Mars Review of Books: Issue 1

Can We Build Stars from Scratch? Should We? by N. E. Davis ~lagrev-nocfep

Jul 31, 2022 • ~bidbel

The Star Builders: Nuclear Fusion and The Race to Power the Planet

by Arthur Turrell

Scribner, 271 pp, $17.99

“La técnica no cumple los viejos sueños del hombre, sino los remeda con sorna.” (Technology does not fulfill man’s perennial dreams, but craftily mocks them.)

– Nicolás Gómez Dávila

In a footnote to The World’s Last Night, a book of essays on modernity and faith, C. S. Lewis suggests that the view of history as progress derives via the German idealists from the alchemists: “a gigantic projection of the old dream that we can make gold.” Nuclear reactions realize the dreams of the old alchemists, although the result of these processes is not gold. Instead, our modern magi produce energy. They do this two different ways, depending on whether the elements they’re working with are heavier or lighter than iron—a boundary known as the iron valley. The transmutation of matter lighter than iron into something heavier is known as nuclear fusion, while the transmutation of matter heavier than iron into something lighter is known as nuclear fission. The most energetic reactions, those of hydrogen and helium and other very light elements, release the most energy but require excruciatingly coddled conditions to perform: basically, starlike plasma.

Since the discovery that man can engineer nuclear reactions, scientists have focused mostly on fission using uranium and plutonium: Besides their storied role in the first atomic bombs and WW2 hagiography, fission processes have successfully produced electricity and heat since the Shippingport plant went live in 1957. “Atoms for Peace” was the P.R. game then, and many Western countries played it deftly—none more aggressively than the French, who saw their way through to energy independence using uranium mined in their African colonies.

Contemporary nuclear fission plants are rather the workhorses of non-fossil-fuel energy for developed countries. Unfortunately, like the use of draft horses in farming, today’s nuclear plants are still built on an obsolete platform which has been superseded in design for decades. NIMBY concerns have prevented new installation (“concrete in the ground” being the preferred industry metric) and so instead utilities seek 10-, 20-, or 50-year extensions on the lives of already-old plants. Legacy nuclear plants bear a relatively high and complex regulatory burden (which also hampers the development of new technologies), and the waste product storage issue has largely been punted for future generations to bear.

For all that, the limiting factor for nuclear power production turns out not to be the potency of uranium, but radioactive products (“poisons” which prevent efficient fission) and the structural integrity of the fuel pellets and rods themselves (e.g. as waste gases form bubbles in the ceramic oxide, the rod warps and bends slowly, eventually seizing in place unless removed). At the end of life for a contemporary American light water reactor fuel rod, about 96% of the possible material remains unused.

The conversation of self-styled serious politicians has focused entirely on the retirement of fossil fuel (for an opposing view, read Alex Epstein’s The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels) and an increasingly byzantine and financialized system of carbon credits, decarbonization, and nonbinding industrial treaties. All of these are designed to make fossil fuels (in particular, coal) uneconomical by regulatory means. The categorical contenders to fossil-fuel-based electrical production are the renewables (wind, solar, and hydroelectric) and nuclear power.

Hydroelectric power typically relies on dams and has been largely built to possible capacity in developed nations, and its continued expansion (and the concomitant loss of farmland, forest, and living space) has been hamstrung in the Third World. Tidal systems, which capture high tide flows and release the water slowly over several hours, can be introduced in some coastal areas, although at cost to fish and wildlife. There will be relatively few new contributions of hydroelectric power at scale in the world.

Wind power—the strange propellor-like turbines that even as a child of the ’90s I saw over the West Texas plains—has expanded dramatically, with land-use agreements offering farmers and others decent incentives to share their space. In Illinois, two distant wind farms I can see to my northeast and southeast pollute our vision and our night sky with hypnotic red warning lights. However, besides being unsightly, the environmental impact of wind turbines has stretched far beyond the visual: Bird migration zones and habitats are negatively affected by wind farms, which makes sense if you consider that migrating birds are likely to take advantage of prevailing winds to speed their travel. The preferred wind turbine with horizontal nacelle also suffers from wind speed limitations, and at high wind speeds cannot be run reliably. But perhaps most damningly for capitalism, wind power is relatively uneconomical to transmit given capital and operating costs, particularly if the generous federal subsidies run out. Indeed, it seems that while using a windmill to pump water from an aquifer in Kansas makes economic and aesthetic sense, using a “green” multi-million dollar GE turbine to intermittently generate electricity in a migration zone is a category error for environmentalists.

