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Thursday, September 20, 2012

FUSION: ITER

This is Part 2 of my series on FUSION:

ITER is pronounced "eater," and is mankind's best hope today for a monumental source of clean power.  When I first worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory nearly forty years ago on laser fusion, they also had a couple of magnetic confinement projects, and I thought that was crazy, for what system and material could continuously for months maintain plasma at a hundred million degrees Kelvin, six times hotter than the core of the Sun.  I still think the odds of commercial success are infinitesimal, at least compared to laser and cold fusion, which themselves range from challenging to fictitious.

Anyway, what began as a $5 billion project with hope is now up to $20 billion with doubts.  The European Union, hosts at Cardarache, France, is responsible for 45.5% of all ITER costs, while the U.S, Japan, Russia, China, India and South Korea will each kick in 9.1%.  ITER (the Tokamak will be housed in what someday might be that orange building--no, this is just a rendering) will just prove that fusion is feasible, and this date has now been pushed up to 2025.  Then, a SERIES of follow-on efforts will need to be funded, at much higher costs, to ultimately commercialize this technology.  Very optimistically, 2050 has been suggested as a target date.  Why bother then, for China has already announced that same year to commercialize their 500 MW to 1 GW laser fusion power  plant, and the U.S. is ahead of them at this stage.

In many ways, the United Nations-like (which, in my experience, is administratively hopeless) configuration running  ITER is similar to the International Space Station (ISS), which, frighteningly enough, cost $150 billion.  Mind you, if you missed it, this is 750% more expensive than ITER.  It was President Ronald Reagan who proposed Space Station Freedom for $8.4 billion.  Then President Bill Clinton cancelled that version, but proposed this current international partnership  for $17.4 billion.  Factor of ten or so more expensive?  About right.  After a decade of operation, how many commercial products have made it to the marketplace?  None.  How many will in another ten years?  Probably none.  The similarity is that, like ISS, which is slowly being abandoned, every country, including the European Union, is also trying to escape from ITER, but can't find a politically expedient way to do this.

In case you were wondering, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the device at the French-Swiss border that found the Higgs Boson, has a price tag of $10 billion.  Will anything realistically useful derive from this facility?  No.  So, in many ways,  ITER is a kind of bargain.  For only $20 billion (don't forget that $150 billion ISS), it is possible that Humanity will well be on our way to a fabulous new and renewable energy form (remember, there is sufficient deuterium in the ocean for 150 billion years at current consumption--and our Sun becomes a Red Giant in, oh, 5 billion years, enveloping Planet Earth).

I remember forty years ago, when I worked in the U.S. Senate, some staff members conniving (without our Senators' official permission) to kill the Superconducting Super Collider  in Texas.  In 1993, about a decade later, the project was cancelled (I've not seen the true story of how this happened--I wonder why no one wrote that book or made that movie) after a magnificent toroidal (15 feet diameter and 30 kilometers long) hole in the ground was excavated (left) for $2 billion.  The finished facility was expected to cost $11 billion, so in 2012 dollars, that was a savings of almost $25 billion.  While it is possible that the SSC should have discovered the "God Particle" before CERN, as it was supposed to have five times the collision energy of the LHC, so what?  Well, that would have been nice for national bragging rights, but for all that money?

Now, there is a rekindling of a NASA-led movement (with a lot of help from major aerospace companies), to send Man to Mars.  This mission is currently pegged for $500 billion (which automatically means at least a trillion dollars).  Not sure they got the message, but Congress in 2010 killed the 2020 Mars Project.  On September 25 there is a talk about just this effort on the University of Hawaii campus, in fact, four floors up from my office, to cheerlead this initiative.  I should go and express my annoyance, for we need to abandon space for at least a century until we first resolve the onrushing double hammer of Peak Oil and Global Warming.  But, I have something more important to do.

However, I hope an influential group is actively working to bring ITER  to an early halt before it gets too expensive and too late.  Even though the hole is already in the ground (above), remember the Superconducting Super Collider.  But I suspect bureaucratic inertia and a desperation to do something will prevail, for, according to Steve Cowley, CEO of the U.K. Atomic Energy Commission:

     It is going to work...because it must.

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If you're planning to travel to the Orient, there is a brand new tropical storm, Jelawat, east of the Philippines, now only at 40 MPH, but expected to strengthen into a Category 2 storm and head for Taiwan.  


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