26 November 2006

On tokamaks, hungry hacks and imbecility of some Greens

Yesterday I have stumbled on an article with a sensational headline: New global push for super-nuke by 2045. Of course, I couldn't resist reading it. Unfortunately, the article is attributed to "foreign staff", whatever that means. In any case, Reuters and Financial Times mentioned as the source of that piece could do better than employing scoop-hungry hacks who barely understand what they are writing about.

The reactor will aim to turn seawater into fuel by mimicking the way the sun produces energy.
Seawater indeed. Duh. It is Dr. Pepper only that could be a source, my dear "foreign staff"...
But this is only a small part of my pet peeves on the subject.

The ITER project is a rare case of a coordinated international effort to find a source of bountiful non-polluting energy that will reduce the world's dependency on the fossil fuels we are running out of. As a side bonus, this source of energy will also rid us of greenhouse emissions by the existing power plants and, maybe, become an answer to the global warming. Maybe - if we are lucky and on time.

The scientific base for the project was laid out many years ago, and the engineering effort started sometime after the WW II, being declassified in the mid-fifties. Roughly, the idea is to let two nuclei, such as one of deuterium and one of trutium to fuse together, producing a harmless helium atom and a neutron that carries a whole lot of energy. This is, more or less, what is going on in the stars that shine so romantically in the night sky. Or, to be more practical, in our own Sun that provides us with the free heating, sometimes excessive.

There are quite a few engineering problems on the way to producing a stable process and transforming the wild energy of that neutron into electricity. The deuterium and trutium should be kept in a space heated to the temperatures that exist only in stars today and the containing forces must be stable and secure for the process to go on. The materials that the reactor is built of must remain safe under bombardment by the neutrons, and more issues that are partly described here.

However, the research and the engineering efforts continue, and in twenty to thirty years we may see a source of plentiful and clean energy, relatively much safer than the fission power plants that are in use today. That is not to say that the nuclear plants of today are that dangerous. They are demonized to no end by some imbecilic Greens that, while being hardly clever enough to understand the basics, are vocal enough to push their agenda to the forefront of the political life in many countries.

And here we come to my real pet peeve of this post. If you look at the Wiki article on ITER, a good part of it is dedicated to the bleating by the Green people of all kinds (see under "Criticism").
Bridget Woodman of Greenpeace said "Pursuing nuclear fusion and the ITER project is madness, nuclear fusion has all the problems of nuclear power, including producing nuclear waste and the risks of a nuclear accident."
I have looked up Bridget Woodman, from idle curiosity: she is, apparently, a carrier of several degrees: BA (London), MSc (Sussex), DPhil (Sussex). Unfortunately, none of these degrees entitle her to the strong scientific (or scientific sounding) opinion of the kind quoted above. The interests Ms. Woodman pursues, her scientific background notwithstanding, seem to be "energy policy and regulation, in particular renewable energy and nuclear power; distributed generation and decentralised energy systems". Even without going into a deep analysis of these interests, it looks like the energy conservation law has so far escaped Ms Woodman's attention. As it has escaped the attention of many other Greens, yakking incessantly about that renewable energy without a tiniest chance of understanding the meaning of it.

In short - these people will hardly save us from global warming. Or from disappearance of fossil fuels. It is too bad that their understanding of basic physics is barely sufficient to chain themselves to the gates of nuclear power plants in the nude - which act, while being a slight hindrance to the employees coming to and fro, excites mostly the journalists who unaccountably always happen to be around in droves.

Accidentally, that lack of knowledge of physics does not prevent the concerned Greens from buzzing around the planet in private and commercial jets like blue-arsed flies, wasting that precious fossil fuel and polluting the environment.

And, for comical effect, a delicious quote from the same source:
French environmental groups said the project ITER, was "dangerous", "costly", and "not a job generator".
French are nothing if not pragmatic. Oh well, you can't win them all.

To summarize: the way to practical use of fusion as energy source is still long, strewn with many engineering problems and expensive - all this is true. The ITER project may fail. However, success of this project (or others in the same direction) will mean a revolution in energy production, a drastic reduction of pollution and greenhouse effect. And who knows - it even may free some Greens to roam the planet in some more worthwhile pursuits. Like saving the spotted owl. Or blue-arsed fly. Or whatever.

OK, now tagging shlemazl to continue. I know he would like to say a word or two.