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Nuclear Power

Reactions

August 31, 2018 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 96, ISSUE 35

 

Letters to the editor

Fusion start-ups

09635-reactions-fusion.jpg
At high enough temperatures, deuterium and tritium fuse to produce helium, a neutron, and a whole bunch of energy.

I refer to the article about a nuclear fusion start-up (C&EN, Aug. 6, page 32).

It is astonishing that there are still start-up companies obtaining money for trying to make nuclear fusion available as an energy source for humankind. Even if the nuclear redistribution reaction

3H + 2H J 4He + 1n + 17.6 MeV

is known to have a low activation energy of only 150 keV (it is available in the form of commercial “neutron tubes” for neutron-activation-based analytical instrumentation), its practical application for energy production encounters three major obstacles:

(a) The reaction itself has a far-too-low yield in successful nuclear particle collisions as compared to the unsuccessful ones, which dissipate activation energy without yielding energy back.

(b) The required tritium, 3H, must itself be artificially produced in an expensive way.

(c) The resulting neutron in the reaction products reacts with the reactor confinement materials, making them radioactive.

The last of these obstacles is the decisive one: Nuclear fusion energy is not “clean,” as many of its advocates want to have it; it is just as “dirty” as nuclear fission energy, the neutrons making the surrounding reactor materials radioactive themselves. Humankind’s first-generation nuclear power plants are actually being dismantled after 30 years of use and 20 years of nuclear cooling down, and nobody knows what to do with the reactor confinement materials, which will remain radioactive still for thousands of years to come.

Hence, wouldn’t it be wiser to let humankind’s scientists spend their brainpower on developing technology for making silicon solar cells cheaper in production and more long lasting in use? If the manufacturing cost of silicon solar cells can be cut down by a factor of 10 and if these solar cells can be hermetically sealed inside roof tiles or window glasses, so as to last for 20 years or longer, humankind’s energy problems are reliably solved!

Edgar Müller
Prilly, Switzerland

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