The world´s total energy needs in the latter part of the 21st century and beyond cannot be met without recourse to many energy sources, including nuclear energy. The ultimate goal is to harness the energy that powers the Sun and other stars – fusion energy.
Scientists all over the world have been endeavouring to tame it on the Earth for all to benefit and for all future generations. The attractions of fusion energy are great: Fuel resources for fusion power are available in abundance for centuries to come; there is much less concern for the disposal of radioactive wastes; and nuclear proliferation issues are low when compared with today´s nuclear fission energy.
The IAEA has a long history of involvement in fusion research. This year, the 21st Fusion Energy Conference is hosted by the People´s Republic of China, in the city of Chengdu. More than 800 leading scientists and senior policy makers from about 50 countries are participating. The Conference - which runs from 16 to 20 October - will be opened jointly by Mr. Werner Burkart, Deputy Director General, on behalf of the Director General of the IAEA, Mr. Mohamed ElBaradei, and Mr XU Guanhua, China´s Minister of Science and Technology. Mr. SUN Qin, Chairman of China Atomic Energy Authority (CAEA) will also address the Conference.
The Conference is of particular importance, as it is the first Fusion Energy Conference following the decision to build the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) facility in Cadarache, France. Participants will discuss the major research topics that need to be tackled and planned for ITER´s successful exploitation.
ITER will represent a major advance in fusion research. As the largest international cooperation project ever undertaken, it is supported by China, the European Union, India, Japan, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation and USA. ITER will enable the international community to study new concepts and new materials that need to be developed for the construction of a future fusion power plant. The sheer magnitude of the investments being committed by the ITER partners demonstrates their belief and commitment in the future of fusion energy.
The world is facing formidable challenges in tapping fusion energy. The problems to be addressed are so scientifically, technologically, and resource challenging, that no one country or small group of countries will be able to supply and maintain the necessary research momentum over long periods.
There is consensus that the way forward will require an international mobilisation of resources and internationally coordinated research efforts, probably over many decades.
The prize of fusion energy, with its limitless source of fuel, is worth the effort. With demand for electricity projected to double over the next 25 years, and with the current dependency on fossil fuel sources raising concerns about climate change, it is of growing importance that effective solutions need to be found and deployed.
There is a growing realization that no single energy source can solve the problem, but nuclear energy could be a part of the solution, both from nuclear fission (today´s generations of nuclear power plants) and from nuclear fusion.
Currently, two main approaches to produce fusion energy have emerged and are delivering promising results:
- magnetic confinement (based on magnetic field compression of the fuel); and
- inertial confinement (based on compression of the fuel by lasers or beams of particles).
Investments in the range of multi-billions of dollars are foreseen to take place in the near future to develop these two approaches further, by designing and building new research machines to push the limits of science and technology to that necessary to build and operate a sustainable nuclear fusion power plant.