ITER is Radioactive October 31, 2007Posted by gordonwatts in Marseille, physics life, politics, science.
I stumbled on these posters while I was eating lunch on Saturday. There were two others I saw on the walk up as well. I couldn’t for the life of me figure them out. How was ITER being labeled as radioactive!? And why was it being protested by the same groups that protest nuclear energy? And isn’t France one of the most nuclear states?
Well, thank goodness for search engines. I personally think this is an over reaction to the situation.
First of all, ITER is a research fusion reactor, to be built in the South of France (near by). Nuclear power plants are fission reactors — ITER combines, nuclear reactors split. Nuclear reactors are tricky to build – the first sets of them (like 3 mile island and Chernoble) are basically trying to keep a run-away reaction in check. Second, they pour out lots and lots of radiation. Radiation, much as it will damage cell and DNA, also damages material – like a containment vessel. So you really have to over engineer the things. I think the new versions are much better. But ITER is a totally different beast. It takes two relatively benign atoms – deuterium (one proton and one neutron) and tritium (isotope of hydrogen – one proton, two neutrons) and produces Helium (H2), a neutron, and a boat load of energy. More than nuclear fission. In fact, that is why they invented the H-bomb. They use the nuclear fission explosion to start a nuclear fusion explosion, which is much more powerful. ITER is a Tokamak design: they excite the tritium and deuterium to very high energies – form a plasma (a gas, but with the atoms disassociated), and then use a magnetic field to contain them and squeeze them so that they get together and combine, releasing that energy, helium, and that neutron. Now, deuterium is everywhere (like our oceans). Tritium is mildly radio active, but nothing when compared to the active uranium isotope, U235. Helium is harmless — you are breathing it now. The neutron, however, will cause some damage as it is stopped by the walls of ITER, much the way the nuclear reactor container will have trouble: but it will be much much less. Further, the left over nuclear reactor fuel remains around forever, as we well know, but the rements of the ITER reaction will be mainly a radioactive reactor – much less hot and much less material (see the decommissioning page – you could never do this with nuclear fuel!). So the radiation argument is bogus, I think.
I finally stumbled on this Wikipedia article talking about ITER and a bit of its history. They have a very nice section on criticisms towards the end. The only argument I could find myself possibly agreeing with is the statement that ITER is expensive and could possibly be spent on more promising technologies and renewable energy sources. ITER has a long and tortured history – it has been around since the 1950’s. There are been plenty of science politics around the thing. No one has every gotten enough energy out of one to make it commercially viable – on the other hand, promising results have been had on a small scale. If the world is going to turn this into a real power source then a project the size of ITER is needed (~$400M over 20 years).
Frankly, even this cost argument is a red herring. When I look at how the USA is spending its cash. 20 million a year? Please!! Look at what we spend per-day on the war!! What really needs to happen is everyone needs to re-jigger their priorities: we (in the USA) are fighting the wrong war!