Monday, 21 May 2012

We are all addicted to using more and more energy

A Talk on the wonders of Fusion Power
A few days ago I visited Culham to learn more about the research into nuclear fusion,, having followed developments since, as a Chemistry undergraduate I read the New Scientist accounts of the ZETA experiments in 1958. It was interesting to see JET (Joint European Torus) – or rather the control room and workshops associated with it, as the actual equipment is behind a strong concrete wall. I got no nearer to the newer and smaller MAST research tokamak as it was undergoing maintenance and of course the next generation system ITER is currently under construction in France as part of a major international cooperative project. As a result of the visit I feel I am more aware of the scale of the project and I also have a much better understanding of how a plasma at 100 million degrees can be stable (at least for a few seconds) in a solid container.

Looking at the JET Test Bed Facility
One thing has not changed since 1958. That is the promise that we could be producing economic energy in 20 to 30 years time. Assuming that this time the prediction is correct and we have the firt system capable of of taking its place in the National Grid by 2042, one must ask how long would it take to build thousands such power stations to provide a significant percentage of global energy needs. While the part of the plant that generates electricity from steam may be highly conventional the fusion equipment will be far more advanced, having to deal with superconducting magnets, temperatures of 200 million degrees, and high neutron fluxes all at the same time. At the very earliest we ware probably talking 2060s or even later before there is enough fusion energy on tap to replace carbon based fuels.

So nuclear fusion is clearly not going to be in time to help us stop global warming ...

Power from the Waves
So what about alternative sources such as the sun, wind and the tide. Individual units require far less demanding technology (although there are still many details to be ironed out) and there will need to be far more generator units. Unfortunately most techniques cannot provide power 24/7 and there are limits on there they can be located to maximum efficiency.

Fission power is seen as a possible way out, but there are major problems. We have safe planes and railways because there have been spectacular crashes. The air in London is better than it was because of changes in the way we use coal after the deaths in the 1950s smog. More wild birds are around because we discovered the lethal effects of getting DDT into the food chain. In the case of power from fission it is obvious that there are dangerous by-products and significant efforts have been made to prevent them escaping into the environment. Despite this there have been spectacular failures – due to human error in the case of Chenobyl, and due to an failure to predict the forces of nature in Japan. In addition the dangers from the highly radioactive wastes (including plutonium) being used as a terrorist weapon cannot be totally ignored.

The Fukushima Disaster
The real problem with nuclear power is that the factors to be considered are not pure technological. Long term safe operation depends on a stable economic future, at a time when oils is running out and global temperatures and sea levels are likely to rise sufficiently to trigger population movements. Because the costs of safe decommissioning are high any major economic downturn (or even worse war) could make it difficult to ensure high operating standards, secure perimeters, and comprehensive decommissioning, especially as a significant number of plants could be affected by rising sea levels.

So what options are left? A cheerful news item a week or two ago, undoubtedly based on a commercially inspired press release, suggested that our energy needs could be solved because it was possible to get even more fossil fuel out of the ground by “fracking” .... Of course they didn't mention global warming because they didn't care. After all the more fossil fuel we burn the more profits the producers make. One can imaging the situation in a few years time. Temperatures have risen and life becomes rather too hot. But never fear – we can frack some more shale to provide the extra energy you need to keep the air conditioning working ... and as long as we are cool today why worry that we are creating more carbon dioxide at the same time.

Space Tourism -
The ultimate waste of precious energy resources

The problem is that we are addicted to using energy. In the past people put on more clothes in winter – rather than turn up the central heating, they walked to work rather drive a car, then eat seasonal foods rather than have one grown in heated greenhouses or transported across the world. Do we really need international travel when we can see the wonders of the world at home on our TV screens? We may feel we are doing our bit when we put a bottle in the recycling bit but is is only scratching the surface. A few people my grow their own vegetables on an allotment, walf or cycle to work, and eschew holidays which involve travelling. But most of us don't, and around the world there are many people who have limited access to energy, and demand more to improve their lifestyles.

The reality is human nature is such that the majority of people will continue to be profligate with energy until the horrors of climate change (or the international political instability caused by it) stare them straight in the face – and then it will be too late.  Simply spending vast sums of money on developing efficient fusion power plants will not be enough to avoid a devastating crash affecting the biosphere unless humanity develops the social skills to live within the resources available. I, for one, feel trapped by the situation, with no viable options.

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