back to article UK, US ink boffinry pact on laser fusion 'star power'

Using nuclear fusion – star energy – to power the world's dishwashers, TVs and servers has long been a twinkling in the misty eyes of physicists, but it inched closer to reality this week as the American National Ignition Facility (strap line: "Bringing Star Power To Earth") struck a deal with the UK company AWE and Oxford-based …


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  1. Matthew Smith

    How well does this tech scale?

    I can appreciate a giant cauldron of plasma powering a city, but will these little pellets of matter scale up to the same level as magnetic fusion?

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So nothing at all to do with weapons then?

    The bit about NIF that gets a lot less attention is that it is also used to simulate the conditions inside a nuclear weapon at the moment fusion is triggered. Ever since the test ban treaty the bomb people haven't been able to turn chunks of Nevada glow-in-the-dark, so they've had to resort to simulations. And since the UK is joined at the hip to American warhead design, we've got an interest in this project.

    "NIF is crucial to the NNSA Stockpile Stewardship Program because it will be able to create the extreme conditions of temperature and pressure that exist on Earth only in exploding nuclear weapons and that are therefore relevant to understanding the operation of our modern nuclear weapons."

    National Research Council's Plasma Science Committee 2007.

    1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Yup, nothing

      That's right. We're taking a piece of kit largely paid for by the bomb-makers and using it for something that might be of rather more benefit to humanity. From your comment, I can't tell whether you are pleased about that or not.

      1. Adam Foxton
        Thumb Up

        Not only that

        but Fusion research is expensive. Very expensive. And that's one 'very expensive' sized lump of cash that's been taken away from the bomb-maker's abilities to make bombs and put towards advancing science and- in future- powering hospitals.

        1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge


          "We're taking a piece of kit largely paid for by the bomb-makers"

          "lump of cash that's been taken away from the bomb-maker's abilities to make bombs"

          Implying that somebody else than taxpayers is paying for this and that nuke maintenance and upgrade budgets are being affected by opening the kimono to the civilian sector.

          Military *always* gets first choice [that's why there is still several hundred billion USD of industrial cleanup operations to be done on cold war radioactive leftovers - in the best case.]

      2. John Hughes

        "We" being AWE?

        The Atomic Weapons Establishment?

    2. Saigua

      If you believe the top paragraphs of committees, buy larger twee hats.

      Sorry, is there a part of Nevada that doesn't glow in the darK? A landfill? Because usually dry conditions cause some glowing from static, and then there are some silicates and titania that glow from rehydrating at night...we're just talking about glows in dark, right?

      I just need your Greek Sovereign to sign here to take care of the El Al and other state compliances. No, you are not expected to complete this task....

      Well, your atom-sized postsingularity corpus just got less safe because of very, very small (scale) science, then? Numerical simulation considered non-harmful? Perhaps you know what parts of the test ban have expired, changed, etc. and prefer other operational test options? The ones where synthetic e-coli whose job it is to remedy Crohn's Disease have a final option to fire inflammatory cell signalling mechanisms into the abdominal fat pad or beyond? The Lymphoma one just doesn't have a fix to allow necessary coughing.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So does that mean we're finally spending more as a nation on researching something useful and with the potential to revolutionise the world in ways that we can hardly imagine than we spend on plastic bags to carry our shopping?

  4. Anonymous Coward

    Star Power

    But possibly the most important question 'is Helium a green house gas or not'? Or indeed could it be possibly implicated as such by the IPCC?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      but Helium would be a useful byproduct for building airships.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Helium supplies

        It's a helpful by-product since helium supplies are limited. Given time deuterium fusion might not have to break even to be cost effective.

    2. Daniel Garcia 2


      As a mono-atomic element, helium has one of the lowest infra-red absorption capacity. it can be consider one of the most transparent substance for the infra red spectrum.

      next question.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Thumb Up


        But are the IPCC going to know? Monatomic looks a bit, well you knows, 'hard science'?

        1. Charlie van Becelaere


          the question will then move to diatomic Helium (He2 - please forgive the lack of subscript there). After all, there is essentially no data available regarding the physical properties of this molecule!

  5. Caff

    I await the pic of an eager politician posing beside it hoping some "star power" will rub off on them

    1. hplasm

      Or better-

      leak out and vapourise them.

  6. AdamSweetman
    Thumb Down

    Really? One white elephant to the next...

    Big Fusion isn't the answer, and although promising NIF won't really solve any energy problems. Given the sheer size and complexity of the method, the volatility of components etc, the ability to build and maintain enough laser based NIF-like plants is incomprehensible and incomparable with the product demand. Its another ITER in the making.

