THE ISLAND OF DOUBT
An irregular exploration of the ongoing struggle between the power of rational discourse and the scientific method on one hand, and the forces of superstition and dogma on the other.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan
The Doubter's Companion:
Skeptic Magazine: www.skeptic.com
Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal: www.csicop.org
A poem by Yehuda Amichai:
The Meaning of
the Island of
More Doubtful Blogs
Chris C. Mooney
Other Worthy Blogs
Random Douglas Adams quote
Almost from the first sustained chain reaction in 1942, scientists have been predicting that nuclear fission, the process responsible for Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, would soon be replaced by nuclear fusion, a truly clean and limitless source of energy.
So long have we heard the promises, and so often has the future been delayed, that almost no one pays attention to the latest developments in the field any more. For example, did you catch last week's announcement that the global consortium known as ITER has finally agreed, after more than 15 years of arguing, on a site for the world's first serious attempt at producing energy by fusing atoms?
No? Don't feel bad. It slipped under the radar of, or got passing mentions in, most corporate and independent media outlets. But that's not what's troubling. Instead, it's the reaction from environmentalists that has me concerned.
Instead of welcoming the news, what little reaction I can find has consisted of knee-jerk negativism. Which is a shame, because if this thing works out, many of our energy and climate-change problems will be solved. I would think that even jaded Luddites should be willing to keep an open mind this early in the research process.
Part of the problem could be the somewhat arrogant attitude of the ITER gang, a bunch of scientists from the U.S., Europe, Japan, Russia, China and South Korea. (Canada was once a member but dropped out a while back for no readily obvious reason.) "ITER" used to be an acronym for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (or in some documents, International Tokamak Experimental Reactor).
But now it's just ITER. The project's official site notes that "iter" means "the way" in Latin, which is either a nod to the Taoist scientists from China, or an attempt at nominative determinism: "This is the way we're all going to make electricity in the future."
The basic idea is that, instead of splitting uranium atoms, and unleashing enormous quantities of heat energy in the process, a fusion reactor does the same thing by forcing two hydrogen atoms to combine. Sounds simple, but it turns out to be very tricky. So far, we've been unable to do that without using at least as much energy in the process.
The theory is sound. The same basic process keeps the sun shining, after all, so we should be able to figure out how to make it work on Earth. More important are the two big advantages fusion enjoys over fission. First, the raw materials can be found in sea water and should last a few million years. Second, fusion produces very little radioactive waste, and what waste there is decays to relatively safe levels in a few decades, rather than a few hundred thousand years. (See here for an explanation of safety issues.)
Of course, there is a catch. ITER will cost more than $10 billion. Probably a lot more. And we can't expect anything to come from the project, which is just an experiment after all, for at least 20 years. No one is expecting a commercial fusion reactor until 2050 at the very earliest.
Greenpeace responded to the news that ITER members had at long last agreed on which country would get to host the reactor and thereby reap the immediate economic benefits of all those research dollars by calling it "a dangerous toy which will never deliver any useful energy."
Said Jan Vande Putte of Greenpeace International: "With 10 billion, we could build 10,000 MW offshore windfarms, delivering electricity for 7.5 million European households."
True enough, but the sad fact is that 10 gigawatts is just a drop in the bucket. The world is going to need a lot more than that, and as much as I look forward to more windmills, solar panels, and run-of-the-river hydroelectric plants, we're going to need an order of magnitude more electricity than those technologies can realistically provide.
Greenpeace isn't alone. Back in 2001, while Canada was still interested in hosting the project, veteran environmental columnist Suzanne Elston concluded that:
It is dangerously self-serving to ignore the very really [sic] threat of global warming and focus our science, our research dollars and our enthusiasm on something as nebulous as the ITER project regardless of how many jobs it might bring to my community. (Straight Goods)
That kind of opposition seems to have more to do with a suspicion of new technology than an honest assessment of fusion's potential. Minds appear to have been made up long before results of the tests are in. That's what's called blind distrust, and it does a disservice to the environmental movement's admirable legacy.
I suppose we could trumpet California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Million Solar Homes," initiative (and I do), but solar is only part of the solution. Fusion, or something like it, is almost certainly going to be necessary if we want to avoid the catastrophic climate change scenarios that continued and increased use of fossil fuels will bring.
Consider this scenario, regarding China's future energy needs from last week's edition of the journal Nature:
The country's leaders are determined that its economy will quadruple in size by 2020, which will require at least a doubling of the energy supply. Coal will bear most of the burden. "We have to increase coal consumption," says Guo Yuan, an energy systems analyst at Dadi's institute. "It's not a good picture, but we have to do it."If that sounds crazy, it is. Coal is the worst possible fuel. But there's no way to double the world's industrial output -- which is what China's goals imply -- with wind and solar power alone.
Yes, fusion will be expensive. And there's no guarantee we can get it to work any time soon. But neither are there any guarantees that if ITER was shelved, those $10+ billion would be spend on improving hydrogen fuel cells or building more windmills. Naïvete when it comes to the magnetic confinement properties of a tokamak reactor is expected. Naïvete in the way of politics is less forgiveable.
By the way, and in case you were wondering, France won the rights to play host to ITER.