back to article Hybrid fusion-fission reactors to run on nuclear 'sludge'

Texas-based boffins say they have figured out a cunning new method of dealing with America's nuclear waste, using fusion technology - which at the moment can't produce power - to turn 99 per cent of fission reactors' waste into useful energy. "Most people cite nuclear waste as the main reason they oppose nuclear fission as a …


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  1. Edward Miles
    Thumb Up


    ...this turns out to be viable (and of course, that is a biiig if) then this would be a significant result. Suddenly we have co2-free energy and we dont have to sacrifice huge areas of land to turbines. Let's see them prove it in practise now...

  2. Paul


    Just Wow...

    This is (to me at least) truly exciting.... Lets just hope that the anti nuke lobby sees this as a good thing.

  3. Anonymous Coward

    Texas Uni?

    Which Texas Uni? We have dozens of top line universities here. Simply referring to Texas Uni is just not sufficient, pardner. A quick google reveals that these "boffins" work at The University of Texas at Austin. Known locally as "The University" but that is just to piss off the Aggies.

  4. Mike

    Re: Texas Uni?

    >>Simply referring to Texas Uni is just not sufficient, pardner.

    Nobody actually cares, pardner.

  5. michael

    IF it works

    I see no down side

    we get rid of 99% of fission wast and we get the ball rolling on building more recherché of fusion things

    I know there will be comments on the lines of "there is still going to be 1% very dangrous wast hanging arround and to get my retilation in first I will just say that thouse pepol do not relise how little wast this is. it could almost be delt with by flying ti into space and dumping it into the sun

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Texas Uni?

    I think it's quite clear that it refers to the University of Texas. The only 'confusion' would be which of the nine universities inside the University of Texas system it is.

    The Aggies are referred to as TAMU or A&M, not UT or anything similar.

  7. Anonymous Coward

    Eyes glazed over, drool forthcoming

    I understood less than 10 percent of that article, but:

    "Yaaay!! Go science!!"

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Here's an idea...

    ...let's concentrate on getting fusion working first! The sooner that happens, the less nuclear waste from fission reactors we'll have to deal with.

    Seriously, this article is about utilising a technology that doesn't exist yet to solve a problem that will be a mere formality once it does exist.

  9. Eddie Edwards

    Fusion fanboy

    "fusion, the same process that powers the sun, involves no carbon emissions, no troublesome wastes and no finite resources. The only fuel needed would be isotopes of hydrogen, the most common element in the universe, easily extracted from water."

    Since you're obviously talking about Deuterium fusion, you're wrong. This generates neutrons which make the reactor radioactive. Radioactive reactor stuff is troublesome waste. IIRC there will also be some radioactive and highly toxic Tritium produced.

    Deuterium is also a finite resource.

    These problems are greatly less than they are for fission power, but your fanboyish claim that they go away entirely is just wrong.

    You're spot on about the lack of carbon emissions though.

  10. Adam Foxton
    Thumb Up


    if it works.

    It'll reduce the waste a lot and further reduce the amount of weapons-grade stuff being produced. And even better, it'll mean that the enviro-tards won't spend their time trying to destroy vast amounts of this Green and Pleasant Land to make room for all the wind turbines and solar cells we'd otherwise need.

    Even better, Labour will be out at the next election- so there's a chance we'll get someone fractionally more sensible in charge who won't listen to the "oooh, it's NOOKEELAR, so it's evil!" crowd.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    RE: Here's an idea...

    lol ... actually its about using technology that is concievably closer than what full fusion is.. fool!

  12. Phil Clemow

    @AC 15.02

    If you read the article (carefully, that means ALL of the words) tokamaks already exist, they just dont produce power, they consume it (making them useless power plants).

    The hope is that modifying them this way will allow them to produce power, or at least use less and get rid of the waste.

    As for fusion being the solution? Yes, it probably is one of them, but I would suspect it would have exactly the opposite problem to wind, in that the output couldnt be changed to match supply (as opposed the output changing too much) as this would destabalise the reaction.