    There are much more promising small fusion ideas coming to fruition at a quicker pace, LPPX Focus Fusion, for example, where the plant will be about the size of a garage and burning boron, which provide a much more viable energy production method which is compatible with the highly distributed consumption model. Big plants dumping significant % of power through transmission loss just isnt the way forward, you need small in-situ automated generation capability, especially if we end up driving electric cars in the near future as default.

    Bussard's Polywell also seems to be progressing well, although under Navy funding, again with the ability to make viable drop in generation capability in place of today's smaller power stations and even sub-station sized installations. Tri-Alpha has some significant backing also and provides a hybrid approach which is attracting some serious investment.

    Positioning NIF as 'better' than ITER is dubious at best, its still a contest of whose the fattest fat person, no real winner in either.

    1. Figgus

      I'm not sure that a lot of small neighborhood plants is a better idea than the big centralized plant. Sure, you have points about efficiency but when it comes to security I think a single bigger plant would be less vulnerable and do less damage overall if compromised.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        I agree... massive plant is a much better idea, just can it be located in Scotland, then when it goes bang, no one will care.

        1. Anonymous Coward

          Scotland? I was thinking Birmingham? wouldnt anyone mind if it disappeared?

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Croydon. They made a promising start a few weeks ago but then it just fizzled out. Much like this project, I fear....

      2. Saigua

        Targets count matters?

        Sorry? What size n-sided national security center near you has had zero physical vulnerabilities since 1996ish? (Hint: pick a center with a generous estimate of earth's diameter, and 1 undirected side.)

        I have a Venn Dream: (Screenwriters) (Lay Science) ...with a small audience. Sort of small. Never tell them I said small.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      The aim I expect is for someone to crack it in the first place, and the more paths that are being researched the greater the chance that someone will crack it.

      It seems inevitable that when fusion comes its initial practical deployment will be as large stations plugging into the national grid (equivalent) perhaps after a few decades infrastructure and technology would exist to miniaturise the systems, along with suitable security and legislation to allow small scale "local" plants.

    3. Annihilator

      re: Really? One white elephant to the next...

      Yes, what they're building is the final design of the eventual products that consumers will benefit from. That's why the processor that's powering the PC I'm typing this on is made primarily of valves and takes up the entire garage to run.

    4. Captain Thyratron

      Don't listen to crackpots, guy.

      I looked up this "LPPX Focus Fusion" thing and found a website that seems to be more about crackpots selling jewelry than physics. "Jewelry to the rescue! Meditate on aneutronic fusion with this fusion rosary." I coudl not make this shit up if I tried. And there doesn't appear to be any science--at least documented science, and that's the only kind that matters--going on there. Their latest report contains absolutely nothing useful. I cannot find any data or discussion of experimental results or the slightest bit of quantitative rigor. Science is about testing ideas by experiment, not making shit up and taking pictures of apparatus you never explain and trying to hock jewelry instead of posting data. These people are not scientists, and they look to be about as capable of developing a working fusion reactor as Fred Phelps is to develop a close friendship with an openly homosexual man. Stop listening to them.

      By the way, power plants are built big precisely because it is easier to make a large-scale plant efficient than many, many small ones that operate, by necessity, under less thermodynamically favorable conditions. But that's actual physics and most crackpots are scared to death of the stuff.

      I hasten to add that tokamaks tend to get more efficient when they are larger. This is probably the main reason ITER is much larger than similar devices at Princeton, the Max-Planck institute for Plasma Physics, and several other sites. And as for inertially-confined designs, well...the only one of those that can break even and be small that has yet been invented is called the hydrogen bomb. Unless you are building one of those, fusion is hard to fit in a small space. It just isn't easy to keep a plasma an adequate combination of hot and dense without the plasma destabilizing the magnetic field meant to contain it--thereby cooling and ceasing to fuse--or that field taking more power than the reactor can produce. And doing it with lasers has a whole host of problems that, likewise, do not get any better when you make the device smaller. I honestly don't expect the NIF guys to pull it off, but so what? Even if they don't, they've advanced so many prerequisite technologies, especially in optics and semiconductor laser technology--and that is often part of doing this kind of work, and a big part of why it is so costly: It entails developing new technology and tooling and manufacturing processes just so you can do the experiment--and that's to say nothing of the scientific work.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      and in the future...

      ...there'll be a telephone in every town!

    6. itzman

      Transmisson losses

      In typical national grids are almost negligible. 1-2% at best.

      Whereas the efficiency gains in terms of capital deployed are massive with centralised plant.

      The silly green fantasy of 'distributed micro generation' simply makes no sense at all.

      At least not with existing and potential technology.

      Which is why, largely, we don't personally cut wood for the fire anymore.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    "It can't any longer be dismissed as something on the far distant horizon."

    True, I'm sure it'll be with us within...ooh....fifty years or so

    1. wim

      right after the flying car.

