‘ITER will give us self-sustenance. We’ll turn down all external sources and it’ll burn like a star’

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Steven Cowley, 51, is one of the few nuclear physicists in the world trying to make nuclear fusion a viable source of power. Currently the CEO of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, he works with the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, building the most technologically advanced machine capable of triggering fusion that could give the world that abundant, sustainable source of energy it so badly needs.

Steven Cowley
Steven Cowley, 51, Nuclear Physicist
Photo: Sarang Sena

EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW

Why is it necessary to urgently allocate enough resources for research on fusion?
The world’s energy business is worth $6-7 trillion a year. We spend less than $10 billion on research into energy. The amount may fluctuate, but that’s less than 1 percent spent on research on an industry so vital to our future. If we don’t have energy in 2050, everything we have built will collapse. It’s not just about the privileged people but also the poor; people who want the same lifestyle as us. Otherwise, it’s going to be a completely unsustainable world. When resources are scarce, conflicts and political tensions arise.

How do we allay fears of radiation risk?
The thing about radiation is that it is obviously a risk. Everything involves risks but the risk of global warming is a complete destruction of our way of life; it will kill millions, perhaps billions of people. When fusion happens, we won’t have to rely on fission. Fusion energy is much safer. The very little radioactive waste it does produce has a half life of five years, it decays so quickly you don’t have to store it — as opposed to fission with half lives of 1,000 or 1 lakh years.

Tell us about the ITER project.
In Latin, iter means ‘the way’. It’s the first big science project that’s truly international. India is a 9 percent partner, while Europe is the host and a 40 percent partner. We have a design team, a design and India is building some parts. We will take these parts to France and build the machine. When we finally tune it up; turn up the power, the temperature rises, we turn down the input power and the fusion power keeps going. For the first time, we will get to selfsustenance. When we can turn off all the external power sources and it just burns like a star, it will be a historic moment. That experiment will probably be the culmination of my career. I will be there. We still need more political will and spending. If we spend more, we will be producing electricity in the next 20 years and not just experimenting to demonstrate the scientific feasibility.

What’s the one thought that can change the world?
The one thought is that we can understand the world. This is why science is possible; because there are somehow rules. We can find those rules, we can see how our brains work, how the sea lapses on shore. The characteristic of human beings is that though we may not know it, we believe that there is understanding to be had in this world. You go through life thinking about why this or that is so. It’s the most enjoyable thing you can do with your life.

G Vishnu is a Correspondent with Tehelka. 
vishnu@tehelka.com

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