Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Nuclear Con-fusion goes off Richter scale‏


Last week several British newspapers reported on an apparent “breakthrough” in nuclear fusion research in the US. In response, I wrote the letter below, which has not been published.

After submitting my letter, I received another critique from a senior researcher in the United States which I have pasted below. Between us, we have exposed some shoddy cheerleading journalism.


I read with wry amusement the headline "Lasers shine a light on unlimited, clean nuclear energy"(Independent, 13 February) over the article by your science editor on the apparent break though in experimental fusion energy science by the US National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore  labs in California.
This optimistic report   repeats  for the umpteenth time in the past 60 years by white coated boffins that they have found the Holy Grail of nuclear energy through a fusion breakthrough.
My favorite Panglossian report is one from Argentina in the 1950s:  it involved a top secret fusion research project on an island in a lake near Argentina's border with Chile, run by an Austrian émigré Ronald Richter, who had worked for Hitler's War effort before fleeing post war to South America. In February 1951, Richter showed off his secret thermonuclear fusion device to Argentina's enthusiastic  atomic energy commissioners, much to the  delight of populist President Péron.
Ultimately, once the project became more widely know, it was dismissed as mixing fantasy with reality. The New York Times described it as "replete  with impossibilities."
And so it remains today. Yet the fusion  programme continue to eat up the huge majority of our energy research budget, crowding out  more attainable sustainable renewable energy technologies and innovative electricity service opportunities.
The article rightly points out this facility's primary research is to support  the US' atomic arsenal of nuclear warheads, thus re-inforcing the fact that fusion research is intimate with nuclear weapons, something its lavishly-funded technological cheerleaders never wish to  discuss: just as they always omit it also creates radioactive waste, but different from fission (conventional) nuclear reactors.

However, your article fails to point out the NIF's primary research is to support  the US' atomic arsenal of nuclear warheads, thus re-inforcing the fact that fusion research is intimate with nuclear weapons, something its lavishly-funded technological cheerleaders never wish to  discuss: just as they always omit it also creates radioactive waste, but different from fission (conventional) nuclear reactors.

How many more fantasy "breakthroughs" do we need before we wake up to the  fact these fusion fanatics are far better at convincing scientifically ill-educated politicians and civil servants to provide taxpayers' support than making fusion work?

Confounding Fusion Weapons with Fusion Energy


by Robert Alvarez, February 15, 2014,



U.S. scientists achieve 'turning point' in fusion energy quest

Recently, national media attention was given to the publication of a

paper by scientists at the Lawrence-Livermore National Laboratory

(LLNL) announcing that fusion of hydrogen atoms was achieved

involving lasers at the National Ignition Facility (NIF). [See article

posted below, entitled 


U.S. scientists achieve 'turning point' in 

fusion energy quest.



Nuclear Weapons Research


NIF is a major project of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex managed

by the National Nuclear Security Administration within the Energy

Department. Based on the concept of inertial confinement fusion

(ICF), the NIF was established with two major goals:


   (1) to preserve and advance the intellectual capability in

        service to the U.S. nuclear arsenal (Stockpile Stewardship); and


   (2) to develop "pure fusion" nuclear weapons that will not

        require plutonium "triggers" to ignite a thermonuclear detonation.


The latter is a "holy grail" for nuclear weaponeers at LLNL.


Having worked in the Energy Department at the time when NIF was

launched, I know – and it was well understood – that this project was

part of the political price for support from LLNL of the Comprehensive

Test Ban Treaty.


To achieve its primary goal, NIF – a football-stadium-sized project –

is meant to generate extreme pressure and heat, comparable to that

created by a nuclear fission weapon, to yield a very small-scale

thermonuclear explosion. This is to be done by focusing 192 powerful

lasers on a target of millimeter dimensions containing a gas mixture of

stable hydrogen and tritium (H-3- a radioactive form of hydrogen).


NIF's entire budget comes from the "Weapons Activities" account of

the DOE budget. DOE/NNSA has been spending several hundreds-ofmillions

of dollars per year for the past 20 years on this project.


Currently, NIF is spending $400 million (in FY2014).


Conversion or Camouflage?


When it started to experience costly and time consuming set-backs,

the NIF “became” a technology to provide "an inexhaustible supply

of energy". The recent news story announcing that nuclear fusion was

achieved for a very brief time is an example of how LLNL has changed

the goal posts of this troubled project from demonstrating the viability

of ICF [for weapons purposes] to pulling off a "credible" experiment [for

peaceful purposes].


The first actual ignition experiment – now being touted as a

"breakthrough" – is actually ten years behind schedule.


It's no coincidence that publication and announcement of this

experiment was made public around the time that the U.S. Congress

has to approve the budget for NIF, now estimated to have a current

total cost of about $7 billion.