    2. Captain DaFt

      Aw C'mon!

      It can't be more than five years away, That's what they've been saying since the Fifties!

      (Icon chosen since that's the color your face will turn if you hold your breath waiting for it.)

    3. NikT

      It's been officially upgraded to "something on the quite distant horizon"

  8. Yesnomaybe
    Thumb Down

    I'm sceptical about this

    "Requiring only pellets composed of hydrogen isotopes and producing helium and neutrons, nuclear fusion would provide nuclear power without many of the downsides of nuclear fission – the process that powers our nuclear power plants today – and sweep away many of the current geopolitical energy problems around fossil fuel supplies."

    Making a fusion powerplant is going to be massively expensive. OK, the fuel might be cheap, but running layzors delivering that much power, never mind 192 of them, and all the complex gear to control all that.... It's going to be hard to break even in energy-terms, never mind producing electricity at commercially viable prices. I'm sorry to say: I don't think this is the way out of our looming energy crisis. A nuclear fission plant is incredibly simple in comparison. I'm sure we could have made them even better by now if we'd just accepted the (somewhat unpalatable) truth, that the nuclear powerplant is just about the best card we have available to us. (Note: I'm NOT saying it's perfect, it has it's drawbacks)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      that's why it's a research project, you don't start with a perfectly working, highly efficient process that works. You start with a piece of junk that barely fires. *Points at the internal combustion engine*

      Yes if you made a power plant the same as the current research generator it would run require more power to run it than it generates. However you wouldn't even contemplate building a large scale reactor until you were able to gain more power than you put in, consistently.

      Then you'd scale up, and scale up, and refine, until you had a commercially viable reactor.

      1. Ian Stephenson

        "You start with a piece of junk that barely fires."

        They are not using my motorcycle!

      2. Anonymous Coward

        @ AC

        "that's why it's a research project, you don't start with a perfectly working, highly efficient process that works. You start with a piece of junk that barely fires."

        Wait a second, so the precursor to meeting the future energy needs of mankind is a 1976 Fiat??

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        no we scale down

        One day fusion will be done like scratch n sniff. Scratch and watch that fucking Xmas tree light up baby!!! Woah dads car just blew a hole in the ionosphere!! Sniff.

      4. Charles Manning


        The ICE got from fires and almost self rotates to actually being a viable power source in one or two years invented by a bloke in his spare time who didn't promise world peace. By the time Joe public became aware of the ICE it was working.

        This fusion malarkey, OTOH, has been over promised as just around the corner for 60+ years, has soaked up insane billions of research funding and has been over-sold to the people that fund it.

        I am not at all against research, but how about putting some of it into technologies that have more promise. LFTR perhaps.

      5. itzman

        Internal combustion fusion engine?

        I have always felt that what we should do is an IC engine that inhales hydrogen (or deuterium) has a laser for a spark plug, and exhausts helium.

        We wouldn't need to contain the plasma. Beyond its being in a ceramic piston/cylinder.. If the hydrogen or deuterium was in the form of water, the working fluid would be steam.

        I.e. we shouldn't be looking to have stable continuous fusion, just micro sizes H bombs going off in water, to make steam.

        In the meantime I look forward to the recycling of ceramic block fission decay products into domestic home heating plants: "free heat for 60 years".

        Once decayed below the level likley to cause panic in the greens, they could be dropped into swimming pools to provide a nice swimming experience.

  9. Yamikotai

    Gotta smile at the name 'Rutherford Appleton', it's just so... twee :P

    1. Sir Runcible Spoon


      Wasn't he that guy on Firefly that tried to kill Mal with swhat?

    2. David Shone

      "Twee"? Certainly not!

      Most definitely not "twee" when you understand the origin of the name:

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Star Power? FFS.

    Also, much as I want to see it and think it's probably closer than ever, fusion has been "A few years away" since the 40s when research started in the UK.

  11. LAGMonkey


    what deal was struck then? Am i being THAT dence?

    1. amanfromearth

      Yes you are. Correct spelling is "dense"

  12. Sir Runcible Spoon


    So, after reading this on another web site they just need a million pellets a day, oh - and to increase the compression by a factor of 1000 to achieve a self-sustaining reaction.

    Progress, but it's still years off.

    1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

      I remember doing a project at school

      about fusion. The said it was just a decade or two (three on the outside) away. That was 1978. Still, lets hope someone get fusion going (and not in an H-bomb, please).

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        I suspect one of the biggest reasons for the constant time slip is that people who came up with the projections were scientists in the field that didn't understand that nobody with big money was interested in the technology, and they still aren't for the most part.

      2. Ken Hagan Gold badge

        Re: I remember

        If you replace "decade" with "decade of actual funding and anything above pitiful levels" and I think you'll find that all the promises (from the 1950s onwards) actually stand up.

