Saturday, October 8, 2011

British Columbia's Fusion Future

Fusion power has always been the future. Usually framed as advanced, clean, and inexhaustible, it's one of those holy grails of accomplishment that scientists and engineers have been reaching for since the 1940s, and it's always twenty-five years away. It's part of the lives of every living thing on Earth - after all, the sun is essentially just a natural fusion reactor. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, it was a common thing for projections of the future to include the perfection of fusion power in the early twenty-first century: in our actual twenty-first century research is still ongoing, with the most high-profile project being ITER over in Cadarache, France.

Yet ITER is not the only attempt to achieve economical fusion power, and as the theory goes there may be more than one road to realizing it. One such effort is underway right here in the Lower Mainland, with Burnaby-based General Fusion working towards the demonstration of a magnetized target fusion generator by 2013. If they were to be successful, it would be revolutionary - the nature of fusion power is such that it is not vulnerable to the sort of runaway chain reactions or significant releases of radioactivity that can happen when nuclear fission reactors go awry. To put it simply, if you want civilization to dramatically cut down its environmental footprint without cutting its power production and expenditure equally dramatically, fusion power is it - though, of course, Greenpeace has already come out against it.

Until very recently, General Fusion was working under the radar. That changed on Monday, when CBC News posted a story built around comments by Erich Vogt, a UBC nuclear physicist who stated that "there's a hazard, an explosive hazard" associated with General Fusion's experimental reactor - I'm not sure to what degree he believes this is possible. But it's got people more aware about the future-focused experimentation going on in Metro Vancouver, and what's going to be done about it. I just think it's great that the media is seeding fear, uncertainty, and doubt about fusion power - after all, that's totally not the sort of thing that will backfire on us down the road.

Fusion power is perfect for British Columbia! I mean, there's a fusion reactor on the flag already!

Yesterday, the CBC followed up with another story looking at the official response - Burnaby mayor Derek Corrigan has stated that local officials will be monitoring future tests of the plasma injector that's at the heart of this project, and that the city's current view is that General Fusion's operations pose no risk to the surrounding areas - not just that, but the reactor is not even going to be tested in Burnaby. Taking that into consideration, though... just what is city supervision of the project going to accomplish? How many people does the City of Burnaby have on its payroll who are sufficiently familiar with the science behind magnetized target fusion to meaningfully monitor it?

My own opinion is that some people are taking this more seriously than it needs to be because it's nuclear fusion. The fact is that a fusion reactor would not act like a fission reactor because they work along different lines - otherwise, why would it have taken sixty years to get even to this level of development? Still, I'm glad to see that people don't seem to be freaking out about this. Just think what it could do for the international reputation of British Columbia if - though it's a big if - the world's first workable fusion reactor was built here.

That, of course, depends on the laws - all of which seem to have written with "nuclear power" and "nuclear fission power" being considered synonymous. The first CBC article refers to a ban on nuclear energy in British Columbia - I'm not sure where this is coming from. Having searched BC Laws, the closest candidate I can find is the province's current Clean Energy Act, which simply states that one of BC's energy objectives is "to achieve British Columbia's energy objectives without the use of nuclear power."

I wonder if that would mean solar is out of the question, too - after all, solar power wouldn't be worth anything if not for the nuclear reactions constantly happening inside of the sun.

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