Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

COVID-19: Day 139: Are we ready to re-open schools?

May 19, 2020

Slide1

Where are we now? 

We are now in the end-part of the first phase of the Corona virus 2020 tour of the UK.

The graph of ‘deaths in all settings’ is shown above. Today (day 139) the trend rate of deaths is roughly 350 deaths-per-day, and it is falling at about 125 deaths-per-day every week.

If the linear trend continued the death rate would fall close to zero deaths-per-day in mid-June. It is more likely that the rate of decline of the death rate will flatten off into a long tail as shown in the UK projection from Worldometer below.

Slide2

Additionally, random testing amongst the UK population during the period 1 May to 10 May (day 121 to day 130). During this period researchers concluded that roughly 1 in 400 individuals were actively ill with COVID-19). This specifically excluded people with direct links to care homes or hospitals.

Full Re-opening of Schools

By 1st June the prevalence of sick individuals amongst the population is likely to have fallen further – it will probably be in the region of 1-in-1000 across the country.

At the 1-in-1000 level, with appropriate precautions, a large number of activities become very low risk. Why? Because the chance of meeting an infected individual is low, and social distancing means that even if an individual is infected, the chance that they will infect you is low.

But not all activities are low risk. And schools, where groups of roughly 1000 individuals gather joyously together, are one such place.

Schools contain people who are likely to practice social distancing only imperfectly. They also contain large numbers of shared touchable surfaces (hand rails, door knobs, gym equipment, laboratory kit, taps etc).

If schools re-opened fully on 1st June (Day 152 of 2020), then it would be more likely than not that every large school would contain an infected individual.

Personally, I would not consider this acceptable. Fully re-opening with a prevalence of infected individuals around the 1-in-1000 level would virtually guarantee that every school would seed new outbreaks that could then affect vulnerable people. When these inevitably occurred, the school would need to be shut in any case.

By September (another 92 days on from June 1st), with good fortune and continued efforts, the projection above indicates that the population incidence of corona virus might conceivably be more than 100 times lower (10 in a million). At this rate only 1 in 100 schools would be likely to contain an infected individual.

At this level, I think it would be possible to safely re-open schools with minimal risk and minimal precautions. One would probably seek to segment the population into smaller groups to enable contact tracing and isolation when the inevitable cases did occur.

Government Plans for 1st June

The government plan a partial school re-opening on 1st June. This will involve only between one quarter and one third of school places being filled. This reduces the chance that a school will contain an infected individual such that we could reasonably expect one infected individual in only every three or four schools.

Is that rate low enough? Personally I think not. And a Minister speaking in a pompous and condescending tone and implying that teachers do not have children’s interests at heart would not convince me. I doubt it convinces many teachers.

The judgment involves a balance of risks and benefits. As I see it:

  • The move would bring no benefit to the 67% to 75% of students who were not attending school.
  • For the 25% to 33% of the pupils who would attend, I would think there would  need to be some overwhelming and obvious benefit of the proposal in order to justify the extraordinary amount of trouble required to reconfigure schools. I don’t know what that benefit is nor how it could be delivered in 7 weeks.
  • At a population incidence of 1-in-1000, many schools would definitely harbour infected individuals, but the infrastructure for tracking and tracing people is not yet in place.

Personally, I think re-starting schools on 1st June has no overwhelming benefit. But at a population incidence of COVID-19 of 1-in-1000, it has many risks.

In September – if we all wash our hands and keep our distance – the population prevalence of corona virus should be low enough that near-normal operation of schools should be possible. And teachers and pupils can then focus mainly on teaching and learning. Wouldn’t that be nice :-).

 

Why did I leave NPL?

May 17, 2020
P1000373

Me in July 2019

17 days in…

…and not working at NPL is everything I had hoped it would be. Even with COVID-anxiety and family illnesses, my time away from NPL has given me a lightness of spirit that I have not experienced for years.

Why do I feel so happy to have left NPL?

Earlier this year it became financially possible for me to leave NPL. And once it became possible to leave, the thought of staying suddenly felt unbearable and I handed in my notice within days.

Unbearable? Really?

One of the things I could not write about while I was still employed by NPL, was what it was like to work there.

