Fusion’s “Crackpot” Reputation

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Posted by Rezwan Razani on Jan 06, 2013 at 08:16 AM
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Where does fusion’s bad rep come from?

Consider this quote:

Over and over again, desperate scientists have deceived themselves and their peers - and cheated…

Where have we heard this?

Charles Seife in his book, “Sun in a Bottle” says this over and…repeatedly.

Over and over again, the dream of fusion energy has driven scientists to lie, to break their promises, and to deceive their peers.  Fusion can bring even the best physicists to the brink of the abyss.  Not all of them return.  (p. 2)

Seife repeats the charge in his article, “Fusion Energy’s History of Deception and Crackpottery” on Slate, Jan. 3, 2013.

Is this true?

Let’s see.  “Over and over again” - does that mean twice, or three times?  From the book we read about:

  1. “The monomaniacal and Strangelovean” Edward Teller:
    Teller was so ridiculously optimistic that fellow physicists measured enthusiasm in “Tellers” just as they would measure mass in kilograms or time in seconds.
  2. Ronald Richter, “the secretive physicist whose lies embarrassed an entire country.”  The country was Argentina.  Richter convinced president Juan Peron and others that he had discovered a way to get controlled nuclear fusion.  In a speech, he announced:
    What the Americans get when they explode a Hydrogen bomb, we in Argentina achieve in the laboratory and under control.
    Alas, he was mistaken. 
  3. The infamous Stanley Pons and…
  4. ...Martin Fleischmann, “the two chemists behind the greatest scientific fiasco of the past hundred years” aka “Cold Fusion.”  Was this really the “greatest” scientific fiasco of the century? 
  5. And who could forget Rusi Taleyarkhan‘s sonofusion confusion?

OK.  Five guys. Oh yes, a sixth guy is now added - Andrea Rossi.  And I suppose all the folks who are interested in LENR, although they would argue there is something interesting going on there which is worth looking into. 

Is this sufficient to support Seife’s thesis, “the history of fusion energy is filled with crazies, hucksters, and starry-eyed naifs chasing after dreams of solving the world’s energy problems?” 

Is this even relevant to a discussion of fusion?  After all, the history of cancer research has its share of hucksters, quacks and dreamers, but it’s hardly a reason to dismiss cancer research. 

And what’s the objection to dreams?  I kind of like the hopey changey dreamy thing.

Peer review works.  You can’t fake fusion

Seife seems to have difficulty getting over a handful of hucksters.

The good news is that if indeed, hucksters attempt to huckst, they can’t get away with it.  Not in fusion.  As we see, these few deceptive incidents in fusion history were quickly identified and discredited at little cost to anyone.  Peer review catches it soon enough as all the well documented “fiasco” stories demonstrate. 

Little cost?!!!

This brings us to the issue of cost.  Fusion has the reputation of being egregiously expensive.  In the Slate article, Seife expresses shock at the cost of ITER.

The bare-bones budget (supposedly around $5 billion when the United States rejoined the project) has swollen back up to Falstaffian proportions (the latest estimate is $20 billion ).

I’m not sure what a “Falstaffian” proportion is.  But if we use $20Bn as one “Falstaff”, then the BP oil spill was a minimum 2 Falstaff event - i.e., $40Bn for one summer of cutting corners in the oil industry.  With regards to ITER, the Falstaff is spread out over more than a decade.  It’s a big budget, but have some perspective.  Energy is important.  It would be better to direct Falstaffian outrage at things like the $400 Billion for fighter jets (aren’t drones doing the job much better?) and US elections ($6Bn - or almost a third of a Falstaff!) 

Hucksters gotta huckst

The poster boys for fusion deception listed above aren’t entirely without merit.  Regarding Richter, Seife notes:

Richter’s claims marked the official beginning of a quest that had been in the planning stages for a long time - the quest to liberate the energy of fusion for the benefit of mankind.  (p. 77)

He was off to a false start, but we can at least thank him for the kickoff. 

As for Teller, Seife argues that his deception was responsible for kicking off the arms race.  The story, detailed by Seife, is this:

Teller and his allies sought funding to work on a fusion bomb, while Oppenheimer et al resisted.  But then Klaus Fuchs, a Los Alamos physicist was arrested for spying and selling weapons secrets to the Russians.  Teller then promoted the idea that he was close to figuring out a fusion bomb, and if we didn’t figure it out first, the Russians surely would.

This was the alleged deception. 

Truman took the alleged bait.

Truman’s hand had been forced, but he had just made a dangerous decision.  He had committed the United States to an arms race with the Soviet Union that would make both countries insecure and lead the world to the brink of destruction, all for the sake of a fusion weapon that, at the time, was merely a figment of Teller’s fertile imagination.  (Seife, pp. 22)

This was at the beginning of 1950.  Seife considers this a bluff because “just weeks before, calculations from Los Alamos were starting to prove that Teller’s fusion bomb was a flop.” 

But then, Teller’s instincts were correct, because in just one year, Stanislaw Ulam figured out a different way that made it work, and on May 9, 1951, the first fusion bomb was exploded.  (Seife, pp 26-27)

The bomb is a terrible thing.  The point here is that while the specific device Teller was working on was a flop, the solution was only a year away and came out of the same group of people. 

We can only speculate now, but if Truman hadn’t bought the bluff, how long would it have taken Russians to figure out an H-bomb? 

Would they have relaxed and not bothered, seeing that the Americans weren’t going to bother?

Did someone say “starry-eyed naif”?