        Even in 1978, when the memory of the oil shock was still fresh and Jimmy Carter had solar power shining out of his ass, politicians still didn't understand that it might be worth researching ways to exploit a proven source of almost limitless energy. (See icon.)

        And still, they have millions to spend on vanity projects like the millenium dome but nothing to spend on science.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward


          See, that's my problem with people who really push nuclear power. There's no such thing as limitless energy. There never has been and never will be.

          No matter what fuel we use to power our power plant we will eventually run low unless it's a renewable. You think greenhouse gasses are bad? Wait until we've been turning the oceans into helium to power fusion reactors all over the world for a few decades.

          1. Tim Spence

            Meh, we're all fooked eventually anyway - the universe will reach thermodynamic equilibrium eventually. It'll be damn cold, but I bet a man-made fusion plant still wouldn't have been achieved by then...

          2. Ken Hagan Gold badge

            "No matter what fuel we use to power our power plant we will eventually run low unless it's a renewable."

            By renewable, I assume you are referring to either the sun's fusion source (solar, wind, tides, etc) or the Earth's fission source (geothermal). Funny that you should regard it as renewable to harvest from nature's reactors that wastefully spew 99.99999% of their energy into the blackness of space and finite if we build our own ones that don't.

            Oh, and learn to count. For any reasonable definition of limitless, the universe has limitless supplies of hydrogen.

          3. itzman

            Are you kidding?

            Renewable energy: Energy derived from a fusion reactor 93 million that is totally unshielded, out of control, and whose radiation kills 3000 people a year from skin cancer in the UK alone. A source that is venerated by primitives.

            Nuclear energy: Energy derived from a fusion or fission reactor 60 miles way that is so well shielded and controlled that it kills no one. A source that is reviled by primitives.

            So called 'renewable' energy

            (a) is not renewable - the sun will run out of hydrogen one day.

            (b) is nuclear energy - the sun is a pretty nasty nuclear reactor.

  13. Sulehir

    So just to confirm, fusion power is still 20 years away?

    1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

      CHAOS Power Orders. Seventh Heaven Catch 22 for SMART Turing Machines BetaTesting Virtual Protocols*

      "So just to confirm, fusion power is still 20 years away?" .... Sulehir Posted Friday 9th September 2011 13:05 GMT

      Confusion is a CHAOS Power. Is it Global Operating Systems Default Driver, with, or without Absolutely Fabulous Controls? And why would it really matter who's pushing buttons and pulling levers at such exalted levels of Great AIGame Plays..... for where is the enemy other than in your hairy scary past ...... and thus is it naught but a figment of your amazing imagination.

      * Crude Cloud Crowd Craves

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Good to see that the timeframe for achieving fusion

    hasn't slipped any

  15. James 36
    Black Helicopters

    wot no scare story

    Where are the armageddon stories about a run away reaction causing a small sun to be created which will then consume us all in its cleansing fire ?

    does the daily fail know about this yet ?

    1. Debe

      Daily Fail

      Last I checked the Daily Mail they were marvelling over the amazing moving pictures aka the mythical “gif” image so don’t think they’ll likely catch on to this anytime soon. I’m sure once they do find out; this information will only confuse and scare them… (What doesn’t) and they’ll blame it on witchcraft, the left and probably the BBC.

  16. GeorgeTuk

    "its just around the corner"

    Another Friday BBC article.


  17. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

    The Title is Optional

    AWE? That would be the Atomic Weapons Establishment then? Methinks that maybe the net gain of energy they wish to get from this sort of experiment would be several orders of magnitude above the net gain required for powering dishwashers...

  18. Havin_it

    What's the catch?

    Come on, there must be one.

    Cool that it'll produce helium too, what with the shortage lately. Where's the fun in unlimited cheap energy if we can't all have airships too?

    1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Re: the catch

      As far as anyone can tell, the only catch is that we don't know how to do it yet. Even the waste is just light nuclides with consequently short half-lives, making it rather cleaner than the output of a coal or oil power station.

      Of course, maybe we have the whole approach wrong and the only methods that actually work have a catch, but we won't know that without doing the research.

  19. Marky W

    88mph here I come!!

    I have a car and a flux capacitor. However as I am scared of lightning, they have been languishing in a lock-up just outside Woking for years. All I needed was a working Mr Fusion unit, and now the end is in sight!

    1. Figgus

      And, evidently, now you can get your Nike MAG shoes too!

    2. Sir Runcible Spoon


      What's wrong with uranium fuel rods?

      1. Marky W

        I'm sure it was plutonium

        Libyan or perhaps Iranian IIRC.

        Anyway as I said: I'm scared of lightning; I hardly think I'm going to take to radioactive fuel rods.

