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Here comes the sun

A giant nuclear fusion reactor could solve the world’s energy problems – but only if it doesn’t melt

For now, it is a hideous sight. In Cadarache, 60 kilometres north of Marseilles, workers have cleared over 40 hectares of wooded land and moved more than two million cubic metres of soil. However, this scar on the Provençal landscape has been earmarked for greatness. It is where a multinational team of scientists is attempting to build earth's second sun.

As projects go, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter) could hardly be more ambitious. Its aim is to show that we can control nuclear fusion reactions. This is the same process as generates energy in stars and could, in theory, release up to four million times more power than burning fossil fuels. If Iter works, we'll have solved our energy problems.

But ifs do not come much bigger than that. We do not yet know if it is even possible to build the machine. "Fusion is a big bet - it's not a dead cert," says Steven Cowley, director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, the hub of UK fusion research. The stake for that bet is set at €10bn (£9bn), but that figure is double the original estimate for the project and may rise further; Iter's council was recently presented with just the latest in a series of revised budgets and schedules. Whatever it eventually costs, we will not find out whether the gamble has paid off until 2026, the earliest date for the project's completion.

All this uncertainty and delayed gratification, not helped by the price tag, has generated heat of its own. Iter's critics, who include prominent scientists and Greenpeace International, have argued that the money would be better spent on pressing challenges such as finding ways to increase near-term energy production.

However, the fusion scientists are keen to point out that they are being responsible. It is no use surviving the near term only to find we are faced with a huge energy debt, they argue. World consumption is on course almost to double by 2030. Solar energy and nuclear fission might be more immediately available, but both have their limits. Nuclear fusion's main fuel is derived from seawater, and there are no long-term nuclear waste products. Nothing, they say, would fill the energy gap like this.

Bombard with microwaves

That is what Iter's members - Russia, the EU, Japan, China, South Korea, the US and India - are hoping their 23,000-tonne monster will prove. The jaw-dropping size of Iter is necessary because making commercially viable electricity from fusion depends on economies of scale. Previous successes in smaller reactors have managed to break even, producing as much energy as they consume. But the Cadarache reactor should, according to its designers, give out ten times more power than it takes in.

Operating at 150 million degrees Celsius, ten times hotter than the core of the sun, Iter is certainly going to take in a lot of power. Surprisingly, this kind of temperature is not too hard to achieve. The fuel for Iter is two heavy isotopes of hydrogen called deuterium and tritium. Bombard them with microwaves, magnetic fields and other particles, and they will get hot enough to fuse, releasing energy.

The hard bit comes with the maelstrom created inside the reactor. The high temperature creates a "plasma", a gas of charged particles. Plasma is an engineer's worst nightmare. For a start, it cannot be allowed to touch the reactor's walls; if it does, they will melt, and the whole thing will have to be rebuilt.

The plasma can be held away from the walls using immensely strong magnetic fields, but only - so far - for short periods. This is because the plasma tends to slip around in its magnetic cage, forming areas of high density that can burst through. Even if Iter engineers manage to hold it stable for ten minutes at a time, which is as much as they hope to achieve, the plasma will still shoot out neutrons that can destroy the walls.

This is the frontier where Iter succeeds or fails, Cowley believes. "We're pretty sure we can get out ten times the energy we put in," he says. "But if we have to replace the wall every year, that's going to be a very expensive way to produce electricity."

Once all the engineering problems are overcome, the plant will be able to produce only 500 megawatts of power, equivalent to a single coal-fired power station. Members will then have to build their own fusion reactors using the know-how gained at Iter. Payback will come, so the rationale goes, through these states' privileged position in the trillion-dollar, post-fossil-fuel, global energy market.

It's not an argument that worked for Canada, which pulled out of the fusion dream in 2003. The US also wavered, though it has now committed to paying 9 per cent of the cost. The EU is putting in the largest share, taking responsibility for just under half of the project. Thanks to the strange arithmetic of fusion, however, EU taxpayers may end up paying significantly more than half of the money.

Creative accounting

The funding of Iter is a notoriously slippery subject. Roughly 90 per cent of the contributions are due "in kind" - states will contract firms to manufacture equipment for a cost that they do not have to declare to the other states. Even more confusing is that each of Iter's components has been designated as worth a certain number of "Iter accounting units". Members can then choose which components they commission firms in their countries to design and build. This will affect the balance of expenditure; the cost of producing a particular magnet is likely to be far less in China than in Germany, for instance.

Then there is the complexity of the various components. The UK has chosen to build superconducting magnets and the main container vessel for the plasma. These, it turns out, will cost much more to design and build than initial estimates suggested. Cowley maintains this is a good thing: the money will go to UK in­dustries and provide them with engineering challenges that will have their own spin-off benefits, he says.

“We will never really know how much some countries spent," admits Neil Calder, Iter's spokesman. This lack of clarity about the cost may prove to be the project's Achilles heel.

In May, the journal Nature declared it "deeply unfair" to the taxpayers paying for the project and called for "an honest public debate". Science also weighed in, suggesting that fusion's problems could well be intractable. Fusion, said one commentator in the journal, is "the science of wishful thinking".

There is no sign of second thoughts from any of the members, however. According to Sébas­tien Balibar, a director at France's National Centre for Scientific Research, members stand to gain nothing by halting the project. "Now that Iter has been decided and is under construction, it would be better that it produces useful results," he says.

Michael Brooks is a consultant for New Scientist and the author of "13 Things that Don't Make Sense: the Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of Our Time" (Profile Books, £12.99)

 

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Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Left Hanging

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times