Danville Express

Newsfront - September 7, 2007

Scientist says nuclear fusion could be our future

Livermore Lab scientist speaks to Exchange Club

by Jordan M. Doronila

Nuclear fusion could electrify all of Danville.

If proven to work, nuclear fusion would be safe and clean, said Dr. John Perkins, of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who spoke in Danville last month.

"Fusion is free of any problems of safety," he said.

Perkins discussed his research on nuclear fusion energy at the Exchange Club of the San Ramon Valley's meeting at Faz Restaurant in Danville.

If proven to work, fusion is more powerful and efficient than fission, he said. In nuclear fission, uranium atoms are taken into power plants and split; the resulting heat is used to boil water and produce steam, which turns turbines that create electricity in generators that then provide energy.

In nuclear fusion, the hydrogen isotopes are merged together, which releases energy. Like fission, fusion would produce heat that turns turbines, which creates electricity.

Listeners were intrigued with Perkins' presentation. Although several states in the U.S. and countries, such as France, Japan and Lithuania, already use nuclear fission power, there are no electrical plants powered by fusion energy, according to Perkins.

"No one has achieved this yet," Perkins said.

At the Exchange Club meeting, Perkins made comparisons between fusion and other sources of energy. He said fusion needs only a half-ton pickup truck of materials to duplicate the energy provided by it takes 191 trains of 110 cars each of coal; 10 super tankers of oil; or one rail car load of uranium or plutonium for fission.

Fusion can be achieved three ways: gravitational, magnetic or inertial confinements, Perkins explained. The sun is a gravitational form and consistently creates energy within itself. Magnetic confinement fusion is manmade; it creates magnetic fields to contain charged particles that compose hot plasma, keeping it away from its chamber walls.

Scientists have been able to contain the particles and could channel them to produce energy but have not yet.

Perkins has been working extensively on inertial confinement to create fusion. He said he has been working to create a conceptual inertial power plant that is the same size and has the same cost as a fission reactor. Additionally, it offers a lifetime of solid walls and secretes low radioactive nuclear waste that disappears in a relatively short time.

Attendees asked questions about the potential disasters if nuclear fusion reactor would break down. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 killed 57 and may have caused severe illnesses to thousands. Additionally, the nuclear power plant accident on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania polluted its surroundings. Nuclear waste is also an issue.

Nonetheless, Perkins remains optimistic about nuclear energy.

"The waste in fusion will be minimal," he said.

Scientists have not come up with definitive answers in creating and using nuclear fusion power. But Perkins believes he will have a breakthrough in the near future. If successful, the Lab could potentially be on the cover of Time Magazine in 2010, he said.

"I don't think he was taking any position than developing a new energy finalized in 2010," said Karen Stepper, president of the Exchange Club and a Danville councilwoman.

"I do believe it's useful," she added, about nuclear energy. "It's the cleanest form of energy we could have."

Former U.S. Rep. Bill Baker (R., District 10) and a representative from the office of U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney (D, District 11) were also present.

"We had a great turnout," Stepper said. "Everyone thought he was excellent."

Contact Jordan M. Doronila at DanvilleWeekly.com

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