  20. Pete 43

    In 50 years...

    It'll still be 50 years away (I hope not)

    1. LesC

      50 years..

      50 years ago there was the C-Stellerator (US) and Project Zeta (UK) fusion projects, both of which were promising electricity too cheap to meter in the late '50s. Whatever happened to these?

      TheZetaStellerator 2.0 will probably also go the same way for this discussion to be repeated in 50 years time.

      Wouldn't it be better for the boffinry to concentrate their efforts on the JET tokomak rather than fragmenting / forking?

  21. Fred Mbogo


    The NIF project is the one less suited for non-war applications. It essentially started as research for cleaner H-bombs.

    The ITAR Tokamak is more suited for peaceful use.

  22. Herbert Meyer


    Fusion power has been 10-15 years away for almost 60 years now.

  23. rav
    Thumb Up


    The Andrea Rossi ECat Cold Fusion Reactor will be demonstrated in the U.S. next month and NASA right now is testing a unit.

    Why are we trying to build massive, big science power plants when LENR and fuel cells for individual use truly bring power to the people?

    Oh gee whiz I know... MONEY. Somepbody has to spend it so somebody else can rake it all in.

    1. AdamSweetman

      Rossi's ECat? Bwahhahahahahaha. Its got scam written all over it, 0 verified experimental results, he dodges even the most basic questions on his device functionality. Its snake oil.

      These demonstrations just keep being promised, don't from NASA please verifying the testing which is currently occurring.

      1. David Dawson

        Snake oil

        Amusingly, snake oil is actually a very healthy substance to consume. Its got lots of vitamins, minerals and fatty acids that help a person keep on ticking. Especially used an arthritic relief.

        The 'snake oil == bad' thing came because quacks in the old west were selling random lotions and curatives to heal everything. Mostly bogus.

        Their biggest competitor were the chinese immigrants, selling snake oil as an arthritis relief and general pick me up, which it will function reasonably well as. They started the 'that's snake oil' propaganda, which has carried on till this day.

        So, snake oil is good, Cold Fusion is bogus. The world is put to right.

        1. Dagg Silver badge

          Snake oil#2

          Consumption of snake oil is no good if you are a snake!

  24. Len Goddard
    Thumb Down

    Real Soon Now

    Somewhere upstairs I have a book I was given when I was about 8, with a series of articles about various scientific fields. Amongst them was an article about fusion power which could have been used more or less intact as background for this article. I think they were expecting commercial fusion reactors within 25 years.

    I'm now 58. Commercial fusion is still at least 25 years away. I'll believe it when the "too cheap to meter" electicity arrives at a socket near me.

    1. Arctic fox

      @Len Goddard "Real Soon Now"

      I am only a couple of years younger than you Len and I think that I must have read the same book - and I'm chuckling at the memory as I write this. It is rather like the traditional expression my dear lady's family use when they celebrate Passover - "next year in Jerusalem".

  25. Hate2Register

    You forgot to mention what the "pact" is about.

    You mention this world-changing pact, but have no details or overview of the link. So I looked around and found out the following:

    The Americans (at NIF) have concentrated on the Laser fusion concept, which was thought to be slow acheiving 'ignition' (getting much more power out than you put in). Lately the advances have come thick and fast, and ignition may only be a few years off.

    The Europeans (at ITER, and previously at JET), thought that the more expensive and difficult to control Torus magnetic containment acceleration would get faster results. The Brits new collaboration with the Yanks can be seen as backing the horse which is likely to cross the finiash line first. We want in, and will contribute supercomputer and boffin time to the American thrust, in return for consideration.

    I should be a journalist, me.

    1. David 164

      I see it more as the UK and US are friends. The EU and the UK are friends. So why not stick are feet in both ponds an hope we can make money from both.

      Also as far as I understand France and Jupan get the majority of the technology and patents from the ITER as compensation for the funds they put into the project. An get first dips on commercial applications of technology developed on the project.

      It seems to me that the UK has negotiated itself a similar deal with America, where we and the Americans get first dip on commercial applications developed at the NIF facility and I believe the UK did have plans to build our own experimental Laser ignition fusion reactor as well. If this is the case this would be change to a test demonstrator for a commercial reactor now, with NIF doing all the experimental work needed to refine the technology and design a commercial reactor.

  26. Bassey
    Thumb Up

    Thank goodness

    Whilst it might still be a way off I look forward to the day we can stop arguing about AGW and get back to a good old fashioned scrap about whose god could kick who else's god's arse.

  27. ant 2

    "the UK company AWE"

    lovely marketing coup they've pulled off there - AWE = Atomic Weapons Establishment. And they are soo interested in cuddly 'leccy production, oh yes.

