Brussels Behind the Scenes: A glimpse of the future

Brussels Behind the Scenes: A glimpse of the future
Credit: EUROfusion

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES

Weekly analysis and untold stories

With SAM MORGAN

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A glimpse into the future

A major breakthrough in energy technology this week gave the world a taste of what the future might hold and should lend a bit of perspective to an ongoing spat over how to deal with a costly spike in power prices.

Nuclear fusion - essentially the power process that fuels the sun - is often decried for being the answer to many of humanity’s problems that will always be a tantalising twenty years away from completion.

However, that criticism was watered down slightly this week when a UK-based arm of a global effort to develop fusion technology made a big breakthrough. It has to some extent reinvigorated stagnant interest in the sector.

JET, an experimental fusion reactor, was successfully fired up for a record five seconds, producing enough power to boil a bathtub of water. It may not sound like much but the milestone is a significant one.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


"We've demonstrated that we can create a mini star inside of our machine and hold it there for five seconds and get high performance, which really takes us into a new realm,” the head of the JET project explained.

The data will eventually be fed into the much larger ITER reactor in southern France, which is a collaboration between researchers from around the world, dedicated to proving fusion power can be generated and, ultimately, used by society.

Under the current EU budget, ITER gets around €6 billion, an amount that has remained pretty much stable over the last decade. Brussels finances about 45% of the project, with the rest provided by Japan, the US and other partner countries.

Some MEPs have condemned the spending due to the cost and construction overruns that are commonplace with innovative technology, while others insist the money would be better spent on more renewable power.

ITER’s critics have been emboldened lately after project leaders admitted that the COVID-19 pandemic’s disruptive impact will mean further delays and more costs. That is, however, true of most sectors, ranging from space travel to the automobile industry.

Fusion power is for the future not the present, as even under ITER’s perhaps optimistic schedule, actual electricity won’t enter the grid for well over a decade. Even then it will not be in quantities sufficient enough to make a big dent in decarbonisation goals.

But that is no reason to abandon it, quite the opposite. EU officials indirectly subscribed to that mindset this week when they unveiled a plan to quadruple microchip production and mobilise more than €40 billion in investments in the industry.

Digi-chief Margrethe Vestager insisted that the ‘EU Chips Act’ will reward pioneer companies that are working on the bleeding edge of semiconductor tech and that the plan is not going to target short-term supply issues, a nod towards carmakers who are facing shortages.

That same logic is applicable to the energy sector. An ongoing dispute at EU level about sustainable investment rules, which look likely to include gas and nuclear alongside renewable energy, is a case in point of short-term policy-making.

The UK government is also straying into policies that will do long-term damage, best illustrated by Westminster’s rumoured funding of new oil and gas exploration in the North Sea.

Energy dependence is not a new concept, it is an issue that governments have had to contend with for decades. Positive things can be achieved, just look at how much biking infrastructure the Netherlands built when dealing with the fallout of the oil crisis.

Renewables can beef up energy security but if we are looking at energy production by the end of the century - which the UN’s climate experts ask us to do every time someone mentions 1.5 degrees of warming - there needs to be a next step.

In a way, renewables such as wind and solar are the real transitional energy sources, not gas, when you look at society from a long lens perspective. They are not the future, they are the present. At least, they should be given how cheap and beneficial they are.

Fusion may well be the next step if researchers continue to make gradual progress. It may be of little to no help for our immediate targets, such as climate neutrality by 2050, but as we are constantly urged, crisis preparation should happen before the crisis starts.

Will throwing even more money at ITER get us there quicker? One lead scientist involved with the project says “no, not really”, explaining that fusion researchers know what they need to do and by when they need to do it.

More cash would help but it is not the limiting factor.

Fusion’s mainstream brother, fission, was reinvigorated this week too when French president Emmanuel Macron said he wants to build 14 new nuclear plants over the next few decades. The operating lives of existing reactors will also be extended, he announced.

In that case, cash is very much the crux of the matter. Macron’s plan will need at the very least €100 billion, thus explaining the French government’s enthusiastic backing of nuclear under the EU taxonomy. Not that much of an explanation was needed before.

“The power of the sun, in the palm of my hand,” the villainous but ultimately redeemed ‘Doc Ock’ says in Spider-Man 2, before a botched fusion experiment kills his wife and turns him into a supervillain with mechanical arms.

Hopefully, no such calamities will befall the clever minds researching fusion in the real world. Their work is one of many shining beacons that we should all be aware of and which should inspire all of us.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


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