Given what we know about violence in human nature and technology advance, how would you have made that call?

Pandora

While the bomb is a terrible thing, and I wish it had never been invented, this story offers a ray of hope for fusion energy aficionados.  Here we have Seife vociferously denouncing the possibility of a fusion technology (the bomb) and ridiculing a particular approach as a figment of scientist’s imagination. 

Then, in just a few pages, the technology exists. The interrelated scientists in the fusion research ecosystem continued to work and they found a different way.  The information gathered from the failed “figment” wasn’t a total waste.  As with most “failure”, it supplied a lot of information and got the scientists closer to what would work.  (Let’s hear it for Fail Faire!) 

Now Seife seems to be dismissing the possibility of fusion energy . Yes, it’s tough, but hopefully it will follow the same narrative. 

Seife is like Pandora.  The box is open and the demons are out, and Seife wants to shut the box on the hope inside.

He doesn’t come out and say fusion energy is impossible, but offers no possibility of a solution.  Here, he gleefully derides ITER,

It takes a truly international effort to create something as powerfully screwed up as ITER

 
And here, he blithely dismisses any alternative approaches,

Given this history, it’s easy to understand why fanatical devotees gravitate to unorthodox approaches to fusion energy, be they cold-fusion moonbattery or schemes touted by startup companies with more cash than brains.

It would be nice if he could deliver his message without the load.  I sense some interesting criticisms about both policy and science under the hyperbole, but they aren’t clear. This is a shame because there is a lot to explore in fusion science and policy, and it would be great to have a more systematic look at the evolving fusion research ecosystem. 

Fusion Fanatics

“Fanatical Devotees”?  I suppose there are some textbook fanatics out there. Fusion researchers are wary of them.  Not least because they tend to have inflated expectations and want quick fixes.  In a sense, Seife strikes me as a failed fanatic.  I sense a wounded plaintiveness in quotes like this: “The mainstream scientists who’ve been pursuing the dream have left us with little more than a thicket of delusions and broken promises.”  I’m not sure how to respond to that, other than to suggest a dose of Nassim Taleb on peer cruelty.

In my experience, as I go about recruiting fusion scientists to be on the board of advisors of FEL, I find that they search me for traces of fanaticism.  It is when I come out and say, “I’m in it for the long haul, to explore fusion science whether or not it leads to affordable energy” that I get collaboration.  We all want the energy thing to work out, but we don’t want the emotional baggage of dealing with expectations. Let’s just do the work, cultivate the field, see what happens.  The upside is worth it. Ease up on the hyperbole. Stay focused.

Fanatics…  Let’s see if there are other ways to defuse that word. Is it so bad to be a fusion fanatic?  Perhaps in the sense of a football fan.  Indeed, the Fusion Energy League seeks to pattern itself after the NFL : )

20 years away

Seife ends his article with:  “And, if one is to believe them now, after six decades of work, the clean, nearly limitless power of fusion is still 20 years away. At this rate, it will always be.”  (insert rimshot).

I think it’s more like “still 5-20 years away”, given that NIF is hovering on the verge of ignition, and several of those derided alternatives suggest that they have a quicker path to fusion.  A broad exploration may yield a “pleasant physics surprise” or two.

But it’s true that at this moment, uncertainty continues to loom.  Heads up.  Fusion energy is not easy.  Stop whining about it and roll up your sleeves.  Chances are it will work. Steady as she goes.  But even if it ends in ultimate “failure” - we need to pursue this path. What would we be if we didn’t?  Cowards?  Whiners?  Lazy? 

Many people are discouraged by the amount of time it is taking to master fusion.  A quick success in fusion would be ideal, and we hope any one of the projects in the fusion league has a breakthrough soon.  But in the meantime, we need to focus on solving the problem, and building our stamina.  To that end, here are the Fusion Commandments.  (Whoops! Did that just up my “fanatic” creds?)

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A point that is sometimes overlooked is the fact that there is a practical fusion technology that currently produces net energy that is reliable and economical that hardly anyone typically considers. That inertial confinement fusion technology is called PACER fusion.

LANL and LLNL Field Test divisions proved, in over 1000 verifiable historical instances, that they could release controlled amounts of fusion energy on demand whenever and wherever requested by the President of the United States since the LLNL Ivy Mike nuclear test of 1952. It is possible today to produce D-D and D-T fusion without technical issue or uncertainty (first time – every time) if you are willing to use tiny amounts of fissile material (U-233, U-235, or Pu-239) to create the conditions to ignite the D-D or D-T fusion plasma secondary. Nuclear devices optimized to produce energy from fusion, and not for military purposes, have been designed by both LANL and LLNL in the mid-1970s. These thermonuclear devices have been practically demonstrated to produce in excess of 97% of their energy from fusion (and over 99% energy yield from fusion is confidently predicted for energy application optimized small PACER devices).
It is only diffuse energy ignited fusion (Laser Fusion, z-Pinch Fusion, Heavy Ion Fusion, Magnetic Confinement Fusion, etc.) that is BIG and EXPENSIVE and always only 50 years away. The truth is, if you are willing to use a very tiny amount of fissile material, small, practical, economical, and reliable fusion energy power plants are now possible, and have been possible for over 50 years since the Ivy Mike test.

We could build cost effective and reliable fusion power plants today that produce commercial Gigawatt levels of power from fusion anytime desired using National Lab developed PACER fusion.

For more info – http://home.comcast.net/~aeropharoh/site/?/page/Documents_Related_to_PACER_FUSION_/


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