Solar power is the other darling of federal subsidy programs. Solar panels use semiconductor technology (like in transistors) to convert incident light into electrical current. They are produced using cadmium, lead, mercury, hexavalent chromium, and other heavy metals, doped into a semiconductive substrate. Expansive solar farms are predicated on a false belief that “empty” land exists and can be converted as an ethically net-positive act from a wasteland to a mirrored discotheque floor. (One ongoing project, the Yellow Pine site in the Mojave Desert, augurs a razed yucca field spanning thousands of acres with associated loss of biodiversity and habitat; note that the justification proffered on the parent company’s website concerns only jobs and tax revenue, a point we’ll take up later.) It’s not really clear that today’s solar power at scale can be correctly described as anything other than “greenwashing”: 50% of the global supply for multicrystalline silicon, a necessary component of solar panels, comes from Xinjiang and its use should correctly be tainted by association with the Uighur slavery camps. Furthermore, a lifecycle analysis of the chemicals involved in production and disposal shows far more harmful impact than a convenient only-while-operating glance would indicate.

Wind and solar power are really forms of externality arbitrage: Rather than supplying actually sustainable solutions to global electricity generation, they address the social concerns of largely urban First World populations. But we must have electricity, and only deep ecologists like Pentti Linkola argue otherwise. However valid their case, we have not collectively grappled with the demands of a fully low-impact human civilization, and any such hard solarpunk world is likely centuries away.

Am I just a curmudgeon? Enter, stage left, what has been long hailed as the queen of moonshots: controlled nuclear fusion, described expertly by Dr. Arthur Turrell in a recent volume, The Star Builders: Nuclear Fusion and the Race to Power the Planet. Nuclear fusion, like nuclear fission, has had a bit of a rocky road to traverse. There was a time when, fueled by midcentury optimism, even a television company(1) had its own nuclear fusion lab. By the 1970s, though, the bulk of the work was concentrated in the large government laboratories.

Electricity generation by nuclear fusion is essentially bottling a star. If you glance at the iron valley chart, you can see that there is another zone of energy release at the far left, among the lightest nuclei. Nuclear fission travels leftward from the heaviest atoms, while nuclear fusion travels rightward by reacting small atoms with each other to liberate energy. There are a few different candidate reaction schemes, cycles that release enough energy to matter, only require two reagent atoms, and produce enough excess particles (protons and neutrons) to continue the reaction as a chain reaction. The two most promising paths have long been recognized as the D+T and D+D reactions (where D is deuterium, hydrogen with an extra neutron, and T is tritium, hydrogen with two extra neutrons). In nuclear reaction equations:

Notice from these that the products (left-hand side, inputs) are consumed and yield helium and neutrons, which tend to escape the plasma and siphon off energy. In the D+D reaction, tritium (T) is produced; this highly radioactive tritium is difficult to contain and constitutes a primary safety concern of fusion-based reactors.

Sustained nuclear fusion requires a hot plasma—matter so hot that the electrons around the atoms are stripped off and swim in a sea of electric charge. So physicists have long put their hands to the plough to produce an appropriate device to incubate the stellar fire. Some common expedients include the tokamak reactor (notably the European fusion megaproject ITER); the stellarator (which loops a twisted plasma through magnets); Z-pinch devices (like Sandia National Lab’s Z Machine); and inertial confinement of various stripes (such as the fusor, conceived by the same farmboy, Philo Farnsworth, who invented television). Like Hopkins’s Heraclitean fire, these “heaven-roysterers” of plasma throng then flaunt forth, “million-fuelèd” in their confined racetrack until the small energy leaks overcome the system’s capacity to persist itself and the plasma cools back to gas.

