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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 French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.