In the aftermath of the Fukushima accident and Iran’s stalled nuclear program, the future of nuclear power has never been more uncertain. Safety concerns ranging from terrorism, rogue states and even natural disasters still linger on the minds of the citizenry of nuclear powered nations. That is why even with rising electric power prices, the Japanese are still wary of reactivating the country’s 50 nuclear reactors, three and a half years after Fukushima.
Things may change, however, with the latest development at Lockheed Martin Corp’s Skunk Works. The secretive team that gave the world the Stealth Fighter finally came out of the closet to reveal their fusion reactor design – and to find partners for its development.
The team demonstrated the feasibility of making a 100-MW nuclear reactor that could fit on the back of a truck. Tom McGuire, head of the Skunk Works team working on the project says, “we can make a big difference on the energy front.” After all, Lockheed has been working on nuclear fusion as an energy source for six decades, he added. Nuclear fusion, on which this technology is based, is said to be more efficient and safer than nuclear fission, which is used in reactors in service today.
For one thing, instead of using uranium and plutonium, it will use hydrogen – specifically the deuterium and tritium isotopes. Deuterium is naturally occurring and can be found in water found in the deepest depths of the ocean. Tritium fuel, on the other hand, is produced by neutron activation of lithium.
Unlike current nuclear fission reactors that produce radioactive metal wastes, a fusion reactor produces helium and the hydrogen isotope tritium. So, there is no spent fuel to dispose of, although there is some concern regarding the release of tritium into the atmosphere.
Another advantage is that it will be much easier to monitor for the production of weapons-grade nuclear materials. A terrorist organization looking for uranium or plutonium from this kind of nuclear reactor will find none, because spent fuel practically vanishes into thin air.
What distinguishes the Lockheed Martin fusion reactor is that it is cylindrical shaped, unlike the traditional tokamak “donuts”. Because of this, the reactor can hold more plasma in a smaller amount of space – measured in terms of the beta ratio or the ratio of the plasma pressure over the magnetic field pressure. Tokamaks typically have a beta of 5%, the Skunk Works team of Lockheed says that they will be able to achieve a beta of 100% or more.
So while the economics of the design are undeniable, they still have to make the thing work. They plan to produce the first reactor this year and have a commercial reactor ready in a decade.
To think that this baby will practically run on air seems like a dream. So is this just a fantasy or is it the real thing? We’ll probably see so in ten years.
One thing’s for sure though, nuclear fission pretty much fizzed out, nuclear fusion is the way to go.