    So ... like everything else ... its not the complete solution

  13. James

    Existing technology

    "Seriously, this article is about utilising a technology that doesn't exist yet to solve a problem that will be a mere formality once it does exist."

    Er, the tokomak technology does indeed exist, it's been in use for nearly half a century now! The issue was not that it's unproven, just that it doesn't produce a net gain of electricity in itself, it takes so much power to operate. As the second half of the quoted sentence implies, this idea does indeed reduce a significant problem to a "mere formality" - which certainly makes it newsworthy!

    Now we just need a great big batch of new fission reactors, some waste recycling sites and a few of these things to mop up the leftovers cleanly. Roll out algae-derived biofuels, and the future finally looks good, despite the eco-luddites trying to force hair shirts onto us all.

  14. Ross Fleming Silver badge

    @Phil Clemow

    "As for fusion being the solution? Yes, it probably is one of them, but I would suspect it would have exactly the opposite problem to wind, in that the output couldnt be changed to match supply (as opposed the output changing too much) as this would destabalise the reaction."

    Just have a honkingly large lightbulb attached to the reactor that will glow bright with surplus demand, dim during peak periods. In case of a ridiculous surplus, have 2 honkingly large lightbulbs.

    My God, do I have to think of everything myself??

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    @Phil Clemow

    The opposite problem to wind? Where the supply is reliable and constant as opposed to unreliable and variable? Not sure how that's a problem?

    The problem must be that the supply is sometimes inadequate, an excessive supply can just be adjusted by sticking a big bank of <choose your favourite method of dumping power here>?

    I feel like Paris here, because I'm probably being stupid or ignorant.

  16. Daniel Garcia

    a better idea TM

    "We have created a way to use fusion to relatively inexpensively destroy the waste from nuclear fission," says Kotschenreuther.

    the tomahak is a horrendous expensive machine and in my opinion a nono for the fusion future.

    if they instead use a over-size fusor and use the walls as repositorium of the target(that it is itself used for heating some fluid to generated electricy later), that may be done very cheaply and probably will get positive energy output without a lot effort.

  17. G R Goslin
    Thumb Down

    Good Lord!

    I don't think that I've ever read such rubbish in my entire life!

  18. Mark
    Paris Hilton

    What's going on here?

    Where are the people saying that Scientists make all the shit up to make sure they get grant money???

  19. Tom
    Thumb Up

    @Adam Foxton

    Labour have basically given the green light to new nuclear plants. All of the the other parties are opposed (I believe... the Tories can never make their minds up these days!)

  20. Anonymous Coward

    Slight problem or two there

    Erm nobody has a successful working, self sustaining fusion reactor. Another problem is that by the time we might actually make this work all the lithium (see explanation below) will have been used up (exploded) in laptop batteries.

    NB lithium is used to make tritium, the deuterium-tritium fusion reaction works at 10MK where as all deuterium is a toast burning 100MK

    PS @Eddie Edwards

    your talking bollocks, tritium is a fuel for a fusion reactor dummy not a waste by-product and it only has a half life of 12 years. I guess your the bloke who does the sciencey bit on Newsround when you really have a BTEC in media studies. Please leave this sort of things to the real scientists here thanks.

  21. Britt Johnston
    Thumb Down


    Not sure about this one: It sounds like a way to dirty up a fusion process by splitting fission waste into lots of more radioactive products.

  22. Anton Ivanov

    Old Idea

    I remember seeing this in Scientific American 20 odd years ago. The sole difference was that they were using non-enriched/depleted uranium there to burn up high energy neutrons.

  23. Mike Street

    @Ross Fleming

    You owe me a new keyboard.

    But... if you can only buy low-energy, high-mercury (oops) bulbs by then, they'll have to be truly humongous light bulbs to soak up the spare watts. You might even be able to read using the light emitted.

    Clearly the environmentalists didn't see that coming...

  24. Markus Imhof

    Old hat?

    From the register article, this one looks to me like a modification of Rubbia's 'Energy Amplifier' (see e.g. - I could find the wikipedia article faster than the original publications on the CERN server), 'simply' replacing the accelerator with a fusion reactor. Using an accelerator, it would have been 'available technology' and even commercially viable 10 years ago (ok, some of the metallurgy/materials science would have been challenging, but not unsurmountable).