Plasma is not only hard to stabilize, it is notoriously difficult to model. The relevant physics are well-understood at the equation level (magnetohydrodynamics derived from the Navier-Stokes fluid mechanics equations and the Maxwell equations for electromagnetic fields), but the sheer number of variables involved taxes our largest supercomputers.

Fusion power (the “nuclear” epithet being elided for the sake of voters and consumers) proposes to capture the excess heat of a self-sustaining reaction to generate electricity. The mechanism for capturing the heat is a bit up in the air, but one compelling idea(2) is to coat the inner walls of the reactor itself with liquid metal to transmit the energy. Another is to harvest the neutrons to produce fuel for nuclear fission reactors. Fusion excess heat could be used to merely drive a conventional turbine, though, which feels a bit like hooking a grain mill to a jet engine.

Turrell explores ingenious arrangements by very smart and competitive scientists to yield the first self-sustaining fusion reactions, a must if any real plant is ever to be built on the backs of the technology. Partisans of nuclear fusion point out (and here is the alchemy) that this means “something for nothing,” that we can extract excess energy over our inputs by utilizing such a system for electrical generation.

The 800-lb gorilla of popular science publishing is Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which regaled the reading public with a deep dive through particle physics and the mysteries of extreme physics. Turrell’s is a similarly sober book, although with a more colloquial and narrative-bound tone than Hawking’s. (Culham in particular sounds like a fascinating slice of atomic England.) He skips relatively lightly over the uncontrolled nuclear fusion reaction par excellence, the hydrogen bomb, in an understandable editorial elision. (Besides, that story has been told in fascinating detail by Richard Rhodes in four volumes.) Turrell shows familiarity with the personal history of scientific development in plasma physics and with old scientific controversies, sometimes in depth (as gruff Edward Teller’s partisan preference for inertial confinement physics), sometimes in passing (as Ernst Mach’s stony denouncement of atoms as anything other than a convenient fiction). And unlike more speculative physics books (Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality or Briane Greene’s The Elegant Universe), all of Turrell’s exposition aims at a particular pragmatic exigency: fusion-powered electricity.

Turrell focuses the reader’s attention on several of the most promising technologies, those that (as hoped!) will yield energy-positive nuclear fusion within another decade. Even for veterans of nuclear technology and history, Turrell’s book likely holds a few surprises: Learning of First Light Fusion’s magnetic rail gun was a treat, and I hadn’t heard of the Halite and Centurion nuclear test shots. The tension between scientists and engineers is deftly drawn.

While there’s much more of a startup scene today than I would have anticipated, one unavoidably notices that for the most part these are incredibly capital-intensive laboratory machines. They’re nothing like a robust diesel engine or even a modern wind turbine. A laser-powered inertial confinement system (top yield ever, 3% of input energy) is compared favorably to a magnetic confinement tokamak (top yield ever, 67% of input energy), which is perhaps sunnier than I think his marshalled evidence supports. (I wonder amicably if this is driven by a politic need to satisfy all the different scientific communities he is documenting.)

Turrell’s optimistic stance is that nuclear fusion matters. It’s tempered with a frank acknowledgement of many of the difficulties involved with coaxing a baby star to life. It’s not just a matter of exceeding 100% energy-in-to-energy-out. There will still be substantial losses in maintaining the plasma over macroscopic time scales and in harvesting excess energy to produce electricity. And any honest accounting of the economics of nuclear fusion must include in the total expenditure: not only the raw cost of materials consumed but the enormous outlay of taxes and subsidies over the past 75 years. (Turrell seems to be aware of this in his discussion of the economics towards the end of the book.) This is tempered by the fact that current annual outlays are relatively modest in scope (currently $1.25 billion annually for the United States) and the potential upside of actually-working fusion-based power is enormous—and there have been beneficial side effects for both technology development and nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship. Depending on the day, I wonder if we take it too seriously or not nearly seriously enough—and the federal government seems to waffle in resolve as well.