Why couldn’t I write about NPL? Because saying even a single negative word about NPL would have resulted in my instant dismissal.

In truth, I still feel traumatised by my experiences at NPL. I expect it will take months to years to recover.

I feel like I have escaped from an abusive relationship. Even thinking about the place now still causes me to feel physically sick. And there is much that I can hardly bear to recall, let alone recount.

I stayed at NPL for 20 years, and there were good times. I worked with great colleagues and I believe I was well-regarded by them.

Without exception, every year my appraisal deemed I had ‘exceeded expectations’ or whatever daft phrase they had invented for ‘doing OK’. With colleagues I won two Rayleigh medals for the best scientific paper of the year, and in 2009 I was awarded an MBE!

And I worked with fantastic colleagues to deliver a UK contribution to the re-definition of the base units of the SI. I feel genuinely privileged to have taken part in such an activity.

But over this long period NPL as an institution has descended into a sad and chaotic state. If NPL were an individual I would describe them as suffering from a narcissistic delusional psychosis.

In my estimation it has become an organisation that has lost touch with the reality of what it is supposed to do and become obsessed with itself, its own processes, and its own self-regard.

In the worst of times, the bullying and intimidation that permeates the place left me feeling suicidal. I have considered whether to delete or moderate the previous sentence, but I have left it in because it is true. Indeed, I feel lucky to have escaped with as few ‘bruises’ as I have. Indeed, I feel lucky to still be alive.

I can’t bear to think back to the darkest times, but in order give you a flavour of the atmosphere at NPL, I will recount one small but telling incident that occurred earlier this year.

The ‘Leaders Blog’

Senior NPL management write a ‘blog’ on the intranet describing their reflections on various matters.

In March, after I had already handed in my notice, the Chief Scientist wrote a blog announcing a complete change of focus for the lab. The details don’t matter, but it was a very significant announcement.

As usual – despite the significance of the announcement – there was no response to the blog article. This was completely normal because for ‘Staff’ to comment on anything that ‘A Manager’ had written was to ‘put one’s head above a parapet’. I normally ignored these articles, but someone drew my attention to it, and – since I was leaving anyway – I thought I would comment.

The details of what I said don’t matter – they were respectfully worded – but raised the question of how this massive change might be achieved.

What does matter is that several colleagues contacted me afterwards to thank me for pointing out that there was a problem with the Chief Scientist’s ‘vision’.

And what matters more is that my colleagues – including several of the most senior scientists at NPL – were scared to comment themselves. Scared. Literally frightened. Some would not communicate via NPL e-mail for fear of eavesdropping. They had families to care for and they feared for their careers.

I thought this was serious enough to mention on the internal blog. I wrote a second comment saying that:

Several colleagues have contacted me privately to express similar concerns to those I expressed. But they felt inhibited from commenting because of the implicit threat of management retaliation if they were seen to disagree with a senior manager.”

Now in a healthy organisation, several things might have happened at this point.

  • HR might have contacted me to say they were concerned about these allegations of intimidation.
  • The Chief Scientist themselves might have expressed similar concerns.
  • A senior manager might have commented that in fact they welcomed dissenting views.

In fact what happened was… nothing.

The truth is that the air of intimidation and bullying at NPL was not news to anybody.

Indeed when I had previously mentioned the issue of bullying to my HR representative they indifferently responded that “...it was HR’s job to enforce management policy…”.

Working in that kind of toxic atmosphere I felt like my soul was rotting.

 

To log-lin, to log-log, or not to log at all?

May 10, 2020

WarningDiscussing mathematics is difficult, and if you feel you will be offended by this discussion, please don’t read any further.
========================================

One oddity of our current COVID-19 epidemic, is the use of so-called logarithmic axes on graphical illustrations for the general public.

Normally, such axes are confined to arcane technical publications. So it is a measure of how essential they are for describing epidemic growth that they have become relatively common.

But while useful for making certain features of epidemic growth clear, the use of logarithmic axes can also hide other important trends.

Here is my guide to when to use each type of graph using images generated by the Epidemic Calculator website for an epidemic with a single source of origin in a population of 70 million. The data simulate:

  • An initial growth phase up to day 100 with R0 = 2.2
  • An intervention at day 100
  • An active epidemic phase  after day 100 with R0 = 0.73

Initial Epidemic Growth.

