Sunday, 27 December 2009

Nuclear Fusion and the Road to Hell

burning candleThe running joke in the nuclear fusion community is that commercial fusion is thirty or forty years away ... and always will be. The "forty years" rule isn't based on any technical issues, it's based on politics. If you say "a hundred years", then no politician is going to fund you. They want to see results in their lifetime. If you say "twenty years", then people expect you to already have prototype plans drawn up. If you say "thirty", then you get a ten-year grace period, and THEN people expect to start seeing blueprints. "Fifty years" doesn't have enough urgency ... the economy might be different in five decades. And it sounds like a made-up number. But "forty years" conveys a sense that we need to get started NOW. It dangles the carrot just far away for a politician to hope that they're doing the right thing, it won't come to fruition on their career, but they'll see the results in their lifetime.
Which, of course doesn't happen, but by then we have a new crop of politicians that we can give the "forty" schtick to.

So "forty years" is an ongoing collective collective sales pitch by the fusion community to get money for their big conventional tokamak projects from their respective governments. The guys involved sincerely believe that fusion power is the future of the human species, and that the system WILL work one day, and that it HAS to be funded for us to progress. They seem to be using the "tobacco industry" principle – that if you testify that you believe that something is correct, then as long as you can force yourself to believe it at that particular moment, it's difficult for anyone to call you to account for lying. The unattributed quote in the New Scientist editorial after the funding round in 2006, when someone was asked whether they honestly believed the estimates being given for timescales by the fusion community was: "We have to, or the politicians wouldn't give us the money".

The tokamak guys probably reckon that this doesn't technically count as scientific fraud, because they're only misleading politicians, and not other scientists. It's just gaming the system, nobody's getting hurt, right? And anything that gets additional money for science is good, yes?

And that's where the rot sets in. Because "big tokamak" research is so damned expensive, it means that once you've started, you're committed. To spend years of your life on a project and billions of dollars and THEN have it cancelled would be worse than not having started. So you find yourself in a "double or quits" situation, where you have to keep the lie going, and find yourself having to do other bad things to protect the structure you've built.
It basically has you by the balls.

There's quite a few other potential ways to do nuclear fusion, and although lots of them look flakier than the idea of using a nice big solid tokamak, they're also a hell of a lot cheaper to research. So you'd think that the sensible course of action woudl be to put a little money into those alternatives as a side bet, in case the "big toroidal tokamak" idea doesn't pan out, or in case one of those cheap ideas suddenly starts working.

But if you're a "BTT" guy, the side-projects can't be allowed conventional funding or credibility. That's why, when the Cold Fusion story hit, those involved were immediately being written off as con-artists or delusional incompetents by people who knew nothing about palladium-hydrogen geometries – the threat wasn't that the CF guys might successfully con a measly five or ten million in funding from the government, it was that governments might start considering a "mixed basket" approach to fusion research, and if you have five cheap fusion research programmes and one very expensive one, the temptation is to drop the one that costs so much more when funding gets tight. So once you're chasing Big Fusion, it becomes imperative for the success of your mission that there are no other options for a funding committee to look at. Ideally, you want all that other research stopped.

This is the road to damnation. You wake up one day and find that you're no longer the heroic researcher battling the corrupt political system to save a project from cancellation – you're now part of the corrupt political system suppressing other people's fusion research. And it's not the politicians at fault - it's you. Somewhere along the line, you morphed from Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader, and became one of the Bad Guys.
The only way to justify your actions – and save your scientific soul – is to come up with the goods and save humanity. But this means that you can no longer consider even the possibility that the BTT approach might not be the right way to go, because that'd mean that you'd lose your one shot at salvation.
So what happens if one day you realise that there's something your colleagues overlooked that seems to make the entire project unworkable? Do you go public and risk being responsible for shutting down everything you and your colleagues have devoted your careers to, or do you keep quiet in the hope that you're wrong? If you decided to go public, how far might some of your colleagues go to stop you? Things get nasty.
This is why we have stories about people selling their souls to the devil, and finding out, too late, that they've killed the very thing they wanted to save. They're cautionary tales about human nature and temptation that are supposed to help us to do the right thing in these situations.

The fusion guys have been getting away with it so far, because we all hope that they'll actually be able to come up with the goods. But the public is getting increasingly sceptical about how far they can trust scientists, and the fusion community has to take it's share of the blame for that.

Let's suppose that the global warming argument is correct, and that in 15-20 years time the Earth's weather systems shift in a way that's not terribly convenient for our current city locations, or that we end up bankrupting ourselves in a last-ditch attempt to cut down on carbon emissions. Who're we going to blame?
The climate change people will blame the politicians for not listening to the scientists and planning ahead ... but the politicians will be able to say that they did take the best available scientific advice, and did plan ahead. And spent the money on the big fusion programmes. They didn't properly fund development of next-generation fission reactors that'd be more palatable to the general public than the current monsters, because they were told that fission reactors would be obsolete by now. They didn't do more to fund clean coal, because our power stations weren't still supposed to be burning fossil fuels past the end of the Twentieth Century. They didn't do more to fund wave and wind and solar power research, or try to make society more energy-efficient, because by now we were supposed to be enjoying practially unlimited energy "too cheap to meter". The concentration of strategic oil reserves in Middle-Eastern countries like Iraq and Iran wouldn't matter so much by now, certainly not so much that we'd be prepared to go to war over them. The forty-year estimates back in the 1960's meant that we simply didn't need to prioritise these things. The fusion guys had assured us that we didn't need to, all we had to do was write them a cheque.

Like most people, I hope that the guys can show us that we're wrong, and really can get this to work on a reasonable timescale.

Otherwise ... Welcome to Hell.

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