Fission & fusion: a view from Sirius, by Bertrand
Barré, ENS president
All too often, a very destructive controversy
simmers between the proponents of fusion and the advocates of
fission who, seen from Sirius,1 are both parts of the
same community, the nuclear energy specialists.
Fusion zealots claim that ‘their’
energy source is so much cleaner (meaning cleaner than fission,
of course), non-proliferating, safer, and more plentiful. Some
of them go as far as suggesting that ITER will, indeed, see the
light of day as a reactor (as the ‘R’ in the acronym
implies), and some also even dare attribute levels of cost competitiveness
to the first fusion reactor.2 Fission fanatics, on
the other hand, deride fusion as an eternal dream – saying
that its readiness for the market is perpetually delayed. Both
sides claim that they should be the sole recipients of the very
limited R&D budgets.
Let me first address this last point. It is a
fact that, by far, the biggest chunk of the Euratom Framework
Programme’s budget was, and still is, devoted to fusion
R&D. But this chunk constitutes the bulk of the European money
spent on fusion, though (fortunately) fission R&D relies only
marginally on EU funding. Furthermore, in the present EU environment,
any Euro lost by fusion is very unlikely to be redirected toward
fission R&D! This considered, we do constitute
We are a community also because, let's face it,
we share the same opponents. As long as fusion seemed very, very
remote – both in time and space – some ‘anti-nuke’
spokespeople used to say: “we're not against nuclear energy;
we're just against this dirty fission power". Recently,
because of the possibility of siting ITER in Europe, we hear (or
read in the press): “we're all for fusion, but we're against
this dirty ITER, with all that tritium and those activation products".
And this is not a purely European phenomenon – similar declarations
also appear in the Japanese newspapers.
Like it or not, fusion R&D needs the general
nuclear background supplied today by lively fission programmes.
If – heaven forbid – mankind were to phase out nuclear
power for fear of radioactivity, fusion would stand as much chance
of survival as a snowflake in hell. (And the demise of fusion
would be but a drop in the ocean of problems mankind would face
in solving its ‘development-versus-environment dilemma’
without the help of nuclear power.) On the other hand, the very
existence of active R&D on fusion provides nuclear power with
a prospect of millennial sustainability, which makes it worth
Fission advocates should say, in essence: “Fusion
is still a scientific and technical challenge which needs to be
very thoroughly addressed, but the prospect of turning the vast
reserves of lithium in the earth’s crust into energy sources
is worth the effort.” And fusion proponents should acknowledge
that, when we have mastered the physics and basic technology of
fusion, we shall be happy to turn to fission specialists to engineer
an efficient power reactor around our plasma core, to design our
specific tritium breeding cycle and to properly manage our radioactive
waste, as well as to help establish our Safety Analysis Report
and Environmental Impact Assessment.
All in all, the European fission community has
strongly supported ITER; we should at least expect the fusion
community not to undermine nuclear power when it faces tough opposition
in several European countries.
Personally, I do not picture fusion as a successor
to fission, no more than oil is a successor to coal. Whenever
it is that fusion does go commercial (don't ask me when), oil
as well as gas production will be on the decline. Mark my words:
I am not speaking about the ultimate exhaustion of these resources;
I am only predicting an irreversible decline in production which
might last very long. Even if a reasonably optimistic view of
the growth potential of renewable energy sources is taken, I am
convinced that, in the future, we shall be only too happy to have
two forms of nuclear energy to use simultaneously: breeder fission
and fusion. As I see it, fission and fusion are two sides of the
same ‘nuclear coin’.
1An expression from the French writer
Voltaire, which means: seen from afar, from a broader perspective.
2At this early stage, fusion’s
competitiveness is a question unfair to ask and dishonest to answer.