If we say a quantity is growing exponentially we mean that at each point, its rate of growth is proportional its value at that point. So as a quantity increases, so does its rate of growth.

In an epidemic, each infected person becomes a new source of infection, so the rate of spread of a virus is proportional to the number of people already infected.

In a population with no resistance, this leads to exponential growth in the early stages of an epidemic. 

In order to visualise this behaviour, a logarithmic vertical scale is especially helpful.

Let me first show you an example of epidemic behaviour plotted with a linear vertical scale.

Slide5

On this graph it looks like almost nothing is happening for the first 80 days of the epidemic. There is a single death after 41 days… and then infections seem to ‘explode’ – apparently without warning. This is qualitatively my recollection of what happened in the UK.

However the same data plotted on a logarithmic scale show that even during its early days, the magnitude of what would eventually happen was apparent – it is exactly the same behaviour throughout this phase.

Slide6

These so-called “Log-linear” graphs  – where the vertical axis is logarithmic and the horizontal axis is linear are helpful for visualizing the first phases of an epidemic where the epidemic growth is exponential.

Their key feature is that regular steps along a logarithmic axis correspond to regular multiplying factors. The effect is to allow us to see both small and large numbers on the same graph, without the small numbers ‘disappearing’ in comparison with the larger ones.

Active Epidemic Phase

In this epidemic simulation, action is taken after day 100. And after that point, the changes no longer cover such vast ranges of numbers.

In this phase – which is where we are in the UK at the moment – we want to take note of small changes in the numbers. In this phase, a linear vertical axis is the most appropriate for allowing us to see these small changes which are ‘squashed’ by the logarithmic axis.

Slide6

Notice that even though the processes underlying the epidemic progress are highly complex, the trends are roughly linear over relatively extended periods – just as we see in the UK data. This is the reason I have allowed myself to linearly extrapolate trends from the data in my previous blog articles.

The Epidemic End Phase

While perusing these outstanding data visualisations of the Epidemic progress in New Zealand, I came across a final combination of axes that shows a way of summarising how an epidemic ends – something I am sure we all long to see.

In this representation,

  • The vertical axis shows the daily death rate
  • The horizontal shows the cumulative total number of deaths

Both axes are logarithmic and so this is called a log-log plot. Now we can see the full trajectory of an epidemic. Its initial exponential growth; the gritty struggle to control viral spread; and the final extinguishing of the viral flame.

Slide8

The odd data points on the graph above arise from anomalies in the recording of daily deaths. This data is taken from John Hopkins University.

And after the End Phase…?

The movie of this epidemic would end as the infection rate reaches zero. But in reality, there are never any closing credits.

As long as this infection – or the prospect of another one like it  – exists somewhere on Earth, then we have to accept that, however rare, we must live with the possibility that it could all happen again.

I find this thought appalling.

  • Do we really want to live in a socially-distanced world where we forever fear to hug our loved ones?
  • Will we really have to quarantine ourselves on arrival at every foreign destination, and on our return?

Charting how an epidemic evolves helps us to understand the nature of what we are facing. But it does not tell us how we should face it.

=========================================

Discussing mathematics is difficult, and if you have been offended by this discussion, I apologise. The reason I have written this is that I feel it is important that we all try to understand what is happening.

COVID-19: Day 121: Reasons to be cheerful. One, Two, Three.

May 1, 2020

Warning: Discussing death is difficult, and if you feel you will be offended by this discussion, please don’t read any further.
========================================

Today – May 1st – is Day 121 of 2020 and I greet this day with a lightness of spirit I have not experienced for many years.

Why do I feel so good? Because yesterday I left NPL! That’s the first reason to be cheerful!

I’ll write more about my disaffection with NPL in due course, but for now let’s take another look at the data on the pandemic. And there we find two more reasons to be cheerful!