  28. Graham Jordan

    clean power huh

    So I'm no closer to getting any super powers then?


  29. Richard Scratcher

    Fusion power? Easy!

    All you need to do is gather together a lot of ordinary hydrogen gas and fusion will start automatically. About 1.5 nonillion kilograms should do it.

  30. matooti

    From the BBC story - "and produced for a tiny fraction of a second more power than the world was consuming", is that a bit fanciful, how can they contain all that energy?

    1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Power is energy per unit time.

      If you make the "fraction of a second" sufficiently tiny, the total amount of energy involved needn't amount to much more than a gnat's fart. (I suspect that the amounts involved here are slightly larger, but not by much.)

  31. Lamont Cranston

    "in essence, creating a miniature star on Earth"

    If the project isn't being run by a with wearing robot arms, grafted on to his spine, then I'm going to be very disappointed.

  32. Charlie 5

    Thorium's a better option

    Cheap, cheerful, orders of magnitude safer, available since the 40s, not in hock to the warhead or the fuel rod makers, can be used to get rid of radioactive waste and the fuel stockpiles already exist.

    What's not to love about Thorium reactors?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Thorium isn't a nuclear fuel. It's fertile.

      You transmute Th-232 into fissile U-233 inside a fission reactor.

      You then require the economically dubious process of reprocessing to separate U-233 from Th-232 and fission products. Which produces huge amounts of actinide waste that has to be disposed of - hopefully not by pouring it into the Irish Sea.

      U-233 makes for fabulous bombs. Don't we have rather too many nuclear weapons states as it is?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        You also make

        tritium out of lithium "in nuclear reactors by neutron activation of lithium-6". Ordinary hydrogen is fine for fusion in the sun, but for power stations you would need heavier isotopes.

      2. David 164

        There something wrong with your comment. As the thorium reactor was abandon in the US as it served no purpose to there weapons programme. If U-233 is fabulous for bombs we would have had thorium fuel base reactors now, given how cheap and plentiful Thorium is.

      3. itzman

        U233 does not make faboulus bombs.

        Is a nasty tricky thing to make go bang. Plutonium makes fabulous bombs.

        Anyway with advanced enough fission products we can in theory 'fissilate' anything unpleasant down to something relatively boring like iron.

  33. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    Guide to fusion projects

    ITER - . The 1960s design, conservative and you can't be blamed for backing it. Unlikely to lead to anything and mostly a big backhander to Eu engineering and construction companies. Costs $12Bn (8 months of Afghan tent A/C, or a carrier load of stealth fighters)

    Wendelstein 7-X, a different kind of Tokomak - bloody difficult to build but more likely to work if you managed it . A good backup plan and only costs $1Bn

    NIF - not at all a justification for keeping doing nuclear weapons research, no not at all. The funding from DoE, AWE and LLNL is just a coincidence. About as practical a solution as dropping bombs in front of a row of wind turbines. Cost - that's classified - although of course there are no links to anything secret, like designing nuclear weapons, no not at all.

  34. Chris Miller

    Problem is

    A working fusion reactor is a mechanism for producing energetic neutrons. We have no idea how such neutrons can be converted into usable energy safely and effectively (i.e. over the decades long lifetime of a power plant). There is little research going on into this topic, because no-one has yet built a working fusion reactor. Once they do, we'll be into another (probably decades long) research programme.

    There was a good article on this topic in the March 2010 Scientific American (behind a pay-wall):

  35. JimC

    Thorium can arrive sooner and requires no drastic advances

    So its definitely the better option in the short to medium term, but fusion ought to be cleaner and with any luck the raw fuel could be seawater...

  36. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Fusion will give the world an *inexhaustable* supply

    of plasma physics PhDs.

    As it has for the 60+ years.

  37. steward

    Has anyone ever done a cost comparison

    between trying to create fusion at LLNL and implement it elsewhere, versus using this technology called "solar cells" to use energy generated every day by a large fusion reactor approximately 8.3 light-minutes away from us?

    1. itzman

      I have..for fission..

      And its only about 20 times more expensive to generate, let alone STORE solar power than to have a nice uranium cooker in your back yard.

      A fission reactor is a very simple thing. Throw some radioistopess into a cauldron, stir gently and add or remove neutron moderators, and it boils like granny's kettle.

      The rest is all about doing that in safety.

      a PV panel is hugely complex, inefficient and uses energy that is actually better left to do what it always did: grow crops.

  38. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Don't we gave one great big fucking massive pellet called the sun? why can't we get battery spaceships to fly closer, fix a close orbit near mercury, get a big solar charge, and laser beam it back to earth in concentrated form? Its free no? apart from the big mirrored ships.

  39. Clive 3

    Yanks need some help - yet again

    I bet they the Yanks are up to no good again!

