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When approaching the question of fusion energy one should begin by taking a viewpoint appropriate to technological policy, fusion energy being a technological development project aimed at building an entirely new artifact to be exploited commercially.
To think of evaluating fusion energy in terms of the usual academic practice of assessing research and development (R&D) projects makes very little sense. Quite apart from the dubious usefulness of such efforts, in the case of fusion energy the essential data are not only not available, they are not even likely to exist. But it is possible to apply to fusion energy the general concepts and criteria that are usually employed when assessing the feasibility of projects of the same type.
For a technological development project to be accepted as feasible it must fulfil at least three indispensable conditions:
Let us then begin by considering time schedules. The time scale is crucial to technological development projects, which is why this is the best tool to nail the fusion energy myth. Putting the fusion problem over the time's arrow, one immediately realises the extent to which discussion of this source of energy is falsified and useless.
The brief history of fusion energy begins in the military realm. In the process of developing the first atomic bomb, which, as is well known, was carried out in the research centre of Los Alamos during the Second World War, some scientists began making some small-scale studies on the possibility of building a fusion nuclear bomb.
However, after 1945 movements in favour of international control of nuclear weapons, in which some of the key scientists of the Los Alamos team were involved, slowed down nuclear research until the explosion of the first Soviet atomic bomb in October 1949 started the Cold War.
From this moment onwards, military pressure in favour of building a
superbomb or H-bomb imposed itself very quickly in
spite of the contrary opinion of many
scientists, like Oppenheimer himself, the father of the atomic
January 1951 Truman gave orders to start the research program,
as well as the test explosions needed for developing the H-bomb, the
technological principle of which would later lead to conceiving the
nuclear fusion reactor.
As had happened some years earlier with the atomic bomb, the scientific community and the military lobbies began advertising the rich possibilities offered by nuclear fusion energy for peaceful purposes, in an attempt to convince the population that in a relatively short time what was then an awful, destructive weapon would become a new and inexhaustible source of energy, an even better one than fission nuclear power.
Consequently, in the late fifties, Rand Corporation carried out a technological development study —the first study in which the Delphi method for the organised consulting of experts on the future of the technological development was used—. The study focussed mainly on future military technology, but it also included some peaceful applications that derived from military technology.
The leading specialists were asked specifically to estimate the date at which fusion energy would be available. They gave dates that ranged from 1978 to 2000, with the year 1985 as the arithmetic mean. So the experts of the 1950s estimated that there was a 50% likelihood that fusion would be commercially available by 1985.
Ever since, new forecasts have been made which have proposed later and later dates, although always calculated to fit within the life expectations of the adult generation of the time. Less than two years ago, Manuel Castells, one of the best-known gurus on social and technological change in Spain, stated that «there is a 50% likelihood that in the next twenty years the fusion structure will have been developed commercially». Given the structure of his wording, he must have been basing himself on some of the Delphi studies carried out in previous years on the matter.
Although the fusion research field has always been notoriously opaque, recent media interest in experiments carried out with the JET reactor in the United Kingdom has revealed the current state of this technology.
A little over a year ago, Cayetano López, Professor in physics and Chancellor at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, explained the research situation as well as the prospects concerning the commercial use of fusion energy in a carefully written article for issue 9 of Claves magazine.
After giving details of recent progress in the field and likely progress in the foreseeable future, this distinguished author, a qualified representative of the scientific community working in the fusion field, concludes:
...an experimental fusion plant generating electricity under conditions close to those of a commercial plant could be available around 2025-2030, and a prototype for a usable reactor between ten and twenty years later. This, however, would be conditional on the necessary funding, which will require significant sums with all the different phases of the building of new devices. And it is not possible to shorten the time periods significantly, as these are imposed by the sequential nature of the processes of design, construction and operation of an intermediate device, so as to obtain new knowledge that can be incorporated into the design and construction of each successive device.Cayetano López, 1991
Given the nature of the electricity industry, several decades will have to go by between the availability of a first exploitable world reactor and the creation of a genuine thermonuclear industry, with multiple plants in each of the main consumer countries. Consequently, from today's perspective it seems obvious that there is no likelihood of this type of energy becoming crucial to energy supply before the last third of the 21st century.
