Fusion power


What we need to solve energy problems, or so I have heard, is a “Manhattan Project” for fusion

In the original Manhattan Project (aka MED for Manhattan Engineer District), vast scientific and engineering resources were employed in developing an atomic bomb. Examples of huge successful government projects are sufficiently rare that it continues to serve as an example that such a thing is in fact possible.

The major research project into fusion is the ITER development, in the news today because estimates of its cost have increased from the original USD6bn to USD16bn. At that level, this one project costs, in inflation-adjusted terms, two-thirds of the total cost of the Manhattan project, which took multiple design approaches in parallel, and included successful production of working devices. Leaders of the Iter project agree that fusion energy production will not happen in
the next 40 years.

The management problems of a programme of this length (and research into tokamaks has been going on since the 1960s) are quite different from those of a one-off war “project” like MED. Nobody expected to spend their entire career in MED, and the top management were senior army officers who would certainly be going onto something very different. Also, the Manhattan Project, because it was part of the effort of fighting a particular war, could have failed. The programme of developing tokamak fusion energy cannot fail. Either it will succeed, or it will carry on for ever. The constraints of war gave the management of the MED the most important capability a manager can have – the ability to shut down something that isn’t working. In an unconstrained programme, doing that is both an admission of error and a sacrifice of power, and just doesn’t happen without very strong outside pressure.

At least according to the BBC article, the success of tokamak fusion depends on the invention of materials which do not currently exist: something strong enough to hold a vacuum but transparent to neutrons so as not to be vapourised by the activity inside. The real situation is presumably more complicated, but the upshot is that the whole approach of generating power by confining a plasma with magnetic fields to the point where it fuses might never work. If IEC/Whiffleball fusion is possible (which is even more doubtful) then it will be generating power long before ITER produces any useful results.

What the BBC story really represents is various scientist/bureaucrats squabbling over the goodies.

The reason science and bureaucracy don’t mix is that getting things wrong and then publicising the fact is the way science advances, but avoiding and, most importantly, never admitting mistakes is the way bureacrats advance.

Working fusion power would be great, but one has to ask what the point is since we already have the science we need to generate electricity more cheaply and with less pollution, and we’re not using it. If ITER succeeds, then in fifty years we will be able to build fusion power plants, but will they really be cheaper than building fission plants? What would fifty years of massive research into safer, more efficient fission power give us? It’s as if we invented planes, got them working, then stopped using them and threw all our resources into trying to develop teleporters. I’m not saying fission power is the answer to everything. If we were still building plants, that wouldn’t mean there was no reason to look for something better, but if we’re not using what we’ve got, what are we looking for?





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