Fusion, Fission, and Fossil Fuels

Jan 5, 2014

In his Washington Post column published December 20. George F. Will presented an optimistic view of controlled nuclear fusion as a potential efficient and clean energy source to replace fossil fuels.

Fusion is a nuclear process by which light nuclei, such as hydrogen, combine to form heavier nuclei, such as helium, with the release of energy. This is the source of the energy of stars such as our sun and is utilized in the hydrogen bomb. In these cases, very high temperatures, on the order of 100 million degrees, are required to trigger the reaction. Such temperatures exist at the centers of stars. However, to achieve these high temperatures a fission bomb, splitting uranium or plutonium, must be used to set off a fusion bomb.

To use fusion for controlled power you must contain hydrogen atoms and heat them to this very high temperature. No material can survive this temperature, so it can only be done by confining the nuclei with a magnetic field. This is possible because at high temperatures the electrons are knocked off the nuclei and they become a mixture of charged particles called a plasma. The difficulty is that the plasma and magnetic field interact in a complex way that makes the containment unstable.

Referring to the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and other fusion research sites, Will seems to think there is something new going on here–a “developing new field of plasma physics.” In fact, plasma physics and the attempt to control fusion go back over fifty years. When I first entered graduate school at UCLA in 1963 I thought of entering that field because I imagined that here we had the future source of all the world’s energy needs.

Fusion has long offered the prospect of an endless supply of cheap, clean energy. However, despite years of effort and huge expenditures, we are still decades away, if ever, from being able to harness its power in a productive and practical way. Fortunately I found a better career opportunity in elementary particle physics.

In 1989, Utah electrochemists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced that they had achieved nuclear fusion at room temperature. If so, then the world’s energy problems were solved without the need to operate reactors at 100 million degrees.

I was in the physics department of the University of Hawaii at the time and became involved in evaluating this report. While I was deeply skeptical of the claim, I was willing consider it. Pretty quickly, however, major laboratories around the world failed to confirm the effect.

On December 27, my local newspaper, the Boulder, Colorado, Daily Camera, published a letter from John Wheeler of Williamsburg, Virginia. Wheeler says he was a Strategic Air Command combat bombardier in the 1950s whose assigned weapon was the hydrogen bomb. Based on his “months of classroom time studying” the bomb and “latest searches” he found “no evidence that anything commercially workable is feasible or on the horizon.”

Fine so far. But then Wheeler refers to the 1989 cold fusion episode and says that it was ultimately revealed as “a fake claim made to keep research money flowing into proponents’ ‘research’ projects.” This is dead wrong and the implication that hot nuclear fusion research may be fraudulent is wrong too.

From my own knowledge of the situation, I have no doubt Pons and Fleischmann genuinely believed that they had made one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time. When you dream of fame and fortune, it is easy to sometimes suspend your better judgment. Their cold fusion research was honest but not very promising since the mechanism was implausible.

No serious cold fusion research is being carried on today by any reputable scientific lab. Beware, however, of scam artists who, like the stockbrokers in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” are always looking for foolish and greedy investors to fall for get-rich-quick schemes. Some of these scams involve the promise of cold fusion and other great energy “breakthroughs.” This is capitalism. Not science.

Hot fusion research, on the other hand is honest and justified by our best knowledge–just extremely difficult. It’s plausible but also not very promising. I wouldn’t invest in it either.

The Utah chemists did not just invent cold fusion in order get research funding. As experienced scientists, surely they knew that others would soon check their observation and they fully expected it to be confirmed. The beauty of the scientific method is that it is almost impossible to cheat since important claims must always be independently replicated.

Unfortunately, there have been a small number of examples of scientific fraud in recent years that have achieved notoriety far beyond their significance. If you look, you will find they are almost all in the field of medical science where replications are often not carried out under the pressure to rapidly find cures for diseases.

This is not the case in the physical sciences. Take the recent discovery of the Higgs boson. No one would have died if it had not been discovered until 2014 instead of 2012. There was no rush and every reason to take the time to get it right. From the beginning, the search for the Higgs particle, which is responsible for generating the masses of other fundamental particles, was to be carried out by two independent, billion-dollar experiments. There was no way either group could cheat.

While I have no evidence that Wheeler is involved, a huge propaganda campaign is being orchestrated by the fossil fuel industry, aided by the religious right, to undermine science. Along the same lines as Wheeler’s letter, we hear the calumny that global warming is a “hoax,” perpetrated by thousands of climate scientists in order to gain funding. Obviously oilmen do not want fusion energy anymore than they want environmental controls.

As I have mentioned before, The Union of Concerned Scientists has shown that the fossil fuel industry is adopting many of the disinformation techniques that were developed by the tobacco industry a generation ago in order to cast doubt on the scientific evidence connecting smoking to cancer and other diseases. These include (1) raising doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence and (2) promoting scientific spokespeople who misrepresented peer-reviewed scientific findings or cherry-picked facts in their attempts to persuade the media and the public that there is still serious debate among scientists that burning fossil fuels has contributed to global warming and that human-caused warming will have serious consequences.

In his letter, Wheeler gives us good advice when he warns us to “beware of those with agendas.” That includes the fossil-fuel plutocrats who are using despicable tactics to protect their financial interests.

But even if controlled fusion is still a long way from reaching fruition, nuclear energy remains the best and perhaps the only long-term, large-scale solution to the world’s energy needs. In my HuffPuff of January 9, 2012 I described what many people think is the ideal nuclear power reactor. This is the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). It is cheaper, cleaner, and far safer than uranium reactors. There would have been no accidents at Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, or Fukushima had those reactors been LFTRs.

The U.S. has had a working thorium technology since 1945, but the project was cancelled by the Nixon administration in 1969 because it lacked military applications. We would have no problem with nuclear proliferation if we simply allowed Iran and other countries to build LFTRs. See Superfuel: Thorium, The Green Energy Source for the Future by Richard Martin (Macmillan, 2012).

Norway recently has successfully installed a reactor using a mixture of thorium and plutonium, a fuel mix that produces far fewer transuranic isotopes, which are the components that make nuclear waste a long-term storage problem. Ordinary fission products are dangerously radioactive for hundreds of years, compared to thousands of years for transuranics.

Work on thorium is going on worldwide, with research being done in China, France, the Czech Republic, Japan, Russia, Canada, and the Netherlands as well as Norway. No significant U.S. government-funded research on thorium is underway. It is not unreasonable to suspect that the oil, coal, and natural gas magnates, who have so much influence on government policy making, don’t much like thorium either.