German scientists will conduct a nuclear fusion experiment Wednesday which could revolutionize the way the world generates electricity. The experiment comes even as Germans launch anti-nuclear lawsuits and officials phase out nuclear power in favor of solar and wind energy.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds a doctorate in physics, is expected to attend the test. Another nuclear fusion project in France is also expected to make large advances this year.
German engineers from the Max Planck Institute successfully activated the experimental nuclear fusion reactor in December and successfully managed to suspend plasma for the first time. The reactor took 19 years and €1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) to build and contains over 470 tons of superconducting magnets, all of which need to be cooled to absolute zero.
“Over the coming years, W7-X, which isn’t designed to produce any energy itself, will test many of the extreme conditions such devices will be subjected to if they are ever to generate power,” John Jelonnek, a physicist at the German Karlsruhe Institute of Technology who was involved in the reactor’s construction,told The Guardian.
Nuclear fusion is different from conventional nuclear reactors, as fusion causes atoms to join at extremely high temperatures and release huge amounts of energy. The process would generate essentially no hazardous waste and wouldn’t even require hazardous fuel.
“[Fusion is] a very clean source of power, the cleanest you could possibly wish for. We’re not doing this for us but for our children and grandchildren,” Jelonnek continued.
But with progress on fusion comes anti-nuclear reactionaries. The German city of Aachen announced Tuesday that it is bringing lawsuit against a nearby Belgian nuclear power plant. The reactor in question was taken offline in March 2014 due to hairline cracks in the concrete blocks. Aachen’s lawsuit alleges the plant was reactivated a year later without the necessary repairs. The city is teaming up with the environmental group Greenpeace, which opposes all nuclear power. Aachen has already raised 100,000 euros to cover legal expenses.
The lawsuit has “the aim of decommissioning” the reactor. In December, more than 1,500 protesters affiliated with the German Green party demanded that the reactor be shut down.
Meanwhile, Germany is continuing its decision to abandon nuclear energy after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan galvanized environmental opposition. This shift has caused Germany’s carbon dioxide emissions to actually rise by 28 million tons each year.
In the year 2000, nuclear power made up 29.5 percent of Germany’s energy. In 2015 the share dropped down to 17 percent, and by 2022 the country intends to have every one of its nuclear plants shutdown. The cost of replacing nuclear power with wind and solar is estimated by the government to be over a trillion euros.
Nuclear power’s decline has created an opening for coal power in the country. Coal now provides 44 percent of Germany’s power, despite the fact coal ash is actually more radioactive than nuclear waste.