    But apparently nobody, at least not in any government or nuclear power industry, seems to be interested in building such a beast.



  25. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    I love it when people say...

    ..."hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the universe and you can get it from water." As it misses four critical factors:

    1) Most hydrogen in the universe is gaseous and, well, out in the universe. Not easy to get hold of.

    2) Getting hydrogen for water requires a lot of energy

    3) Water is a finite resource on Earth

    4) What about the helium waste products? Free party balloons for all?

    Fusion is not the answer, it merely changes the problems.

  26. Mike Westmacott

    If fusion could be used for war...

    ...then we'd have that technology by now. If the money spent by the UK alone on playing in Iraq was spent on fusion tech we'd be closer to something tangible, just imagine if the US were to contribute some of the billions they spent on killing things and war-boffinry to an international peace-boffinry project.

    Are you listening Obama? *

    @ AC (Slight problem or two there)

    i fink your talking bolox if you r a reel scientits then u cud spel

    * Of course he is.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    @Ross Fleming

    Thank fuck for that I assumed I was the only one that was thinking about using lightbulbs.

    I now feel slightly less stupid, at least on average.

  28. Anonymous Coward

    @Britt Johnston

    I'd think of it less as a way to dirty up an unproductive fusion process and more as a way to clean up a productive fission process.

    Glass, half empty or half full?

    It should give milage to more investigation into making fusion productive if nothing else.

  29. Graham Marsden

    Transuranic heavy elements...

    ... may not be used where there is life.

    (Sorry ;-) )

  30. Shane Orahilly
    Thumb Up

    @ AC and Clemlow

    No need to go to all that trouble of large banks of resistance to dump power. As the heat from the reaction will no doubt be used to drive steam turbines, you simply divert the steam to vent rather than generate excess power.

  31. Anonymous Coward

    @Daniel Garcia

    "if they instead use a over-size fusor and use the walls as repositorium of the target(that it is itself used for heating some fluid to generated electricy later), that may be done very cheaply and probably will get positive energy output without a lot effort."

    Ummm, do you know how fission works? (what our current nuclear power stations run on)

    Or even fusion for that matter?

    lets say you meant fission when you said 'fusor'. if you have an oversize reactor there, you will reach critical mass within no time at all, regardless of how many control rods you have. also, for heating up liquid, THAT IS HOW THEY WORK! the heat from the reaction turns water to steam, which is shoved through a turbine!

    Lets say you meant fusion when you said 'fusor'. a tokomak requires all materials inside it to be in the plasma state. (Dictionary for dummies: plasma: A very HOT gas) if you had it up against the sides of the tokomak, it would melt, thats why they have to keep it in a magnetic field. if you had it any bigger, the magnetic field would have less of an impact, and would be less successful in keeping the plasma under control, which would touch the sides of the tokomak, forcing the entire operation to shut down.

    P.S. please learn english, thats the language we speak here, not engrish!

  32. Simon Ball

    Erm, Mike...

    Fusion CAN be used for war. And we DO have something tangible - they're called thermonuclear weapons.

  33. Joe Cooper
    Paris Hilton

    @Mike Westmacott

    "If fusion could be used for war"


  34. Martyn Breckenridge

    Never mind the waste,

    did anyone else notice those two shady looking characters in that picture?

  35. Phil Clemow

    Venting the steam ...

    Really depends how much control you have over the fusion reaction, if there isnt much control, imagine that you have the generator producing the peak energy for the day, then imagine how much steam you have to vent at night?

    Global warming through a more direct route :)

  36. David Wilkinson

    Nuclear is the only option.

    Renewable sources ... might supplement energy supplies but can never replace fossil fuels when they either simply run out ... or we decide its to environmentally dangerous to use them.

    We need to pick a spot in a desert somewhere dig a big hole, line it with clay start dumping waste while accepting the fact that eventually the storage system will start to leak, eventually climate/geological change is going to release that radiation into the local water system.