    They have done this at least twice before, supersonic flight and the atom bomb.

    They pretend they are going to collaborate on a project. They come over here steal all our ideas and research. When it is time for them to share their ideas they say that they are not allowed to do so.

  40. David Dawson

    Come on!

    Its got frikin lasers people!


  41. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Truly Environmentally Friendly

    The future will be aneutronic fusion, just electrostatic acceleration instead of brute force, no radioactive waste.

  42. Brandon 2

    remind me...

    ... again what the downsides to fission reactors are? The US does not re-process spent fission fuel, currently. About 90% of our spent fission fuel can be reprocessed and used in reactors for another 50+ years. Instead, we bury it if lead / concrete containers somewhere in Colorado... which isn't a bad idea, because one day we'll run out of uranium and dig all that spent fuel up, reprocess it and prolong the inevitable for another 100 or so years. Fission is pretty darned safe. How many "chernobyls" have we had in the open ocean? Nimitz class carriers have 2 reactors on them... I'm not saying we shouldn't be pursuing alternative energy sources, but compared to the impact (both environmental and economical) of fossil fuel energy, fission is a far better source of energy. I think the problem lies in the millions of people that think high-fructose corn syrup is going to kill them and that somehow we should feel guilty for heating the planet a degree or two... which is debatable in its own right. (somehow the term climate deniers reminds me of the spainish inquisition, which no one can escape, by the way)

    1. Geoffrey Swenson

      Admiral Nimitz himself, as a big proponent of nuclear powered ships, was much less enamored of commercial nuclear power. He felt that without military discipline to ensure that guidelines were followed, accidents were likely.

      I don't agree that nuclear fission is safe. We have already had too many incidents, way too many permanently despoiled areas like Hanford and other poorly run nuclear production facilities in other US States, an entire river system in Siberia that is so radioactive that a five minute exposure on its banks would be fatal. And then there is Chernobyl and now Fukushima, both of which involved a huge amount of human error and cost-cutting decisions that created the conditions for the disasters. There is no reason anymore to believe that the same stupidity won't ever happen anywhere else, or that some natural or human-caused disaster would be made so much worse by the failure of nuclear containment.

      There are much safer, less expensive ways to produce power, we shouldn't be playing with the nuclear genie. It really isn't worth the risk.

      BTW, I don't mind at all that we do research on fusion power, but it is almost completely unrealistic to expect it to work, or to even believe that it would be all that safe. Fusion requires extreme conditions, and plenty of hot particles are produced that would make the walls of the reactor extremely radioactive.

      My last point is to mention that the reason why most fission fuel is not reprocessed is that it is very difficult to do and hazardous in the extreme. Just look at the mess around Hanford Washington where fuel was processed for bombs, for just one example of how dirty and dangerous this is. It is cheaper and easier to start out with raw uranium.

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        "Admiral Nimitz himself"

        That was Rickover, actually.

        1. Geoffrey Swenson

          Yes, you're right. I was remembering this from a long-ago conversation with my college roommate, who had just read or watched an interview with Admiral Rickover.

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge


      "he US does not re-process spent fission fuel, currently. About 90% of our spent fission fuel can be reprocessed and used in reactors for another 50+ years. Instead, we bury it if lead / concrete containers somewhere in Colorado"

      It's done to stop harvesting Plutonium and *potentially* creating a bigger supply of bomb material. I think it's also more hassle for the operators to use it rather than enriched uranium.

      "How many "chernobyls" have we had in the open ocean?"

      you might like to look up USS "Thresher". But while the pressure hull failed the reactor (apparently) I'm not sure the Russians were so lucky.

      "Nimitz class carriers have 2 reactors on them... "

      You might like to check that. I was quite surprised by the answer.

      Part of the problem is the *perception* of risk. Both the Shuttle and nuclear reactors have (generally) good safety records, but when they *do* fail they fail *badly*.

      Investors remember 3 mile Island turning a $1bn asset into a $2Bn clean up operation.

      And what kind of *business* is "commercially viable" as long as the host countries *government* picks up the de-commissioning bill?

      On that basis let the government run the reactors as a national resource to cover costs *including* de-commissioning and let the power companies find some other way to make money.

      Note I'm not against nuclear power and I think the molten salt design pioneered at ORNL for the nuclear bomber (although remaining a stupid idea for a weapon system) programme may turn out to be the *best* investment in nuclear technology *ever* made for peaceful uses.

      so of course there is *no* economic incentive for reactor building companies to develop it (they make their money from complex non interchangeable fuel element designs) or power companies to buy it (no commercially available design, and the cost structure might be a bit too *transparent* and people might feel they had been, how should I put this, shafted).

