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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

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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