    Actually maybe we should just dump in in the rain forest instead. The environmental impact of the increased radiation levels would probably be far less than the impact cause my humans ... and it will scare the humans away.

  37. Martin Lyne

    @Moronic AC 17:36

    He said "Fusor" he meant "Fusor"

    Probably a good idea to consider teh context of a word before deciding it's wrong.

    Nice to see a Futurama reference too :)

  38. Rob

    @Phil Clemow & Anonymous Coward

    Storing AC power is best done by storing it as "potential to generate".

    The easiest & cleanest way I know of is to pump water uphill into reservoirs using your cheap predictable-supply nuclear stations or whatever in times of low demand, then let the water run downhill again through turbines in times of peak demand. Then, when things get quiet again, pump it all back uphill. It's used a lot in Scotland, who are I believe a net exporter of electricity.

    Bonus points because mother nature's fusion reactor will pump some of it back up for free in the form of precipitation.

  39. Mark

    Yup, the nuclear engine in the sky

    David, why not use the fucking huge nuclear power station safely stationed 93 million miles away?

  40. E

    It might...

    help advance tokomak design as a side effect. More people using them = more minds and larger pool of experience to draw from.

  41. Mark

    RE: I love it when people say...

    Ah, the irony.

    Someone spouting off about what they know not and kidding on they're one of the cognoscenti.

    Tritium. Even rarer, but still a lot of it.

    Fusion reactor, with Lithium shell around. Lithium is so easy to get that we make batteries out of it.

    Tritium gives excellent energy conversion with the temperatures we can manage in a tokamak (much lower than the solar core) and releases neutrons.

    Neutrons hit lithium and the product is.... tritium!

    There *are* engineering problems but your four points are neutered badly if you consider the above real-life example.

  42. Frumious Bandersnatch

    @never mind the waste

    Yes, the two shady looking characters are the obligatory "it's so safe we could stand right next to the reactor" silhouettes (pun intended).

  43. Peyton

    very minor point, but

    Nuclear plants do cause thermal pollution... not quite a panacea (but that's definitely a much simpler nut to crack I'd think)

  44. Frumious Bandersnatch

    wary of offering corrections

    in light of some of the comments here, but isn't calling something a "tokamak doughnut" a tad redundant?

  45. Frumious Bandersnatch


    'nuff said

  46. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Sounds Great!

    I really hope it works. We already have a lot of nuclear waste that needs to be disposed of, any process that reduces the amount is good in my book.

    What I can't quite get my head around is that the article suggests that for fusion, all you need is hydrogen, yet posters are talking about lots of of other elements and their lack of abundance.

    Who's right?

    Also, the BBC program Top Gear, did a review of a hydrogen fuel cell car made by Honda. Now I know it's not a program renowned for its science, but they said that the cars fuel cell mixed hydrogen with oxygen so that the only waste was water (much less as than the volume of hydrogen pumped into the fuel cell, you can make energy from nothing). But the problem with it was making the hydrogen in the first place at it is always bound to something else.

    So, for a hydrogen fuel cell car to be viable, the hydrogen has to be separated from what ever it is attached to first. Like water, good old h2o. And in sufficient quantities to be used by the huge amount of vehicles in the world.

    Surly the same would apply for a fusion reactor?

    And does hydrogen have the four states of solid, liquid, gas and plasma?

    I ask because the car used "compressed" hydrogen.

  47. Paul George

    RE: Boot note

    At the risk of being picky, fission bombs often have a beryllium core that is a neutron emitter when squeezed by the conventional explosives. That is one way you can get a pocket nuke with what would normally be a sub critical mass.

    People seem to be missing that the intent of the fusion reactor is to _greatly_ reduce the amount of waste materials. If you get a net positive energy return that is gravy.

    We should IMHO see if scales to commercial use. Nuclear power of some variety is all be a requirement if we want to get off fossil fuels and have something beyond an 18th (or 13th) century level economy.

    The remaining waste can be glassified, canned, and shot by big linear accelerator ( a.k.a rail gun) into an inward spiral towards 'mother nature's fusion reactor' for total disposal.

  48. Daniel Garcia

    RE: the AC above

    your ignorance is well recived.