  43. Derk

    No point really

    By the time they find that they can or cannot do it, the world will be either vastly over populated, and starving or burnt to crisp after a man with funny head gear deicides it is OK to Nuke his neighbour.

    Thorium reactors seem a good idea. I hear the Chinese are trying for one. Either way, you'll still pay extortionate bills for energy. A lot of people like being rich. Besides I remember when oil was discovered in the North Sea, it was going to be cheap petrol for all in the UK. Well you saw how that turned out. Just peachy......for some, but not for the motorist.

  44. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    One can only hope...

    I would like to see a workable fusion power plant achieved in my lifetime... Probably won't happen though. In the meantime, if we must use nuclear power, Thorium reactors look like the way to go.

  45. david 63

    No worries...

    ...Rossi's near room temperature fusion will give us more electricity than we can possibly use...only one month until it comes on stream in Greece...

    ...yeah right.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Never heard of it before

      But Rossi, according to the internet fount of all accurate and verified not made up knowledge Wikipedia, has fallen out over money with the company who were going to put his 1MW plant online in Greece so the unit is now going to be built in the US instead. I wonder who he'll fall out with next?

  46. Geoffrey Swenson

    Thorium is just the latest of many excuses for playing with the nuclear genie, and chances are it won't be much better than where we've already been. Before that it was latest jumbo-sized reactor design which were supposed to be safer and more economical, when actually built somewhere in Scandinavia, had extreme many X cost overruns and safety issues that were revealed as the plant was being built. After that debacle the debate has now moved to thorium as the next great nuclear technology, and here we go again.

    Even though the thorium fuel is much cheaper and less radioactive, it still requires costly and dangerous fuel reprocessing, still produces hazardous radioactive nucleotides that could be diverted for terrorism.

    There is abundant sun and wind power many times what we need to power this planet. We should be researching better means to store power for future use, rather than wasting our time and money on inherently dangerous technologies. It is not like this is a unsolvable problem, as nature already did it several million years ago.

    I recently read an article about a company that is proposing portable, low-cost ammonia generation plants as a way to convert electrical energy into concentrated no-carbon fuel for under $2 a US gallon at current energy prices. This can be burned in modified gasoline engines and probably would work in a fuel cell. This makes far more sense than hydrogen because the ammonia can be stored in a pressured tank.

    1. itzman

      Another dear sweet caveman

      Who thinks 'renewable' energy isn't nuclear..

      Who thinks that 'nuclear energy' is a dangerous man made thing.

      Who doesn't realise that the whole universe is a nuclear reactor we are living inside that floods us with 1000 times more radioactivity than the nuclear industry ever did.


      1. Geoffrey Swenson

        Of course the Sun is a fusion furnace, but it is safely located in a huge, distant vacuum / gravity well.

        Your argument is oh so funny, but irrelevant. It hardly changes the fact that when nuclear materials escape confinement, the results can be deadly, and cleanup requires waiting several thousand years for the stuff to decay.

        We can't have an energy industry that in rare accidents has such a overwhelming result.

        It also doesn't make sense given that nuclear makes financial sense only if governments step in and cover the uninsurable extreme risks, and numerous other subsidies, such as decomissioning cleanup. The point of these subsidies was originally to jump start a future of abundant, cheap energy, but that really hasn't happened.

  47. DF118

    I know how this goes

    El Reg "science" article comments thread. Humourless gits up the top. Cool people down here at the bottom.

  48. ThinkNauts

    We saw this movie

    Saw this in Spider man 2. Did not work out so well.

    ThinkNauts . com

  49. Bernard M. Orwell


    "keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs..."

    Energy needs! Good!

    "...monitoring and understanding climate change..."

    That'll be useful for the forthcoming debates and actions, surely? Nice.

    "...and global security."

    Wait.. ..What? How?

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      @Berneard M. Orwell

      "...and global security."

      Wait.. ..What? How?

      Because lots or wars are caused by either people who want more land/food/water/energy or people whose supply is running out (or don't have any) wanting more.

      66 million people deprived of their 24/7 access to Big Brother, lighting after sun down and heating as Dobby is feeling a bit miffed with whoever's in charge that year.

      It *will* get ugly.

  50. Saigua

    Awesome editorship; NIF = Laser Company :: PRL = small press ?

    Yeah, you got your Uniphase, your Raytheon, this thing I like to pop balloons with from eBay...lots of Helium-4 balloons around since we got a day care...small ones...but NIF are proud of our own lineup too. Our customers, users, are working on problems under 10^-33 cc, and we're proud that we have electromagnetic devices capable of safely bossing neutrons around in those spaces.

    All right! You UK boffins get busy creating my self-contained PC power, HVAC and mulching unit so I can license/import something from the East and sort of balance out my trade imbalances.

    Yes! Mulching!

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