Skeptics(3) point to technical issues like lost tritium and parasitic power consumption, arguing that there still can be no path to sustainable fusion-based power. The regulatory framework and how such costs will be handled is not yet clear.

I admit myself a skeptic but not because of the technology. I think it’s reasonably likely that at the current pace of development, we will have net-energy-gain nuclear fusion by 2050, and I hope some of the actors in this book succeed. But instead I ask: What is the point of nuclear fusion development as a technē? What do we uniquely ask of it? In short, we ask it to spin straw into gold. The lure of free electricity (as ironic as the promise sounds given the billions upon billions of dollars fed into the fire) draws us to clutch tighter our dreams of hedonic fulfillment for no externality, the monkey trap of capitalist desire. Capital demanded planned obsolescence, single-use product disposability, warranty voidance, toxic additives(4), greenwashing, and retail pricing. Video killed the radio star, indeed: How many niche markets have been shuttered because an enterprise corporation cannot make them profitable relative to the common denominator? (How could the “right to repair” ever be controversial?) Capital tends to operate on the basis of greedy algorithms, much like a fungus in a petri dish of agar. Without mechanisms to arrest or avoid resource depletion, it will presumably exhaust the resources. This logic has been used to motivate loud noises towards ending fossil fuel dependence, although as I have argued above, the cure is as bad as the disease.

What could repentance look like? Let us begin apophatically: It’s not going to be preached to you by a celebrity, nor is it going to be sponsored by any government administration. Why not? Both are too entangled with the particularly fatal compromise of regulatory capture. “Corruption” as a word has lost its semantic cachet through unfortunate overuse. But think about what it means physically. It describes rot, rust, decay, decrepitude. Capital cannot see reduce/reuse/recycle—it can only see building and selling new things. Review the recent Biden-Harris initiative(5). Notice how each point has only the flow of money underlying it. For Capital there are many kinds of power, but only one nervous system. Money is literally the existential and computational substrate of economy. Given this, can we judo-like tumble and throw our trajectory onto a new tangent vector?

If we devise nuclear fusion in order to increase our consumption monotonically, rather than better utilizing what we have, rejecting planned obsolescence, and otherwise propping up an illusion of infinite capitalist choice, then our end will be worse than our beginning. To continue down the consumerist path will mean accruing environmental damage and racking up more ecological debt, no matter how cheaply the electricity can be made. This may also mean attempting to find less capital-intensive ways of meeting our energy needs.

What exactly am I advocating? I don’t have an easy policy prescription to drop in here. I’m not selling anything, and I’m not in a position to do anything about it anyway. But costs have to reflect inputs, which means ending subsidies for net-harmful renewable energy sources, and we cannot continue to enable an externality-agnostic urban lifestyle to impose the negative externalities of various kinds of electricity production on rural or Third World populations. Fusion asks us to choose which baptism of fire we shall receive: the flames of hell or a purgatorial sea of molten glass?

Compromise between incommensurable outcomes is impossible. I am reminded forcefully of the scene in Heaven at the uttermost end of Pilgrim’s Progress. Having followed Vain-hope to the gate of the heavenly city, the villein Ignorance knocks at the door petitioning entry.

When [Ignorance] was come up to the gate, he looked up to the writing that was above, and then began to knock, supposing that entrance should have been quickly administered to him; but he was asked by the men that looked over the top of the gate, Whence came you, and what would you have? He answered, I have eat and drank in the presence of the King, and he has taught in our streets. Then they asked him for his certificate, that they might go in and show it to the King; so he fumbled in his bosom for one, and found none. Then said they, Have you none? But the man answered never a word. So they told the King, but he would not come down to see him, but commanded the two Shining Ones... to go out and take Ignorance, and bind him hand and foot, and have him away. Then they took him up, and carried him through the air to the door that I saw in the side of the hill, and put him in there. Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction.

If we thread the needle pairing cheap and abundant electricity to a thriving and pleasant environment, we thread it not through clever technologism nor through technocracy, but through repentance—metanoia—a change of heart. If fusion succeeds and no other change is forthcoming—we have but followed a vain hope.

by N. E. Davis