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Fairfield grad plays leading role developing nuclear plant

Fairfield High School graduate Dale Smith stands outside the Sixth International Conference for Fusion Reactor Materials in Italy in 1993. Smith played a leading role in developing a nuclear fusion power plant now under construction in France. (Photo courtesy of Dale Smith)
Fairfield High School graduate Dale Smith stands outside the Sixth International Conference for Fusion Reactor Materials in Italy in 1993. Smith played a leading role in developing a nuclear fusion power plant now under construction in France. (Photo courtesy of Dale Smith)
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FAIRFIELD – A Fairfield High School alumnus played a leading role in developing an experimental nuclear reactor now under construction in France. Once constructed, it will be the largest nuclear reactor of its kind.

Dale Smith graduated from Fairfield High School in 1956, at a time of growing interest in nuclear power. He studied mechanical engineering at Iowa State University and got a master’s degree and doctorate in the new field of nuclear engineering and materials science. As a materials scientist, Smith rose to become the director of the Fusion Energy Program at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago.

The crowning jewel of Smith’s career was his work on the International thermonuclear experimental reactor in Saint-Paul-lez-Durance, southern France.

He led the U.S. scientific delegation in its work on the program, an international effort funded by six countries, and was a regular visitor to Capitol Hill, where he testified before and lobbied Congress on behalf of the program.

The planning for this reactor has taken 35 years, but it is now under construction and expected to be finished in five years.

Smith, 82, is retired from the project but is excited to see his life’s work come to fruition.

Smith said this reactor will be unlike any before it. It will be the world’s largest fusion reactor. Nuclear power plants have thus far relied on fission reaction. Both of them rely on generating energy by manipulating atoms, but in different ways.

Fission refers to the splitting of the nucleus of an atom into two lighter nuclei, while fusion refers to combining two light nuclei.

The major drawback to fission reaction is that it creates radioactive waste that must be disposed of carefully. However, Smith said fusion has no such downside. Hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium can be fused to generate energy, and the only byproduct they produce is helium, an inert, harmless gas.

“On paper, this should be a more extensive source of fuel than conventional sources,” Smith said.

If fusion plants can produce energy without producing a harmful byproduct, why have fission plants been built instead? Smith said it’s difficult to keep a fusion reaction going because it burns out quickly. Previous attempts have lasted less than a second.

This nuclear plant in France will burn plasma at 100 million degrees Celsius, 10 times hotter than the sun. The plasma will be confined by extremely cold magnets, negative 270 degrees Celsius, just four degrees from the coldest possible temperature, absolute zero.

Smith and the other scientists working on the project had to find a way to keep this incredibly hot reaction going, and they think they’ve discovered the solution. Their hope is that this fusion reactor will generate 500 megawatts of electricity. Current fission reactors typically generate 1,000 megawatts, and Smith said a commercial fusion plant could double that.

“If we can contain the hot plasma, fusion would be the best option by far,” Smith said.

Smith resides in Naperville, Illinois, with his wife Kay, maiden name Lisk, who graduated from FHS in 1958. The couple return to Fairfield for their class reunions, so within a five year span, they usually visit twice.