February 10, 2016

Thailand is considering a polywell fusion project

According to the Thai Ministry of Energy's Integrated Blueprint, up to 5 per cent of the country's energy requirements will be met by nuclear power by 2036. Nuclear power has advantages over fossil fuels in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, yet the Fukushima disaster reminded the world of the dangers associated with fission plants - radiation during their operation and radioactive waste to subsequently dispose of. There is, however, an alternative: nuclear fusion. Given global climate change, the increased health costs and proven loss of life from air pollution emitted by the Mae Moh and Map Ta Phut coal plants in Lamphang and Rayong, and ongoing protests against the proposed coal-fired plants in Krabi and Songkhla, the "other" nuclear option bears revisiting.

ITER is due to be completed in 2019 but will never produce commercial energy. It is a research facility designed to produce 500MW of fusion power from 50MW of energy input for up to 1,000 seconds. In 2033 it is due to be replaced by a new-generation reactor that could produce 2,000MW of fusion energy. However, this will still only be a prototype and will require yet another generation of reactors before fusion becomes commercially viable, around 2050.

Faster nuclear fusion development pathways may be realized sooner. While ITER and its descendants will be tokamak reactors - giant "doughnuts" using magnetic confinement, encased in liquid lithium and water layers to produce steam as with conventional reactors - there are alternatives. The main one employs inertial electrostatic confinement, or "polywell" reactors, which look like cubes.

Polywell reactors have been championed by EMC2 Inc, funded by the US Navy for over 20 years. This and similar projects, such as Lockheed Martin's proposed reactor, use a variety of rapidly evolving technologies. Alternatives to polywells, such as magnetised target systems, also exist.

About a dozen companies are currently exploring low-end versions of fusion, with EMC2 and others expecting proof of the concept in 2018-2020

Thailand has actually safely operated a nuclear fission reactor for decades. The TRIGA (Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics) Thai Research Reactor 1/Modification 1 (TRR1/M1) at the Institute of Nuclear Technology in Bangkok was installed in 1962. is presently building a second, latest-generation TRIGA at the Ongkharak Nuclear Research Centre. The TRIGA reactor, which uses a very low-risk fuel and emits little radiation, enables Thailand to be self-sufficient in basic nuclear materials like isotopes for scientific institutions, universities and private commercial research.

A Thai polywell reactor programme would complement the TRR1/M1 and achieve the same effects as it did when the TRIGA was first launched. It would herald a new age of "Atoms for Peace", invigorate the Thai scientific community, and advance the country. Even if the dozen companies currently chasing low-cost nuclear fusion reactors are all overly optimistic, and commercial fusion energy cannot be achieved within the next decade, Thailand, by developing fusion reactor technology, will be in a position to capitalise on a tokamak reactor when the design becomes commercially viable.

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