Nuclear Fusion is the energy source of the sun. For the reaction to occur, atomic nuclei must be brought into close proximity requiring extremely high temperatures. In the sun, the reacting nuclei are mainly hydrogen while in proposals for terrestrial fusion reactors the fuel is deuterium and tritium.
Nuclear Fission is a spontaneous reaction where a nucleus splits. Natural Nuclear Fission reactions take place in the core of the Earth and some have even been active in the crust of the Earth billions of years ago.
Both fission and fusion produce energy by conversions into different elements which have lower masses, as indicated in the figure below.
In fission reactors, the nuclear processes are started spontaneously by the radioactive decay of an initial uranium nuclei which yields neutrons. These neutrons then go on to break up further uranium nuclei and produce a self sustaining chain reaction. This takes place in fuel rods in the reactor core which is typically cooled by water going to an electricity turbine.
In Fusion reaction, the interactions do not start spontaneously and require extremely high temperature (about 100 million °C) to initiate. This happens in a gas mixture of deuterium an tritium from which the atomic electrons have been striped, called a "plasma". The plasma must be contained and heated to a high temperature. For a sustainable fusion reactions to occur, the plasma environment must have specific parameters of density, temperature and containment time. Once the reactions are started, the heat must be transported out of the plasma by neutrons which are stopped in a region of the reactor called the" blanket" which in turn is cooled by a fluid going on to a turbine.
The complexity of making a suitable plasma environment, as well as the difficulties of getting the heat out, are the reasons why fusion reactors are still not available more than 70 years after the first ideas. The first fission reactor was operational only a few year after the principles were first conceived.
Below is a, subjective, comparison of fusion and fission power plants.
|Status||R&D for 70 yrs||Operational for 70 yrs|
|Reliability||Major doubt||>80% of time|
|Fuel availability||Tritium scarce||Uranium abundant|
|Radiation||Mostly short lifetime||Short and long lifetime|
|Safety||Complex systems||historic accidents|
Not all entries in this table are universally accepted, in particular, the ITER website gives a different vision of fusion at: Advantages of fusion , but this ITER publicity is considered as misleading by some. Motivating and justifying the statements in this table, are the objectives of the articles on the present website: