ITER, fusion, understanding scientific work, and the glib in The Amalgamated Aggromulator

  • Sept. 29, 2014, 5:31 p.m.
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So, there’s a mountain of metal being raised in Cadarache, France.

Unfortunately, odds are good you haven’t heard about it except from me.

It’s called ITER, which stands for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor.

It’s the next big step in controlled, magnetic-containment fusion. It is intended to reach the target of releasing 10 times the energy that was expended in causing that energy to be released, and also the target of reaching “ignition” - the point at which the deuterium/tritium plasma hanging suspended in the magnetic field is now generating so much heat through fusion that the devices that heated it up to the point where that is happening can switch off and the plasma just “burns” on - and to test all of the brand-new technology involved in making that happen. These trials are intended to lead to the first demonstration fusion electrical power generation plant (DEMO), which is already in preliminary design but which needs the results from ITER.

France and Japan fought over which one of them would get to host the thing and pay for almost half (45%) of the cost; France won. The other member countries (Japan, the European Union, China, India, South Korea, Russia, and the United States) just pay for smaller pie slices of the cost, about 9% each.

ITER is having problems. The problems are two-fold.

The first is spiralling cost.

(Did you ever see a big R&D project where the initial cost estimates weren’t left far behind? And this is a very big, difficult, ambitious project indeed.)

(Also the ITER organization is evidently very unwieldy and slow in decision-making, which has led to much harrumphing and responsible concern in the member countries, but I don’t know how to value this one. It’s easy to point at from outside - and a review board’s recommendations seem to me to be to be potentially problematic as well. For example, one recommendation to address excessively centralized decision-making was to place technical decisions at the lowest echelon capable of making them. Which is easy to say in a set of recommendations from outside, but this is an experimental device that is the most complex machine in the history of the world. It’s not only a matter of administrative structure - all the physical changes really do have to cohere. “Let the guy with the wrench make the calls he needs to make” can be the wrong end too. The decisions will have to all feed into each other somehow.)

The second problem is that the member countries are balking at the cost increases.

The thing to understand, I think, about the member countries is this: They are funding ITER because they want a share of the fusion tech that will come out of ITER if it works and leads to fusion tech. They don’t want to be the countries that don’t get a share. But fusion power to them is only a possibility, in the far future (“far” to them being not that far ahead, for that matter). It’s very much a side concern.

This makes a difference. They are not paying for fusion power to be developed, exactly - and their people do not necessarily believe that they will get it, or that they need it. They are paying to be able to dip their beaks if fusion power shows up.

This makes their responsibility for ITER actually working rather tenuous. Which affects the way they see the cost increases.

(And the way they see the cost increases makes them see the management problems at ITER as more serious.)

A result is that the design of this extraordinarily complex and difficult experimental device is actually being trimmed to save costs at the behest of the member countries.

From this absolutely must-read article about ITER:

ITER is continually being reshaped to meet the demands of lower cost. The tokamak once had two exhaust components, called diverters. Now it has one. “And that is risky,” the scientist added. “That’s like building only one Space Shuttle, and expecting it to run for thirty years. If something happens to that one diverter, it could take five years to make another, so that might be the end of the project.”

Doing this sort of spec-trimming with a machine that will be attempting to do something new and incredibly difficult, that should really have every extra margin for success that it can get? That endangers the thing that the members want to dip their beaks in. It is increasing the chance of the whole gargantuan expensive thing actually not working.

I see it as a “tragedy of the commons,” more or less. Except that if the “overgrazed” “field” disappears, or more like never appears, well, these scientists have been promising that fusion power was some years away for decades, haven’t they? No responsibility will stick to the “overgrazers.” Who will be seen “responsibly” continuing to deal with the slate of unfortunate existing trade-offs.

And if ITER goes down - if the project dies, or if ITER fails in action, once completed, for whatever reason… then how long would it be before another such expensive attempt - that would take so long - is begun?

Not soon. If ITER dropped dead, the priority of starting another one, or starting up big-enough national efforts to the same effect, would be distinctly eighth-burner. And of course there’s the precedent.

In a polemic long ago, the Carter Administration I think, Jerry Pournelle complained that the U.S. was continuing to behave as though it did not need fusion power. That is true now, in the U.S. and worldwide.

(Meanwhile - what if we need fusion power? When would we? When would it be good if we had fusion by?)

I have been watching ITER in the news for years, since before it began, really. That is, I do when I think of it. It is not easy; there is virtually nothing about it in the actual you-don’t-have-to-dig news, so I do have to think of looking. Once the U.S. dropped out of ITER entirely, and I only found out about it when I read that the U.S. was dropping back in.

It is quite maddening.

At the moment, in the United States, the House of Representatives has voted another year of ITER funding, but at a somewhat trimmed level… while the Senate has voted an amount of money that would only pay for the U.S. winding down and ending its contribution, which is the evident intent of the decision. Until they agree on a budget that goes to the President to sign - a budget in which the ITER matter will be a microscopic sub-deal - I can’t know what will happen.

What the U.S. is carping at is that the U.S. contribution - 9% of the total in parts and tech, spread out over the length of the project - was originally estimated to amount to 1.1 billion dollars, in 2005, but was recently estimated to be 3.9 billion dollars, and it may possibly be more than that.

Well, suppose it goes to five billion dollars. I have been trying to look up “how much” five billion dollars is for the U.S. Google isn’t that helpful. But we spent perhaps $750 billion on the Iraq war (counting interest charges, the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars might be 3 TRILLION dollars, but that’s just being snippy). Compared to the size of the U.S. budget expenditures for 2013 - about $3.5 trillion - five billion would be 0.1% of that… and, again, that amount would be spread out through the whole project, not spent in one year.

(And - again - France is paying not 9% but 45%, and wanted to pay 45%, and fought with Japan over the privilege.)

For me, ITER has come to be the most hopeful, painful test bed of what we can hope for in regard to how well we can decide to deal with the future.

I’ll just leave the ITER business there. Do read that article.


There are a number of things about the nuclear fusion effort, and similar things, that are quite tricky to think about.

One of them is, “Do we need fusion power?” That’s a big one, and a complicated one… and oddly I’m going to neglect it this time. I will say that that topic is in the “global warming solutions” file drawer (among others), under “relative availability of long-term power sources not limited to solar input.”

And obviously another would be about the nature of nuclear fusion itself and the reasons it’s so challenging. Another time I should write that out, to refresh myself and for drill, although there’s one typically lucid explanation by Isaac Asimov that I would probably be simply quoting extensively.

For now I was thinking of how you think about the effort itself. How do you think of “failures,” for one thing?

In advanced/long-term R&D this is a large question. And a special and perennial condition is that policymakers have to be able to handle that question without themselves being the advanced scientists that they must oversee. I think this requires a particular point of view about the nature of the enterprise.

One example. ITER represents the magnetic containment route to nuclear fusion. Another is the inertial confinement route, which is where you have a pellet of fusion fuel, again usually a deuterium-tritium mix, sitting in a little target chamber-cup called a hohlraum, and you blast this pellet all at once with a LOT of energy to compress and heat the pellet to the point of fusion - using lasers, magnetic fields, several possibilities. It’s less evident to me how you go from that to a working continuously-generating electrical plant if it works, but there may be ways to do that, and it’s a perfectly good route of investigation.

The National Ignition Facility is a U.S. project/facility for working on this. I was reading about when, in 2013, Senator Dianne Feinstein recommended cutting funding on the NIF’s trials, saying it had failed twice in its attempts to achieve ignition. (Senator Feinstein is also a primary player in the Senate’s decisions about ITER.)

This came in the context of a pattern of planned budget cuts… but. That is the sort of decision I would want to go very, very carefully on.

A news story I remember seeing said that the tests gave results the scientists were not expecting. That is certainly another way to describe failures. But, in a scientific research project, I would say that, generally speaking, unexpected results are exactly when you would not cut the funding.

That’s because you have found out something new in the area. “Nuclear fusion” and its target-steps are an extremely difficult matter, with the solutions not known, and the goal is pursued through scientific research. In scientific research, any solid results help. They tell us more about what happens under those circumstances than we knew before. And we need more input like that if we are to proceed toward the goal we happen to have in mind.

The “failures” would only be in themselves reason to end funding of a scientific project that had been on the merits worth funding up to that point (Feinstein originally backed it) if the failures had actually established that any continued trials along those lines would be entirely unreasonable. Otherwise… to be over-harsh about this (particularly as I don’t know anything more about Feinstein’s decision), it would be a matter of Feinstein concluding that the results meant that the scientists were incompetents. Incompetent wizards, really. Who could not fulfill their promises. As if she had ordered a truckload of avocadoes, from Merlin, and the truck didn’t show up on the dime. An objective that must be pursued through advanced scientific work is not like that, and the effort cannot be thought of like that.

Senator Feinstein said at the time that there was “no clear path forward for achieving ignition” through the NIF’s line of effort. … Whatever that really meant. It was not a fusion scientist explaining.

Something similar applies in another way (a lazier way) to statements, intended to cover the whole subject, that “they’ve been promising nuclear fusion for decades and they haven’t gotten anywhere.” Which is not true; “they’ve” gotten quite a ways, with higher and higher sustained temperatures and increased yields, more and more knowledge about the behavior of plasmas and magnetic fields, associated refinement in design, and so forth. If it hadn’t been for that work and those results, we wouldn’t be at the point of building ITER. But just talking about the end goal and whether it’s been reached is easy - and complacent, and far too easily “knowledgeable.” In the manner of someone who’s been getting grins for decades with the gag line, “Fusion - your grandpa’s energy of the future.”

A minimum understanding of the scientific enterprise - and an understanding that engaging with the specifics to some extent is going to be necessary - is required as a minimum basis for weighing this stuff.

(If I wanted to be depressed I could go on to say something about the increasing prevalence and facility with which people believe that scientists are really privileged scam artists who live fat on their funding for working - or merely pretending to work - on things in which only they are interested, or pretend to be interested. But I won’t deign to stop for it.)


Actually, there is a book I have not read, about the fusion effort, that centers on the history of estimates of the delivery date of fusion power plants as well as the more peculiar characters and episodes, that was written specifically to discredit the field it is acting as a primer for. I have not rushed to read it; I do not plan to begin rushing. Those various estimates through time… some of which were projections based on funding possibilities that usually never materialized… they could never mean anything. How do you reliably predict a future invention? Only by inventing it yourself. Basing anything at all on those predictions, or a “trend” of them, treating that pattern as significant… ridiculous. The title is The Sun In A Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking, to give you the flavor.

Meanwhile nothing is “guaranteed” either.

There are other perhaps-possible routes to nuclear fusion. There was of course the cold fusion debacle, which didn’t work out at all but is more interesting than you’d think, and the question of whether there might be after all something going on in those palladium diodes has been put in deep freeze by a stigma counterreaction. And there’s a fairly long list of others that have been suggested, and I am not up on them at all. Some are crankish, some may not be, and I’m not the fellow who can sort them out.

(For some bloody reason, the huge defense/space contractor Lockheed Martin announced a year and a half ago that they had a design for a “high beta” fusion reactor where a 100-megawatt prototype would be ready by 2017, with commercial units available in ten years! Three years to prototype is a remarkable promise to announce if it’s “wild.” I don’t know what to make of that, and neither does anyone else.)

But meanwhile a continuing nagging background mosquito-whine has been people saying that the horrendously expensive main efforts should be abandoned in favor of a particular one of these other routes, which will get us to fusion power in only a couple of years and for mere thousandths of the cost. Saying this with grand certainty.

One problem here is the fratricidal conception of science funding, which is very widespread - a better answer is almost always “and” rather than “instead of”, with “and more basic research in general” thrown in …

… but I think the last thing I’ll consider is the corrosive extent of glibness in our discourse.

Glibness. It may eat us all.

I could say, responding to that above, that the expensive magnetic-containment and inertial-confinement routes are based on very settled understandings of the situation and its difficulties (and again, sure, ALSO research other things)… but really it’s the idea that it’s perfectly simple and I’ll say so and that’s all I’m responsible for.

The wellspring of it is just people chiming in about what they’re interested in. … And not feeling they need to look for problems with it or problems with it solving everything.

Even sincere idealists can be maddening this way, because the glibness background can encourage them to take a more earnest lack of interest in getting into the complexities. I am thinking of an essay I read about fusion and related issues, that started well, became rather hand-wavey midway through about things we would only really know about fifty years from now… and then built to a point that said essentially this:

Why are we so willing to spend so much money on things like fusion power, when a gigantic problem with solar power, for example, is the inability to store the electricity. So, why aren’t we spending vast amounts of money on improving batteries? (After all, the argument commented, all fusion plants would do, if we got them, is generate electricity, so a society with fusion power would benefit from the new ability to store electricity just as much as ours would.)

This is not the most horrible example; it doesn’t seem glib. But it’s the sort of thing I never know what to do with. I approve but I don’t approve; it isn’t nonsense, but it’s starting the universe of discourse from scratch. By which I mean:

Yes, good electricity storage would change a great many things, completely. I should really write something about the short story “Snowball,” by Poul Anderson, in which the substance capacitite figures. But…

A. If we’re so willing to spend so much money on things like fusion power, that is news to me.

But mostly

B. The problem is that you have to have something to spend money on. With nuclear fusion, you have a well-understood basic situation and a set of difficulties, and a number of approaches, with technologies to be developed in order to help… The difficulties are fiendish, and the effort is fiendishly complicated, but there are definite things to do. But… if you want an extraordinarily better set of batteries or the ability to store electricity… we’re still pre-idea. We don’t have an inspiration for this or something to use in the observed physical universe, as far as I’m aware. So there’s not much to pay anyone to do, barring a lot of scientists saying “hmm, storing electricity!” instead of working on a lot of questions where they can actually be doing something. You’d be better off paying those large sums of money to fund general basic research into physics and chemistry across the board – which is where a suitable possibility might actually pop out one day. (Again, funding basic research is the best solution in a whole lot of cases like this.)

That gap in the idea “why don’t we invent electricity storage?” - conceived as being something more than just a valid daydream - reminds me of something much worse, that I run across not infrequently on space-related discussion boards. I refer to the suggestion, from people interested (or apparently interested) in space, that this or that design for an ambitious spacecraft, or this or that program of space exploration, is unnecessary and a bad idea…

… because really we should just wait until we invent faster-than-light drives.

Because then we’ll be able to flit everywhere and do all of it much more quickly and cheaply. So we should just wait.

Er… there is… no guarantee that we’ll ever invent hyperdrive. The Einsteinian universe looks pretty consistent. Yes, NASA and Eagleworks should be looking for possibilities… but you don’t confidently say, “Wait for hyperspace.” You shouldn’t be “so past” the current understanding of the physical universe.

And at that point you’re on the shores of naked glibness, with its branches of arrogance or such thoughtlessness you can’t tell if it’s arrogance. Usually it’s expressed short… which is the length where, after all, most things are discussed, and decided, most of the time.

And it scares me, because these are the people who would be thinking about it, and they don’t think they need to be talking about it more carefully. There is no real search for solutions or investigation, and no genuine impulse that way. It has a solipsistic quality, as if they are talking about what should happen on a TV show they’re watching.

On other subjects, like: How will companies, countries, individuals, be able to begin to mine and use the resources of asteroids for profit, or for any purpose, when the Outer Space Treaty says no entity can claim an extraterrestrial body? Actual answer, close to verbatim. “If you land on it it’s yours, and if anyone doesn’t like it you drop rocks on them from space.” … Thank you, Emperor Ming.

On the problems of overpopulation and the ecological crisis, there is much glibness. Sometimes of exactly the kind that anti-environmentalists often accuse the concerned of. I have seen many contemptuously sweeping announcements that anything approaching “First World” living standards will have to be abandoned. Jeez. You’re helpful. Where do you live?

And the glibness in the in-great-part-postponed discussion of how we are to successfully avoid more global warming as much as possible - confining myself here to the people who think it’s important and not the oblivious…
… well, that’s a worthy topic - and on my list in one respect. Do I digress into that here? … No, there’s something particular enough about that that I should write about it later.

But a broad, serious look at the problem that isn’t controlled or defined by just yum-or-yuk reactions, and that will look at multiple levels of solution… that is not on the glibness level. And I think on that level it does indeed matter what happens with ITER. People should know about it.

I need a stopping point, so let it be here.

(Do read that article!)

Last updated September 29, 2014

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