Fusion for Peace -- A proposal from US and Iranian Physicists for Ending the Confrontation with Iran
By Eric J. Lerner, Dr. Hamid Yousefi and Dr. Morteza Habibi
We are hearing it again: we need to attack a Mid-Eastern nation to prevent it from getting weapons of mass destruction. The war, we are told again, will be quick and easy -- a surgical strike. Perhaps U.S. troops don't even need to get involved -- Israel will do the job. This time the target is Iran.
It may seem strange for the U.S., Israel, France, the UK, Russia or China, who have nuclear weapons in abundance, to be deciding that Iran must not have them. Setting that aside, we can all agree that it is desirable to stop the spread of nuclear weapons to more and more nations. But is yet another "pre-emptive" war the only way to achieve the goal? Does the path to peace really lie in using force to prevent a nation from going beyond dependence on oil and gas?
As physicists in Iran and the U.S., we are proposing an alternative: starting a scientific and engineering collaboration between the two countries that could, if successful, make uranium enrichment obsolete, block proliferation everywhere, liberate the world from oil, and open up a new source of cheap, clean unlimited energy. In the past three years, Iran has become a major player in the small, but growing, global effort to achieve aneutronic fusion power -- controlled nuclear fusion using fuels that produce no neutrons. Controlled fusion harnesses the power that heats the sun -- nuclear fusion -- as a source of energy for peaceful purposes. Fuels that don't produce neutrons are important because neutrons can be extremely destructive, damaging the structure of a fusion generator and inducing radioactivity.
Most of the world's effort in controlled fusion has been aimed at using deuterium-tritium (DT) fuel, which produces large numbers of high-energy neutrons, unlike aneutronic fuels. DT-based fusion devices must necessarily be very large for a given power, to dilute the damage done by the neutrons to a manageable level. As a result, (and also due to their complexity and other factors), such devices are also very expensive to build, costing billions of dollars and taking many years, even decades, to build. This has been one factor, among others, that has made the pursuit of such DT fusion energy so slow and hard.
By contrast, aneutronic fusion devices can be quite compact and cheap as they don't need to withstand intense neutron bombardment. Some, like a device called the dense plasma focus (DPF), can be built for hundreds of thousands dollars while others, called inertial electrical confinement devices (IEC), cost a few million. Iran's controlled fusion program has focused on these economical aneutronic devices in an attempt to leapfrog over DT-fusion to get a cheap, clean and inexhaustible energy source. Already, Iran has set up more active DPF research groups -- six, to be exact -- than any other country in the world. The United States is the only other country with an active aneutronic fusion effort.
Aneutronic fusion could make uranium enrichment obsolete because, if it works, aneutronic-fusion-produced electricity would be cheaper than any available today. Aneutronic fuels produce energy that can be converted directly into electricity without going through the expensive cycle of generating steam and putting it through turbines. Such an ideal energy source would be far cheaper than nuclear fission energy based on uranium (i.e. nuclear energy). There would be no reason for Iran or any other country to continue to pursue fission energy for peaceful purposes. To prevent nuclear weapon proliferation, the use of uranium could be universally banned as nuclear fission energy production was shut down.
The catch in all this is that aneutronic fusion requires temperatures even higher than those for DT fusion -- billions of degrees, five to ten times hotter than is needed for DT fusion -- and these fuels burn slower than DT. This is why fusion efforts have focused on DT, despite the fact that the process is more expensive. Aneutronic fusion just seemed too difficult.
Yet, in the past year this has changed. Research reported in respected peer-reviewed scientific journals has shown that the temperature needed to ignite aneutronic fuels has been achieved and confined. At the same time, research by both U.S. and Iranian fusion scientists have confirmed theoretically that aneutronic fusion could be achieved by DPFs, IECs and perhaps, table-top-sized ultra-short-pulse lasers.
In light of these new scientific developments, and of the real threat of war between the U.S. and Iran, we are proposing the establishment of a joint U.S.-Iran Aneutronic Fusion Program to accelerate this research and pool the resources of the various aneutronic projects. Unlike DT-fusion, aneutronic devices can be built in months, not decades, so a joint program could quickly determine if aneutronic fusion can work. If it can, a prototype generator could be built within a few years at a cost of perhaps $200 million, an insignificant fraction of the devastating costs of a new war.
The program would aim to rapidly establish two Aneutronic Fusion Centers -- one in the U.S. and one in Iran -- staffed by scientists and engineers from both countries and funded by the governments in proportion to their respective national GDPs. These Centers would work in cooperation with existing research groups, but with greater resources, could speed up the work several-fold. Research results would be fully shared by the two countries. As the project grows, other countries not now involved in aneutronic work can join in.
The establishment of the project can itself ease tensions between the two countries. If it succeeds, in a few years, all uranium enrichment for energy production would be obsolete and could be shut down -- not just in Iran, but everywhere. This would be a giant step to ending nuclear proliferation worldwide. And as aneutronic fusion supersedes fossil fuels, they would remove oil as the real fuel of the decades-long tension and wars in the Middle East.
There is a risk that aneutronic fusion will take much longer than we think, despite recent encouraging advances. But the risks of war are far greater than the risks of trying to eliminate the causes of war. And the potential rewards -- both for peace and for the development of a cheap, clean energy source that can replace both fossil and fission -- are enormous. We call on scientists in both countries, as well as all who want a route out of the dead-end of war and all who want to see if there is another route to clean energy, to join together to make this route a reality.