Monday, December 23, 2013

High on the Fusion Future

George Will has been at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in New Jersey, catching the fusion bug:
Given the societal will, commercially feasible production of fusion energy is possible in the lifetime of most people now living. The cost of operating the PPPL complex, which a century from now might be designated a historic site, is 0.01 percent of U.S. energy spending. PPPL’s budget is a minuscule fraction of U.S. energy infrastructure investment (power plants, pipelines). Yet the laboratory, which once had a staff of 1,400, today has only 450. 
How does anybody know that commercial fusion power will be feasible in 50 years? It has never been done. It seems likely to me, I admit, but since nobody has ever been able to make it work, even with rooms full of brilliant scientists and budgets in the billions, it is foolish to think that fusion is inevitable. Making a small, tightly controlled star is not exactly a simple proposition.

Will has a go at explaining why people don't support spending more on this:
The Apollo space program was much less technologically demanding and much more accessible to public understanding. It occurred in the context of U.S.-Soviet competition; it was directly relevant to national security (ballistic missiles; the coin of international prestige); it had a time frame for success — President Kennedy’s pledge to go to the moon in the 1960s — that could hold the public’s attention and incremental progress (orbital flights) the public could comprehend. Because the fusion energy program lacks such immediacy, transparency and glamour, it poses a much more difficult test for the political process. 
Well, ok. But there is also the problem that fusion fans have been promising breakthroughs within a decade for about forty years now. If not commercial power, then they at least promise a reactor that produces more power than it consumes. No such has ever been created, and the whole thing has a bit of the air of perpetual motion. The current machine does not really work, but that is because it is too small and primitive -- just give us a few more years and $50 billion more. . . .

Will then tries to explain why we should spend more money on fusion and less on poor people:
Because of its large scale and long time horizon, the fusion project is a perfect example of a public good the private sector cannot pursue and the public sector should not slight. Most government revenues now feed the public’s unslakable appetite for transfer payments. The challenge for today’s political class is to moderate its subservience to this appetite sufficiently to enable the basic science that will earn tomorrow’s gratitude.
I wonder how Will, a global warming skeptic, justifies accepting the projections of fusion scientists while ignoring those of climatologists? Maybe we should earn tomorrow's gratitude by not poisoning the atmosphere and screwing with the weather systems that keep us all alive? I don't have any problem with spending more money on fusion research, but I would take the money from weapons programs and foreign wars instead of those insatiably hungry masses.

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