One can, therefore, take as the earliest possible moment in which fusion energy may become a significant energy source the 2070s. This is the most optimistic hypothesis, and it excludes consideration of future problems that may leave today's predictions —even the technically solvent, regardless of the speculation of gurus— in a position similar to those of the Rand Corporation prospective.
In truth, taking into account what has been happening since the notion of fusion energy was first conceived, it is not at all likely that the process leading to its exploitation will be steady. As Cayetano López admits, research into certain critical areas of fusion technology, including one as crucial to the whole project as the production of tritium inside the reactor for the self-sustenance of the fusion reaction, has not actually started. Nobody knows what kinds of problems may appear in this and in other fundamental aspects of the whole project when they seriously begin to be tackled. A much safer prediction falta texto would be to consider fusion energy a source of energy belonging to the twenty-second century.
Discussion of the advantages and drawbacks of a source of energy is totally meaningless outside of its economic, social, ecological and technological context. At each moment, dirigida por... every society resorts to the kind of energy use that best suits its needs. In turn, the availability of the chosen energy sources reinforces and feeds back on the viability of the society.
In order to determine the prospect of fusion it is necessary, therefore, to leap again on the arrow of time and place oneself mentally perhaps in 2072, eight decades into the future, at the earliest time when the most optimistic hypotheses predict the commercial use of fusion energy.
Who can foretell the main features of a society at that point in time? What will be the political system, the social structure, the scientific and technological knowledge, the economic and productive structures and the perception of ecological problems, together with other crucial concerns that we cannot even imagine today?
It is obvious that any society will, by 2072, need to use energy. But who can tell what kind of energy, how much of it, where it will be needed, with what kind of distribution structure and for which purposes and uses? The moment we place the problem of fusion energy in its proper time context, it defies any rational horizon of analysis. It is simply not possible to approach the discussion of a problem —the fitness of fusion energy as an alternative to other sources of energy at a particular historical moment— the essential elements of which are by definition unknowable.
This conclusion seems obvious, but in order to make it even clearer it may be useful to take another leap in the arrow of time, this time backwards, and place ourselves mentally in 1912, that is, eight decades in the past, in order to consider the wisdom of making prospective social, economic or technological analyses.
From the political point of view, most of today's countries did not exist as independent entities in 1912. The October revolution had not yet taken place, so no community had yet had the experience of actual socialism; colonialism had not yet metamorphosed itself into the North- South complex of power relations. From a cultural and social perspective, consumer society had not yet materialised, there was no notion of ecology or of ecological problems, and most of the concepts and conflicts that articulate today's social structures in most countries in the world had yet to come into being.
Scientifically, it was only seven years after Albert Einstein's publication of his first essay on relativity and no one had ever heard of quantum mechanics or of solid-state physics, which would bring about electronics. Organic chemistry was in its infancy, it was almost half a century before the earliest devolopments in computing, and there was, of course, no notion of the possibility of obtaining energy from atomic processes.
Electricity, the product one is referring to when discussing
fusion energy, was still defined, not in 1912, but as late as 1932, as «a
very powerful agent that manifests itself by forces of attraction and
repulsion, luminous sparks and plumes, by the commotions it occasions on
animal organisms, and by the chemical decompositions it effects»
(Enciclopedia Espasa, 1932). It is, of course, useless to look for terms
ecology in this publication.
What kind of sense could it have made in 1912, apart from pure literary speculation, to discuss, on the basis of the knowledge and criteria of that time, the best ways of satisfying energy needs, or needs of any other type, that would prevail at the end of the century? None whatsoever. It makes no more sense doing this in relation to the year 2072.