    Learn physics (and related techologies). King's of London is a good college for a Physics degree, i recommend it.

    And yes, i am dislexic

    thanks Martin for the support (btw i need to check that chapter of Futurama :) )

  49. Anonymous Coward

    @Mike Westmacott

    Scientists a notariously bad speelers :)

  50. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up


    So what they're really planning is a mini-star. It burns up all the fuel until there's only iron left. If you can make that work without using gravity it has a lot going for it.

    Even better if you could get a neutron star or black hole to form in the middle. Think of the waste you could cram into one of those!

  51. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge

    re: Anonymous Coward Posted 16:59 GMT

    I also believe stupidity is also very easy to obtain.

    Helium by product... well we let that go into the atmosphere and by magic it migrates to the top of the atmosphere(it being 13 times less dense than air) where it gets blown away by the solar wind(which also explains why theres so little of the stuff in the air)

    Water is a finite resource of earth? well yes it is. if you are after fresh water.. but we can get the hydrogen from sea water and theres rather a lot of that

    As for breaking apart water into hydrogen and oxygen, well you have a fusion plant setup especially for that, 1 days running should generate enough fuel to keep it going for about 100 yrs.

    Fusion puts out a lot of energy for every kilogram of fuel used so you only need a very small amount of fuel to start with

    But everyone prefers windmills for power and sitting in the dark when the wind stops blowing

  52. Anomalous Cowherd Silver badge

    @ AC 16:59 - Fusion is most definitely the answer!

    You are correct about most hydrogen being gaseous and out of the earths atmosphere, but otherwise you are being a bit of a tit.

    1. Getting hydrogen from water requires energy, but the whole point of a self sustaining fusion reaction is it's able to provide this energy. Getting oil from the ground, building windmills or solar panels, it all requires energy too.

    2. Helium waste? It's inert, floats to the top of the atmosphere and incredibly rare. What's not to like? We can make Zeppelins. I love Zeppelins.

    3. Water a finite resource? Take a biscuit sir, you've earned it. When we've chugged through the 1.4 billion cubic km of it on the planet you have my permission to say I told you so.

    Hmm, rough back of the envelope, E=mc2, 1.4bkm3, carry the one... there's a good 12,600,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,0000,000 joules locked up there, a good night out by anyones standards (yes I'm aware that's not how fusion works, I'm being sarcastic for effect).

  53. Anonymous Coward

    I object to nuclear power.

    I object to nuclear power.

    Why? It's simple: People.

    People make mistakes, all of us do, it's a simple fact of life; even the best of us gets tired occasionally. Now that private companies are running the reactors, there's a reasonable chance that we're looking at minimum wage people. Minimum wage people with minimum training, operating a nuclear power station. Are you getting a warm fuzzy feeling yet?

    Before anyone suggests computer control, may I remind you that we also design computer systems, so computer control could well have similar fallibilities. That's assuming the functional specification was any good to begin with. Did I mention that developement is probably going to be outsourced to a ghetto in a country no-one's heard of? Where they don't really care if *we* get blown up or not; since they're several thousand miles away.

    Then there's the slight matter of who's building these reactors. Again, these are being built for profit; so this means it's likely someone will be cutting corners when no-one's looking. Regulators you say? Well bribery's cheap compared to doing it properly, and then there's good old fashioned oversight.

    Even when there was no particular emphasis on cost, and trained scientists were involved bad things have happened. When cost becomes the key motivating factor; do the odds improve or get worse?

    Then there's decommissioning. When private companies are responsible for operation and clean up I have a guarantee for you. When the reactor is operating at a profit, those profits will go to the shareholders. When the reactor becomes loss making; during decommissioning, or after an accident; I'm prepared to bet that the company operating the reactor will file for bankruptcy. So, who gets to pay the bills then? That'll be us, the taxpayer.

    So, what we have is something that'll be a potential hazard throughout it's lifecycle; and then will cost us billions to tidy up. Those billions will come from our taxes.

    Still sounding like a great idea? Ahh, you're a shareholder; sorry ;)

  54. Alex Rose

    @G R Goslin

    What an insightful comment. Could you let me know when you're putting it forward for peer-review?