It's also no coincidence that the promise of NIF “to solve our energy

problems” began to be touted around the time its budget came under

closer critical scrutiny. Even pronuclear advocates, such as Rod

Adams, scoff at the idea of NIF serving this purpose.


Not much was said [in the news reports] about the fact that the

experiment took a very much larger amount of energy than it produced.

As pointed out by Arjun Makahijani, who has a PhD in fusion

engineering: "you need an improvement in performance of tens of

thousands of times before a shot can be deemed fit for a power




If this project weren't wrapped around the energy "breakthrough" flag,

behind the protective walls of the nuclear weapons budget, it probably

wouldn't have survived as long as it has.





WASHINGTON, Feb 12, 2014 


(Reuters) - U.S. scientists announced on Wednesday an important milestone in the costly, decades-old quest to develop fusion energy, which, if harnessed successfully, promises a nearly inexhaustible energy source for future generations.

For the first time, experiments have produced more energy from fusion reactions than the amount of energy put into the fusion fuel, scientists at the federally funded Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California said.

The researchers, led by physicist Omar Hurricane, described the achievement as important but said much more work is needed before fusion can become a viable energy source. They noted that did not produce self-heating nuclear fusion, known as ignition, that would be needed for any fusion power plant.

Researchers have faced daunting scientific and engineering challenges in trying to develop nuclear fusion - the process that powers stars including our sun - for use by humankind.

"Really for the first time anywhere, we've gotten more energy out of this fuel than was put into the fuel. And that's quite unique. And that's kind of a major turning point, in a lot of our minds," Hurricane told reporters.

"I think a lot of people are jazzed."

Unlike fossil fuels or the fission process in nuclear power plants, fusion offers the prospect of abundant energy without pollution, radioactive waste or greenhouse gases.

Unlike the current nuclear fission energy that is derived from splitting atoms, fusion energy is produced by fusing atoms together.

Experts believe it still will be many years or decades before fusion can become a practical energy source.

"I wish I could put a date on it," said Hurricane. "But it really is (just) research. And, you know, although we're doing pretty good, we'd be lying to you if we told you a date."

Of the uncertain path ahead in fusion research, Hurricane compared it to "climbing half way up a mountain, but the top of the mountain is hidden in clouds. You can't see it. You don't have a map".

The research was conducted at the laboratory's National Ignition Facility (NIF), which was completed in 2009.


The scientists used 192 laser beams to zap a tiny target containing a capsule less than a tenth of an inch (about 2 mm) in diameter filled with fusion fuel, consisting of a plasma of deuterium and tritium, which are two isotopes, or forms, of hydrogen.

The fuel was coated on the inside of the capsule in a frozen layer less than the width of a human hair.

At very high temperatures, the nucleus of the deuterium and the nucleus of the tritium fuse, a neutron and something known as an "alpha particle" emerge, and energy is released.

The experiments, published in the journal Nature, created conditions up to three times the density of the sun.

In two experiments described by the researchers that took place in September and November of last year, more energy came out of the fusion fuel than was deposited into it, but it was still less than the total amount deposited into the target.

The deuterium-tritium implosions were more stable than previously achieved. The researchers did so by doubling the laser power earlier in the laser pulse than in earlier tries.

The fusion-energy yield was increased by about tenfold from past experiments, in a series that started last May. One of the experiments produced more than half of the so-called Lawson criteria needed to reach ignition - but only about one-100th of the energy needed for ignition.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, located about 45 miles east of San Francisco, is overseen by the National Nuclear Security Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Eager to exploit the potential this type of energy offers to reduce dependence on oil and other fossil fuels, the United States and other nations have invested many millions of dollars into fusion research, often with uneven results.

There are two main approaches. This team focuses on what's known as inertial confinement fusion energy - using lasers to compress fuel pellets, which triggers fusion reactions.

Other labs like the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, which is the British national laboratory for fusion research, and the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in New Jersey focus on magnetic confinement fusion energy - putting plasma in a magnetic container and heating it up until nuclei fuse.

Steve Cowley, director of the Culham Centre, called new findings "truly excellent" but said different measures of success make it hard to compare with his type of research.

"We have waited 60 years to get close to controlled fusion, and we are now close in both magnetic and inertial confinement research. We must keep at it," Cowley said in a statement.

Mark Herrmann, a fusion researcher at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico which is also overseen by the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, called the new findings important, but sees a "very long road to assessing the viability of fusion as a long-term energy source".

"I believe a compact carbon-free energy source is very important for humankind in the long term," he said by email.

"Fusion is one bet. If it pays off, the return will be big."

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sophie Hares)


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