Archive for November, 2019

Research into Nuclear Fusion is a waste of money

November 24, 2019

I used to be a Technological Utopian, and there has been no greater vision for a Technical Utopia than the prospect of limitless energy at low cost promised by Nuclear Fusion researchers.

But glowing descriptions of the Utopia which awaits us all, and statements by fusion Utopians such as:

Once harnessed, fusion has the potential to be nearly unlimited, safe and CO2-free energy source.

are deceptive. And I no longer believe this is just the self-interested optimism characteristic of all institutions.

It is a damaging deception, because money spent on nuclear fusion research could be spent on actual solutions to the problem of climate change. Solutions which exist right now and which could be implemented inside in a decade in the UK.

Reader: Michael? Are you OK? You seem to have come over a little over-rhetorical?

Me: Thanks. Just let me catch my breath and I’ll be fine. Ahhhhhh. Breathe…..

What’s the problem?

Well let’s just suppose that the current generation of experiments at JET and ITER are ‘successful’. If so, then having started building in 2013:

  • By 2025 the plant should be ready for initial plasma experiments.
  • Unbelievably, full deuteriumtritium fusion experiments will not start until 2035!
    • I could not believe this so I checked. Here’s the link.
    • I can’t find a source for it, but I have been told that the running lifetime of ITER with deuterium and tritium is just 4000 hours.
  • The cost of this experiment is hard to find written down – ITER has its own system of accounting! – but will probably be around 20 billion dollars.

And at this point, without having ever generated a single kilowatt of electricity, ITER will be decommissioned and its intensely radioactive core will be allowed to cool down until it can be buried.

The ‘fusion community’ would then ask for another 20 billion dollars or so to fund a DEMO power station which might be operational around 2050. At which point after a few years of DEMO operation, commercial designs would become available.

So the overall proposal is to spend about 40 billion dollars over the next 30 years to find out if a ‘commercial’ fusion power station is viable.

This plan is the embodiment of madness that could only be advocated by Technological Utopians who have lost track of the reason that fusion might once have been a good idea.

Let’s look at the problems in the most general terms.

1. Cost

Fusion will not be cheap. If we look at the current generation of nuclear fission stations, such as Hinkley C, then these will cost around £20 billion each.

Despite the fact the technology for building nuclear fission reactors is now half a century old, previous versions of the Hinkley C reactor being built at Olkiluoto and Flamanville are many years late, massively over-budget and in fact may never be allowed to operate.

Assuming Hinkley C does eventually become operational, the cost of the electricity it produces will be barely affected by the fuel it uses. More than 90% of the cost of the electricity is paying back the debt used to finance the reactor. It will produce the most expensive electricity ever supplied in the UK.

Nuclear fusion reactors designed to produce a gigawatt of electricity would definitely be engineering behemoths in the same category of engineering challenge as Hinkley C, but with much greater complexity and many more unknown failure modes. 

ITER Project. Picture produced by Oak Ridge National Laboratory [CC BY 2.0 (]

The ITER Torus. The scale and complexity is hard to comprehend. Picture produced by Oak Ridge National Laboratory [CC BY 2.0 (

Even in the most optimistic case – an optimism which we will see is not easy to justify – it is inconceivable that fusion technology could ever produce low cost electricity.

I don’t want to live in a world with
nuclear fusion reactors, because
I don’t want to live in a world
where electricity is that expensive.
Unknown author

2. Sustainable

One of the components of the fuel for a nuclear fusion reactor – deuterium – is readily available on Earth. It can be separated from sea water at modest cost.

The other componenttritium – is extraordinarily rare and expensive. It is radioactive with a half-life of about 10 years.

To  become <irony>sustainable<\irony>, a major task of a fusion reactor is to manufacture tritium.

The ‘plan’ is to do this by bombarding lithium-6 with neutrons causing a reaction yielding tritium and helium.

Ideally, every single neutron produced in the fusion reaction would be captured, but in fact most of them will not be lost. Instead, a ‘neutron multiplication’ process is conceived of, despite the intense radioactive waste this will produce.

3. Technical Practicality

I have written enough here and so I will just refer you to this article published on the web site of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

This article considers:

  • The embedded carbon and costs
  • Optimistic statements of energy balance that fail to recognise the difference between:
    • The thermal energy of particles in the plasma
    • The thermal energy extracted – or extractable.
    • The electrical energy supplied for operation
  • Other aspects of the tritium problem I mentioned above.
  • Radiation and radioactive waste
  • The materials problems caused by – putatively – decades of neutron irradiation.
  • The cooling water required.

I could add my own concerns about neutron damage to the immense superconducting magnets that are just a metre or so away from the hottest place in the solar system.

In short, there are really serious problems that have no obvious solution.

4. Alternatives

If there were no alternative, then I would think it worthwhile to face down all these challenges and struggle on.

But there are really good alternatives based on that fusion reactor in the sky – the Sun.

We can extract energy directly from sunlight, and from the winds that the Sun drives around the Earth.

We need to capture only 0.02% of the energy in the sunlight reaching Earth to power our entire civilisation!

The complexity and cost of fusion reactors even makes fission reactors look good!

And all the technology that we require to address what is acknowledged as a climate emergency exists here and now.

By 2050, when (optimistically?) the first generation of fusion reactors might be ready to be built – carbon-free electricity production could be a solved problem.