  55. Steve


    When hydrogen is used in a car, either burned in an engine or used in a fuel cell, it's a purely chemical reaction. The energy you get out is the same as the energy you put in to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen in the first place. In that sense hydroigen is merely an energy carrier, you need a lot of it, and you need some other energy source to obtain it. Its only real advantage is that it burns more cleanly than oil, so we have less air pollution (no CO2).

    When it comes to using hydrogen in a fusion reactor things are completely different; It's a nuclear reaction, not a chemical one. You get way more energy out of fusing two H atoms than you do from simply burning them in air to create H2O, far more energy than you needed to get the hydrogen from the water in the first place. In that sense hydrogen used in fusion is an energy source, not a carrier.

  56. Lottie
    Thumb Up


    I like the fact that they have a new take on stuff and HAVEN'T hailed it as a cure all. They admit it's a bridge and IMHO, if the future is (as it seems to be) based on nuclear energy power stations, I wholeheartedly welcome any system that can help reduce the impact of the waste. It sounds a little more friendly than dumping it somewhere.

  57. Dave

    @"I object to nuclear power."

    I object to 'conventional power'. Take the other day: a train got slightly derailed, in the wrong place, took out a bridge and the load burst into flames: 500 tonnes of diesel up in smoke. That's what you get when you have no alternative to transporting fuel all over the place, carried by the lowest bidder, etc. I would much rather we were able to rely on a handful of slightly dangerous Nuclear plants, than millions of slightly dangerous windmills, solar cells, and fuel-burning power stations. You do know that the latter blow up fairly regularly, don't you?

  58. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    @ I object to nuclear power.

    I object to my descendants having to live like fucking cavemen! The Human Race will only get one shot at moving beyond fossil fuels, and nuclear is the only game in town. It takes energy to build a nuclear industry, if we wait until the fossil fuels run out we may not then have enough energy to build a nuclear industry. There won't be a second chance (unless you want to wait a few hundred million years for a new source of hydrocarbons). The current state of renewables shows that even if we put windmills everywhere we'll hardly have enough energy to live in temperate regions (with our current population anyway), let alone maintain anything like the standard of living we currently enjoy. Windmills barely produce enough energy to cover the energy used in making them!

    Energy is a survival issue; try to imagine what the world will be like when it starts to run out...

    Paris, 'cos the French have got the right policies for energy and ecotards!

  59. elderlybloke

    About the French

    Few mention the way the French get on with producing 80% of their power from Nuclear Fission...

    It appears that Britain, USA , and Germany oppose the Nuclear fuel as highly dangerous.

    Have the thousands of lives lost in coal mining and the pollution when burned been considered.

    The pollution from the crap brown coal the Germans use is impressive.

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  62. Mark

    Anonymous Coward Posted Thursday 29th January 2009 14:36 GMT

    WHAT???? YOU CAN SEE THE FUTURE?!!?!?!?!

    How do you know that your descendants will live like cavemen?

    Just recently the US became the #1 produced of wind power. 25GW power, enough for 5million homes.

    Which is 5kW/home.

    Which is odd because in Scotland (hardly a caveman in sight), 7.2MW of wind power is enough for 9000 homes. 800W/home.

    So your children could live like Scotsmen and reduce the need for 80% of the power station output if you are American.

    You really HAD to go all Rita Hayworth on this, didn't you.

  63. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Mark Posted Tuesday 3rd February 2009 19:23 GMT

    "How do you know that your descendants will live like cavemen?"

    They will if our politicians listen to eco loonies like you.

    Mark is almost notorious as a Man From Mars on these threads. He works for a climate institute and posts 50 times a story.

    No life - very sad. But low wattage, though.

  64. Mark
    Paris Hilton

    Well, there's nothing like a well thought out argument

    Anonymous Coward Posted Wednesday 4th February 2009 00:23 GMT

    "How do you know that your descendants will live like cavemen?"

    They will if our politicians listen to eco loonies like you.

    And that is nothing like a well thought out argument. Well done.

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