When debating a present problem, or a problem related to a foreseable future, such as energy, nobody should be allowed to depart from the political, economic or technological frame proper to their time. Even less legitimate is any attempt to propose one's speculations about the remote future as the solution to real or foreseeable problems that are being discussed in the present. Which is exactly what has been done for the last half century, ever since a military laboratory gave birth to the notion of fusion energy.
The only possible rational debate on fusion energy should end here with an obvious conclusion: from the viewpoint of economic and technological policy, the only rational option is to cancel investment in fusion energy, for the simple reason that it is a technology whose development and use is not predictable or plannable from today's perspective. Specifically, there is a long list of reasons, which I will exemplify below.
Because of the long period of time that will have to pass before fusion energy can begin to be obtained, it can easily be shown in conventional economic and financial terms that the value of the cumulative research and development investments will not be recoverable. It may be interesting to try out some purely speculative estimates illustrative of the absurd economic presuppositions supporting the matter of fusion energy.
The yearly amount anticipated by the European Community (EC) in its third framework program for research in fusion energy is 120 million ecus. Capitalizing an investment flux for this amount between 1990 and 2050 at an interest rate of 8%, a final value of 150.000 million ecus is obtained. Capitalization at a rate of 8% of world investment (estimated at around 1.000 million dollars annually) from the time when research began in the late 1950s until around the mid-21st century would add up the investment in research and development for fusion energy to more than 6 trillion dollars in 1992. And this is before fusion begins to pay back in economic terms, and using the most optimistic of hypothetical calendars.
The cost of paying off an account of this magnitude is equal to the cost today of building two thousand nuclear fusion plants producing 1 gigawatt each. It would be impossible in practice, no matter how low the discount rate applied to the future benefit to be obtained from the new fusion reactors.
The speed, considering the very long periods of time, with which one reaches this kind of financial absurdity illustrates the reasons why projects which take so long to develop, and surpass, therefore, the limits of the predictable, a time-span rarely exceeding two decades, are never undertaken. Considered from this perspective, fusion is an incomprehensible exception.
There are other energy resources —renewable, non-renewable, alternative and conventional— in which technology investments are sure to pay back more easily and in an incomparably shorter time schedule.
If, in spite of its obvious economic irrationality, the decision makers in developed countries insist in their purpose of developing fusion energy, it would be much more efficient to freeze the investments for the time being and wait a few decades for a time when the various critical technologies needed for its development, such as the development of superconductors, or new scientific theories and applicable knowledge, evolved along their own paths, a point which at this moment cannot even be glimpsed. In this way, the same point would be arrived at, but at an incomparably lower cumulative cost. And in the long intermediate time-span, resources might be freed for investment in energy sources that could be used at each stage.
For these and many other reasons, there is only one rational option in relation to fusion energy: to freeze investment immediately, specifically investment in the new International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), and to wait a minimum of 25 to 30 years to assess the technological environment and the energetic panorama, taking the decisions on a better foundation. The later this decision is taken, the more economic and ecological losses will be cumulating. Abandoning technological projects at different stages of their development, when it can be foreseen that they will not yield the expected results, is in fact a common practice, even, in some cases, after thousands of millions of dollars have already been invested.
In the previous pages I have tried to illustrate the impossibility of discussing the suitability of fusion energy in rational terms by placing discussion of its use in the economic and technological frame of reference where it belongs. If in spite of everything, discussion of the advantages and drawbacks of this type of energy is still desired for political, aesthetic or intellectual reasons, the debate will forcefully have to take place in the realm of fiction.
The intellectual freedom provided by fiction makes it possible to conceive of a purely imaginary situation in which fusion energy would be available immediately, or in a few years, for commercial use. Those taking part in a debate founded on these premises could wonder whether in this hypothetical situation it would make sense to start building the fusion nuclear plants. Those backing the building of the plants would argue for fusion energy being a clean, cheap and inexhaustible type of energy, while those opposing them would, of course, argue the opposite.
