Commonwealth Fusion Systems at Devens
Q: What is being built at the Hospital Road site in Devens?
A: Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) is building a manufacturing facility, corporate offices and research facility that will include SPARC, a net energy fusion device that will show that fusion can work as a commercial energy source at the 47-acre site.
Q: Will SPARC generate power?
A: SPARC will demonstrate commercially relevant net energy from fusion for the first time in history. SPARC will not be a powerplant or put electricity on the grid, but is a proof of concept device and a critical first step that will pave the way for commercial fusion energy.
Q: Is the SPARC project at Devens dependent on government funding or tax credits?
A: CFS is nearly entirely funded by private investment and we have seen remarkable enthusiasm from the investor community including leaders in clean energy investment. CFS has also received awards through a U.S. Department of Energy program that funds work at U.S. National Labs and universities to accelerate commercial fusion energy. However, we are not reliant on public funding or subsidies for success at this facility.
Q: Is fusion the same as nuclear power or fission?
A: Fusion is very different from what we commonly refer to as nuclear power or fission. In fact, fusion is the opposite process of fission.
Fission is the process of using neutrons to split heavier and unstable elements such as uranium or plutonium to generate energy. Fission has two basic properties that create risk. First, it works via a chain reaction in the fuel, uranium, and the chain reaction has the potential to go unstable. Second, when the uranium fuel ‘fissions’, it produces highly-radioactive byproducts which in the short run generate lots of heat that can melt the fuel and in the long run is the source of long-lived nuclear waste.
During fusion, two light atomic nuclei such as hydrogen fuse together to form a heavier nuclei such as helium, releasing a neutron and enormous amounts of energy in the process. Fusion does not work via a chain reaction, and therefore cannot go unstable. And the byproduct of the fusion reaction is helium, a stable element that is used to inflate balloons.
Q: Does SPARC produce any waste?
A: The minimal waste generated from SPARC will be low-level, temporarily activated waste
similar to that in medical facilities. One comparison is a machine that uses particle
beams to treat cancers. We can safely and easily store this low-level waste at
a number of designated facilities in the U.S. In contrast, nuclear fission deals with high level radioactive waste that requires safe containment in specialized facilities for hundreds of thousands of years to decay into stable elements.
Q: What radioactive materials will be present on site?
A: The SPARC device will use two isotopes of hydrogen as its fuel; a key reason it is an attractive energy source from both an environmental and a safety perspective. The first, deuterium, is extracted from water and not radioactive. The second is tritium which emits a low-energy beta particle and is found in everyday objects that are self-luminous such as exits signs, watch dials and navigational compasses. The tritium makes these devices glow without the need for electric power. SPARC will use miniscule amounts of tritium to run at a time. In total, there will only be 10 grams or less on site – about the size of two quarters.
Q: What safety provisions are in place related to tritium?
A: Tritium is a substance that must be handled carefully even in the small quantities that we will have onsite. We have a culture of safety first and have embedded safety into all facets of the design of the facility and its operations. As a result, there will be provisions incorporated into the design of the system to avoid any loss of tritium.
Q: What are the waste byproducts and how are they handled?
A: The main byproduct of the fusion process is helium – an inert, non-toxic gas. The minimal waste generated from SPARC will be low-level, short-lived activated waste from the inside of the machine, similar to that in medical facilities. One comparison is a machine that uses particle beams to treat cancers. We can safely and easily dispose of this low-level waste.
Q: Is SPARC safe from a terrorist attack, earthquake, or other acts of nature?
A: Any act of nature that would cut off power or cause a breach in the facility would cause the fusion process to stop and go back to room temperature. There would be no explosion or potential for meltdown from the fusion process.