the government loses interest in fusion the subject loses funding. If the government stuck with it and put more money into it we would have an answer much more quickly.

How would you sum up the world’s experience with fusion research?

The thing that really struck me about fusion is that it’s got such a colorful history and people have done such amazing things. A lot of people never saw it come to fruition but they still worked their whole lives in the field and put a lot into it. I hope all that effort is going to come to something in the next decades. I’m optimistic that it will.


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