In relation to the first point, anyone arguing in favour of fusion energy will find it difficult to provide conclusive evidence. The European Community actually keeps commissioning studies on the environmental safety of fusion technology, which is far from being guaranteed. It also conditions long term investment in the environmental reliability of all the successive thermonuclear devices, which must be subject to the environmental compatibility criteria obtaining at each stage. As scientific knowledge and environmental awareness increase, these criteria become stricter.
Indeed, apart from the environmental problems related to cooling any large energy device, fusion plants also pose problems that have to do with radioactive contamination. The functioning of the reactor itself the production and use of tirium, which is a radioactive gas, even if this gas has a relatively short radioactive life (12 years). The hardest to solve, however, is finding the appropriate material for the inner wall of the vessel containing the fuel. It has been proved in today's experimental reactors that the neutron impact activates them, that is, the impact turns them into radioactive materials.
In a commercial reactor, radiation and the huge plasma temperatures —300 million degrees to reach ignition— would be so destructive that obtaining materials that will endure the 30-year life of the reactor is today unthinkable. They would have to be replaced every three or four years, if not earlier, which means that the main problem with fission nuclear power, the production of radioactive waste, would also be present, albeit in a perhaps muted version, in generating fusion energy.
Regarding its being a cheap, inexhaustible source, it is easily
demonstrated that fusion energy is not a miraculous shortcut to energy
plenty. Its basic
fuel, deuterium, is very plentiful, but the limits of
an energy supply do not only or primarily refer to fuel reserves. Other
factors may limit its use even more strictly.
Some scientists working on fusion have ventured to estimate that the amount of fuel, inexhaustible or otherwise, would scarcely involve one-per-one-thousandth of the total cost of the energy generated by a fusion reactor. The remaining 99.9% relates to fixed costs, mostly connected with repaying the enormous sums needed to build the reactor. An inexhaustible and cheap fuel is of little use if burning it demands building immensely expensive devices that raise the price of the energy thus obtained hundreds of thousands of times the cost of the providential fuel.
So the fictional debate must return to the very real conceptual problem of fusion energy, which lies in its intrinsic physical irrationality. The notion of creating temperatures of hundreds of millions of degrees in a hyper-sophisticated container, with all the technological complexity that this entails, in order to obtain from it the energy to heat a coffee pot at a hundred degrees, or to light an electric light bulb or to move a train, is in itself the greatest thermodynamic aberration imaginable: creating the highest quality energy (involving very low entropy) that has to then be degraded in successive transformations before it can be used in trivial applications. It is this physical irrationality and its translation into an economic irrationality that is the problem with fusion energy.
One can finally wonder about the reasons that keep the mad program for developing fusion energy alive.
It seems likely that the main reason is the interest of the scientific community linked to the program. Today, both in fundamental physics and in almost all fields of science, the professional and economic expectations of scientists are wholly conditioned by the volume of the research budgets they can obtain.
The leaders of the scientific establishment proposing fusion as the ultimate solution to energy problems are aware that this is the best manner of obtaining funding. Thus, in recent years they have managed to hoard above 60% of the EC energy research budgets. Another 25% is used to finance fission nuclear energy, while the remaining percentage has to be shared by research in all other sources of energy, with a purely symbolic amount assigned to renewable energies.
The manner in which the scientific leaders have been using convulsions in the energy market to obtain the large amounts that have repeatedly boosted the fusion program is highly illustrative. The Joint European Torus (JET), for instance, was scheduled to run until 1996, but the Gulf crisis provided a unique opportunity to attract governments' attention to fusion power. This is the reason why the final experiment program was brought forward several years. These experiments produced the maximum of energy that the machine is able to provide, but at the same time they burnt this energy and rendered it useless for subsequent uses, as they radioactively contaminated the nucleus of the reactor.