Nuclear fusion research is, at its best, a distraction from the problem at hand. At worst, it sucks money and energy away from genuinely renewable energy technologies which need it.

We should just stop it all right now.

Hazards of Flying

November 17, 2019

Radiation Dose

Radeye in Cabin

RadEye Geiger Counter on my lap in the plane.

It is well-known that by flying in commercial airliners, one exposes oneself to increased intensity of ionising radiation.

But it is one thing to know something in the abstract, and another to watch it in front of you.

Thus on a recent flight from Zurich I was fascinated to use a Radeye B20-ER survey meter to watch the intensity of radiation rise with altitude as I flew home.


Graph showing the dose rate in microsieverts per hour as a function of time before and after take off. The dose rate at cruising altitude was around 25 times on the ground.


During the flight from Zurich, the accumulated radiation dose was almost equal to my entire daily dose in the UK.

The absolute doses are not very great (Some typical doses). The dose on flight from Zurich (about 2.2 microsieverts) was roughly equivalent to the dose from a dental X-ray, or one whole day’s dose in the UK.

But for people who fly regularly the effects mount up.

Given how skittish people are about exposing themselves to any hazard I am surprised that more is not made of this – it is certainly one more reason to travel by train!

CO2 Exposure

Although I knew that by flying I was exposing myself to higher levels of radiation – I was not aware of how high the levels of carbon dioxide can become in the cabin.

I have been using a portable detector for several months. I was sceptical that it really worked well, and needed to re-assure myself that it reads correctly. I am now more or less convinced and the insights it has given have been very helpful.

In fresh air the meter reads around 400 parts per million (ppm) – but in the house, levels can exceed this by a factor of two – especially if I have been cooking using gas.

One colleague plotted levels of CO2 in the office as a function of the number of people using the office. We were then able to make a simple airflow model based on standard breathing rates and the specified number of air changes per hour.


However I was surprised at just how high the levels became in the cabin of an airliner.

The picture below shows CO2 levels in the bridge leading to the plane in Zurich Airport. Levels around 1500 ppm are indicative very poor air quality.


Carbon dioxide concentration on the bridge leading to the plane – notice the rapid rise.

The picture below shows that things were even worse in the aeroplane cabin as we taxied on the tarmac.


Carbon dioxide concentration measured in the cabin while we taxied on the ground in Zurich.

Once airborne, levels quickly fell to around 1000 ppm – still a high level – but much more comfortable.

I have often felt preternaturally sleepy on aircraft and now I think I know why – the spike in carbon dioxide concentrations at this level can easily induce drowsiness.

One more reason not to fly!




Getting there…

November 14, 2019

Life is a journey to a well-known destination. It’s the ‘getting there’ that is interesting.

The journey has been difficult these last few weeks. But I feel like I am ‘getting there

Work and non-work

At the start of 2019 I moved to a 3-day working week, and at first I managed to actually work around 3-days a week, and felt much better for it.

But as the year wore on, I have found it more difficult to limit my time at work. This has been particularity intense these last few weeks.

My lack of free time has been making me miserable. It has limited my ability to focus on things I want to do for personal, non-work reasons.

Any attention I pay to a personal project – such as writing this blog – feels like a luxurious indulgence. In contrast, work activities acquire a sense of all-pervading numinous importance.

But despite this difficulty – I feel like I am better off than last year – and making progress towards the mythical goal of work-life balance on the way to a meaningful retirement.

I am getting there!


Mainly as a result of working too much, I am still travelling too much by air. But on some recent trips to Europe I was able to travel in part by train, and it was surprisingly easy and enjoyable.

I am getting there! By train.

My House

The last of the triple-glazing has been installed in the house. Nine windows and a door (around £7200 since you asked) have been replaced.

Many people have knowingly askedWhat’s the payback time?

  • Using financial analysis the answer is many years.
  • Using moral and emotional analysis, the payback has been instantaneous.

It would be shameful to have a house which spilt raw sewage onto the street. I feel the same way about the 2.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide my house currently emits every winter.

This triple-glazing represents the first steps in bringing my home up to 21st Century Standards and it is such a relief to have begun this journey.

I will monitor the performance over the winter to see if it coincides with my expectations, and then proceed to take the next steps in the spring of 2020.

I am getting there! And emitting less carbon dioxide in the process

Talking… and listening

Physics in Action 3

Yesterday I spoke about the SI to more than 800 A level students at the Emmanuel Centre in London. I found the occasion deeply moving.

  • Firstly, the positivity and curiosity of this group of group of young people was palpable.
  • Secondly, their interest in the basics of metrology was heartwarming.
  • Thirdly, I heard Andrea Sella talk about ‘ice’.

Andrea’s talked linked the extraordinary physical properties of water ice to the properties of ice on Earth: the dwindling glaciers and the retreat of sea-ice.

He made the connection between our surprise that water ice was in any way unusual with the journalism of climate change denial perpetrated by ‘newspapers’ such as the Daily Mail.

This link between the academic and the political was shocking to hear in this educational context – but essential as we all begin our journey to a new world in which we acknowledge what we have done to Earth’s climate.

We have a long way to go. But hearing Andrea clearly and truthfully denounce the lies to which we are being exposed was personally inspiring.

We really really are getting there. 

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