Thursday, January 15, 2004

Sense and Nonsense on Clean Energy

Over at Gene Expression, Godlesscapitalist has given an unexpectedly warm appraisal of the Apollo Alliance's 10-point plan for energy independence. I must say that I cannot share his enthusiasm, as all the items on the list strike me as little more than excuses to peddle programs greenies and labor unions bought into a long time ago for self-interested and/or ideological reasons, rather than as practical steps for promoting the supposed goal of energy independence.

If energy independence really were the goal, environmentalists would be pushing for a more radical but ultimately far more promising solution to the problem, to wit, nuclear fusion. Sustainable nuclear fusion, if attained, would mean a permanent end to the leverage the nations of OPEC currently have over the rest of the world, and it would make irrelevant all the effort currently being expended on energy conservation; what is more, it would also achieve the long-desired goal of utilizing non-polluting energy sources, as the end-product of hydrogen fusion, helium, is an inert gas.1

Critics of fusion research on the grounds of its having promised so much for decades, but having yet to deliver on said promises, are undoubtedly correct in their criticisms, but they can nevertheless be faulted for having missed the wood for the trees. The reality is that fusion energy is no chimera or philosopher's stone we chase at our peril, but a fact of the natural world on which all life on our planet ultimately depends. The existence of our sun is a daily reminder that the endgoal is a practical one, however arduous the road to the destination. The big question isn't one of feasibility, but one of will, and the requisite will to see fusion research through to ultimate success has not been sufficiently present in the industrialized world ever since the end of the last oil shock in the early 1980s.

As it turns out, there is currently a big push underway to build a nuclear reactor with the requisite scale to achieve criticality, or a self-sustaining fusion reaction. The ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project, a joint venture by an international consortium consisting of America, the EU, Russia, Japan, China, Canada and South Korea, has been in the planning stages since 1986, and this year was to see the selection of a site for the construction of the reactor. Given the potential benefits of the project, one would have expected environmentalists to have been hopeful of its success and given their full backing to it, but as it transpires, this is not what happened, at least not in Canada. Far from being enthused by the prospect of limitless, clean energy, the leaders of Greenpeace Canada, the Sierra Club of Canada and several other environmental organizations teamed up to write a letter to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien saying (in their own words) "STOP ITER – SAY NO TO FUSION SUBSIDIES – SUPPORT GREEN ENERGY"!

What grievous fault, one might have wondered, could have provoked such an outburst? What possible evil could have moved these self-proclaimed wardens of the earth to such passionate opposition? Was it really, as they claimed, their concerns about "significant government spending and risk", "cost overruns" or "uncertain scientific benefits"? If so, then surely these advocates of fiscal responsibility and scientific conservatism should have been similarly opposed to research on other "renewable energy and efficiency programs", virtually every single one of which is just as vulnerable to the dangers they claimed to wish to guard against. Furthermore, such concern for costs surely cannot be squared with the gung-ho enthusiasm for the extremely economically costly Kyoto Treaty which these noble souls displayed within the very same missive.

And what of their scientific objections? Perhaps these should have been taken seriously, even if their financial objections couldn't be? These consisted of a bald, unsupported assertion about the possibilities of fusion research ("A prototype fusion power plant is not possible for another 40 years"), and another statement essentially saying "you haven't supported fusion research for the last eight years, so why start now?"2 Now, for the life of me, I cannot see where the heads of the Sierra Club and Greenpeace acquired the expertise to determine with such certainty what will and will not be possible in fusion plant design over the coming four decades, while the second argument is simply too absurd to take at all seriously. What it comes down to, then, is that these so-called friends of clean energy lacked a single good reason for their opposition to the ITER programme!

Now, as this story makes clear, the self-styled "friends of the earth" did eventually get their way in Canada, as that nation eventually pulled out of ITER altogether; and the opposition of these "environmentalists" could in fact have easily been predicted, had one factored in certain peculiarities of their way of thinking, the most important of which is the totemic religious role that the mere word "nuclear" plays in their thinking. For the religiously committed greenie, the term "nuclear" has as much power to terrify as the words "Satan" or "Hell" do for an ardent fundamentalist Christian; any project with a phrase like "nuclear fusion" at its heart could therefore have been expected to set their teeth on edge, as ITER ended up doing. Only if one subscribes to the naïve notion that these individuals actually desire the taking of practical steps towards "sustainable" or "clean" energy, rather than merely the imposition of anti-growth measures, does their opposition to fusion research seem mystifying, and I will always be averse to endorsing any environmentalist campaign for "energy independence" as long as I know that such magical thinking is the rule rather than the exception amonst those who belong to these movements.

1 - More information on the physics of fusion can be found on this page.
2 - "Fusion has not been a scientific priority for Canada since funding was eliminated in the 1995 Program Review", sayeth the greenies.