The first of these experiments was conducted a few months after the Gulf War and a few weeks before an EC Ministers' meeting in which they had to approve new credits for the fusion energy program. The experiment was presented to the international press as «confirming the feasibility of fusion as an energy source». A few months later not only did the EC agree to intensify research into fusion, but a joint agreement was reached between the US, the EC, Japan and the USSR (this was the last major international agreement signed by the USSR) to build a new experimental reactor, ITER, a much more powerful and costly one than the NET reactor planned in the EC program. A few months before the Gulf War the US had reduced its fusion energy program and the prevailing mood in the EC seemed to foretell a freeze in the European program.
It should be remembered that approval for the JET design was obtained in 1973, coinciding with the first oil crisis, and that its building, the costliest phase, was carried out between 1979 and 1982, at the time of the second oil crisis.
For their own part, the political leaders in Northern countries, who regularly sign these budget priorities, probably act through a variety of simultaneous impulses.
In the first place, they project the current geopolitical situation onto the future and imagine that even if developing fusion energy goes against any kind of energetic or economic rationality, it guarantees the long-term dominance of the developed Northern countries over mankind as a whole. By developing the exclusive fusion programs, technologically advanced countries can cherish the notion of hoarding also the one economic world monopoly that until now has slipped out of their hands: energy. Whereas large-scale technological development of renewable energies —much more feasible and with faster and safer prospects than fusion— would lead in exactly the opposite direction.
On the other hand, the idealized image of fusion nuclear energy to some extent justifies the very bad image attached to fission, the only kind of nuclear energy that is available today and that will be available for a long time. The existing nuclear power stations can thus be presented to the public as an inevitable stage in the development of nuclear energy, an intermediate stage in the development of the ultimate energetic solution. There are many other examples of this kind of technological manipulation: the electric car, the notion of future universal recycling...
One last and perhaps major reason is that the development of fusion
energy matches the global energy model on which the current economic
organization is based. By falsifying the dates on which the scientists
themselves assure the public that fusion energy will be available,
fusion can be presented as the
inexhaustible source that
will replace oil and the other conventional sources that are either
approaching depletion or subject to increasing environmental
In this approach they are conferred with democratic backing from their societies. The populations of advanced countries share with their leaders a self-interested faith in the chimera of fusion energy. The belief in an ultimate and close solution for the energy problems of mankind is the best alibi for not restating the current energetic model, based on the waste of energy and material goods, on an utterly irresponsible environmental permissiveness and on a radical inequality between the relative consumptions of the North and the South. Any of these reasons will show the current model as being unsustainable in the long term, and the combination of the three utterly disqualifies the model. But fusion would seem to endow it with a magical acceptability because it embodies the hope of a technological redemption that is crucial to the myths that hold advanced societies together.
For two generations of citizens in the advanced countries the long dream of fusion energy has worked as one of the main mechanisms legitimating an archaic notion of progress founded on endless growth of production and consumption at any cost for the Northern countries, a cost that includes the plundering of natural resources globally and the economic collapse of the South. The benefits of fusion energy may arrive, if they do, in the 22nd century, but its damages are already tangible.
: 1948-2008, Industrial Engineer.
: : First Spanish edition in AEDENAT (1993) Energía para el mañana. Conferencia sobre energía y equidad en un mundo sostenible, Madrid: Los Libros de la Catarata, pp. 171-185. For this second edition we have taken into account the handwritten corrections made by the author in a copy of the original 1993 edition found in 2010 in his library. All the following notes are editorial notes and have been added either to clarify the meaning of the text of 1993 or to update some facts that have changed from that date.
: In the last days of October 1949 the General Advisory Committee (GAC) published a report on the recommendations for the development of the H- bomb. It included an appendix written by James B. Conant —president of Harvard University— and signed by Oppenheimer —then President of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)— which said: «We believe a superbomb should never be produced... In determining not to proceed to develop the super bomb, we see a unique opportunity of providing by example some limitations on the totality of war and thus of limiting the fear and arousing the hopes of mankind». «General Advisory Committee's Majority and Minority Reports on Building the H-Bomb».
