The prospect of a fusion power plant is edging closer to reality. Work is underway to ensure that these plants will be designed to mitigate low-level proliferation risks.

RISK SCENARIOS

The breakout scenario has long been a concern for the international community but it’s never been a major concern when it comes to fusion research. There simply haven’t been significant levels of fertile material in fusion. However, with fusion power plants looming on the horizon, the risk calculus will change. Research and development is now underway to mitigate these low-level risks.

WHAT ARE THE LONG-TERM PROLIFERATION SCENARIOS FOR FUSION?

As the largest fusion experiment on Earth, ITER will test breeding blankets for the production of tritium. One future breakout scenario involves a state that introduces fertile material to the breeding blankets. However, not only would doing this have implications for the tritium breeding ratios – every cubic centimetre counts – but it would alter the power consumption of the plant and the detectable signatures of the tritium. Both of these changes can be tracked by satellites using current technology and the presence of fertile material would quickly be discovered.

Another breakout scenario is the introduction of fertile material into the coolant flow. Again, this scenario can be mitigated by monitoring changes in background radiation. While further research and development is required to confidently mitigate this risk, there is plenty of time left to do so and ITER will provide the perfect opportunity.

authorbox_Richard-KamendjeThere is an awareness of the risks, they’re managable and the international community is taking steps to anticipate them.

Dr Richard Kamendje from EUROfusion, who previously dealt with proliferation issues at the IAEA, anticipates that over the coming decades the international community will need to incorporate some safeguards to mitigate the low-level risks in fusion.

Dr Richard Kamendje, Responsible Officer of the EUROfusion ITER Physics Department, Picture: EUROfusion

SAFEGUARDS BY DESIGN

New designs for nuclear power plants are sent to the IAEA for approval and must incorporate safeguards in the designs. While there are no current designs for fusion power plants, there is little doubt they will go through a similar process. The next 20 – 30 years will see the research, development and design of such reactors. At each step along the way, the long-term low-level risks will be known and planned for. ITER has enabled international scientific collaboration on a scale that has rarely been seen before. This stands in marked contrast to competitive nuclear weapons research and the construction of their supporting facilities. Careful and considered research over the coming decades will ensure that fusion remains the low-level proliferation concern it always has been.

authorbox_Thom-DixonI am interested in communicating how emerging technologies reshape the world and challenge the status quo. Fusion power will do away with the limits of energy supply and fundamentally rewrite our understanding of power generation. Though this is not without risk, the risks are minimal and need to be communicated before they are misunderstood.

Thom Dixon (28) from Australia is currently based at: Macquarie University, Sydney, @thomdixon. (Picture: private)

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TRITIUM IN NUCLEAR WEAPONS

info iconFusion boosted bombs fuse deuterium and tritium as a trigger to spark lots of early neutrons, which chain-react to make the primary fission explosion more efficient and about twice as powerful. This is a relatively simple weapons technology, and it is suspected that North Korea currently have this type of bomb. A pure fusion bomb is a hypothetical weapon. In comparison with fission fueled bombs, weapons using 100% deuterium-tritium fuel could more easily evade current non-proliferation measures.