Saturday, 10 October 2009

Power blackouts forecast for Britain- is fusion the way ahead?

Britain faces a return to 1970s-style power blackouts and disruption to its electricity supplies within four years, the energy regulator warned yesterday.

Ofgem raised the spectre of a return to the three-day week for British industry as the country scrambles to renovate its crumbling power infrastructure ahead of new EU pollution rules that will force the closure of a quarter of UK power stations by 2015.

Alistair Buchanan, Ofgem’s chief executive, said: “There could be a potential shortfall in the period 2013-18 ... life might be pretty cold.”

This report came at the same time that New Scientist reports on how an international consortium known as ITER (“the way”, in Latin), is ready to start building a prototype fusion reactor in Cadarache, France. Critics will carp that there are still important questions to be asked. Why bother to build a fusion reactor when there is a perfectly good one 8 light-minutes away? Why not spend the $10 billion – likely to be an underestimate – on wind or solar power instead?

Stephen Battersby, the article author, argues that these questions are easily answered. We need as many clean energy options as we can get, and commercial fusion power is within sight.

Thanks to studies carried out in recent decades, the science that ITER has to rely on is well established. The challenges lie in the technology, such as developing wall materials to withstand the pummelling by subatomic particles and cutting the cost of the superconducting magnets that will confine plasma that is 10 times the temperature of the sun's core. The more that we spend now, the sooner we'll reach our goal.

The last surge in spending on fusion came during the 1970s, when oil-producing countries in the Middle East cut supplies to the west. As delegates prepare for December's climate change conference in Copenhagen, the case for boosting funding is stronger than ever. Whatever the outcome, the risk of dangerous climate change is a real one, prompting thoughts of draconian measures to tackle it. Compared with the more exotic schemes for large-scale manipulation of the environment now coming under serious consideration – which do look 50 years away – fusion power is a racing certainty. It's safer too. A technology that messes with our planet's climate is what got us into trouble in the first place.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting to look back 10 years. The 1970s blackouts did not occur, but it looks now that fusion will soon become a reality. Maybe we will have zero C by 2050
    James Kendall, Wilmslow, UK


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