: The author refers to Brodie Bernand (1959) Strategy in the Missile Age. Rand Corporation. Available at: http://www.rand.org/pubs/commercial_books/CB137-1/
12 Events That Will Change Everything
It would solve environmental headaches, but it remains hard to achieve
Probability that the event happened in 2050: Very Unlikely
According to the old quip, a practical fusion reactor will allways be [emphasis added] about 20 years away. Nowadays that feels a bit optimistic.
The world's largest plasma fusion research project, the ITER reactor in southern France, won't begin fusion experiments until 2026 at the earliest. Engineers will need to run tests on ITER for at least a decade before they will be ready to design the follow-up to that project —an experimental prototype that could extract usable energy from the fusing plasma trapped in a magnetic bottle. Yet another generation would pass before scientist could begin to build recators that send energy to the grid.
In theory, fusion-based power plants would provide the answer [to world's energy appetite]. They would be fueled by a form of heavy hydrogen found in ordinary seawater and would produce no harmful emissions—no sooty pollutants, no nuclear waste and no greenhouse gases [provided that all kind of waste produced during the construction and rehabilitation of the plant itself are not counted. The accounting of pollutant emissions from the first experiments in the fifties is to be done, but it is a debit that must be repaid by the first commercial fusion power plant, if it ever comes into existence].
In practice, however, fusion will probably not change the world as physicists have imagined. The technology needed to trigger and control self-sustaining fusion has proved elusive. Moreover, the first reactors will almost certainly be too expensive to deploy widely this century.
[Edward] Moses and others believe that the fastest route to harness fusion energy is to use a hybrid approach, employing fusion reactions to accelerate fission reactions in nuclear waste. This method [is] called LIFE (for «laser inertial fusion engine»).
Moses claims he could build an engineering prototype of the LIFE design by 2020 and connect a working power plant to the grid by 2030.
In other words, a practical fusion reactors is only about 20 years away
[emphasis added].Michael Mayer, Scientific American,
Einstein, Albert (1905a) «Über einen die Erzeugung und Verwandlung des Lichtes betreffenden heuristischen Gesichtspunk» Annalen der Physik, 17: pp. 132-148. On a Heuristic Point of View Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light.
Einstein, Albert (1905b) Eine neue Bestimmung der molekulare Dimensionen. PhD thesis. A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions.
Einstein, Albert (1905c) «Über die von der molekularkinetischen Theorie der Wärme geforderte Bewegung von in ruhenden Flüssigkeiten suspendierten Teilchen» Annalen der Physik, n. 17: 549-560. On the Movement of Small Particles Suspended in Stationary Liquids Required by the Molecular-Kinetic Theory of Heat.
Einstein, Albert (1905d) «Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper» Annalen der Physik, n. 17: 891-921. On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.
Einstein, Albert (1905e) «Ist die Trägheit eines Körpers von seinem
Energieinhalt abhängig» Annalen der Physik, n. 18: 639-641. Does the
Inertia of a Body Depend upon its Energy Content?.
: The impact of electrification on today's consumption society is directly related to the domestic use of electricity in appliances, a fact that was difficult to foresee at that time, when the first economic applications of electricity began to emerge. However, we should not forget the ability of Jules Verne to move ahead of his time; as early as 1866 —thirteen years before the invention of the incandescent lamp— he wrote:
There is a powerful agent, obedient, rapid, easy, which conforms to every use, and reigns supreme on board my vessel. Everything is done by means of it. It lights, warms, and is the soul of my mechanical apparatus. This agent is electricity. (...)
—Captain, you've obviously found what all mankind will surely find one day, the true dynamic power of electricity.Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Jules Verne, 1866
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