Back to the Pandemic

On Day 111 of 2020, the rate at which people were being admitted to hospital with COVID-19 (Pillar 1 test results) was declining, but slowly. A linear fit to the trend indicated that zero admissions would not be reached until roughly day 165 of 2020: 14th June:

Slide5

Re-plotting the same data today, Day 121 of 2020, the same linear fit suggests that zero admissions will be reached around day 145 of 2020: 25th May 2020 – three weeks earlier!

So the decline in the rate of cases is steeper than it initially appeared – that is a second reason to be cheerful!

Slide3

So when should we end the ‘Lock Down’?

Looking at the graph above it might seem that extending the lock-down out to day 145 would be appropriate. But in fact, it could make good sense to begin opening up well in advance of that. Why?

Yesterday (Day 120), 3059 people were Pillar-1 tested with COVID-19 as they entered hospital. These people were infected typically 18 days previously i.e. around day 102.

If the rate of Pillar-1 tested admissions is declining at 700 cases per week now, then this must be because roughly 18 days previously, new infections were declining at the same rate. So we can plot the implied rate of infection.

Slide4

The implication of this analysis is that the rate of new infections across the entire UK is currently close to zero.

If, out of a sense of precaution, we allowed (say) 10 days more, then it seems to me that there would be very little risk in opening things up after, perhaps, day 137 – May 11th.

Except…

I have not included any analysis of care homes and similar care settings in this or any of my earlier blogs. But it seems that a disaster is still unfolding there.

Aside from the disaster of events in care homes in themselves, the presence of ‘hot’ infection sites leaves open the possibility of seeding further cases among residents, carers, and all who come into contact with them.

===========================

Discussing death is difficult, and if you have been offended by this discussion, I apologise. The reason I have written this is that I feel it is important that we all try to understand what is happening.

COVID-19: Day 108: Still concerned

April 18, 2020

Warning: Discussing death is difficult, and if you feel you will be offended by this discussion, please don’t read any further.

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This is a short update from my previous posts (12, 3).

Slide3

Day 108 of 2020

On April 11th (Day 101) I correctly predicted that there would be no fall in COVID-19 hospital deaths this week just past.

My reasoning was that mortality from COVID-19 hospital admissions is around 20% and so 20% of new ‘Cases’ become ‘Deaths’ after 6 days on average.

The gist of this post is that the flat trend in COVID-19 cases has continued today, and that means that – to the extent the correlation I have observed continues to hold – the flat trend in deaths will continue for the next 6 days at least.

This means that by day 114 (April 24th) the death toll will exceed 20,000 – and we are still weeks away from substantially reducing new cases and getting back to work.

Given where the UK started – with a few days notice compared to other European countries – this represents a very bad outcome.

As some correspondents on my previous post pointed out, we urgently need to find the source of these ongoing infections and stop them.

Updated graphs

Slide1

The above graph shows various statistics plotted versus the day of the year.

  • the blue curve shows the daily published number of COVID-19 cases.
  • the red curve shows the daily number of COVID-19 deaths in hospital.
  • the black dotted line shows the predicted number of deaths based on 20% case mortality after 6 days.

Slide2

The above graph shows various statistics plotted versus the day of the year.

  • the blue curve shows the running total of COVID-19 cases.
  • the red curve shows the running total COVID-19 deaths in hospital.
  • the black dotted line shows the predicted number of deaths based on 20% case mortality after 6 days.

===========================

Discussing death is difficult, and if you have been offended by this discussion, I apologise. The reason I have written this is that I feel it is important that we all try to understand what is happening.

UK Corona Virus Deaths in Context

April 3, 2020

Yesterday, April 2nd 2020, 684 people died from COVID-19 in UK hospitals.

But when we look back at 2020, we will see that the number of people dying in the UK was not significantly different from any other year. 

Really?

Yes Really. The graph below shows the number of recorded deaths in the UK from 1890 to 2018.

Slide2I was surprised by this number being so relatively constant (around 600,000) over this long period despite the doubling of the UK population (shown against the right-hand axis).

A reasonable estimate of the worst-case outcome of the pandemic, is that 20,000 people will die from COVID-19 in the UK this year.  I have shown the effect of this on the graph above. The detail shown in the green box is re-drawn below.

Slide1

The year-to-year variability over the period 2018 to 1990 is approximately ±11,000 deaths, and year-to-year variations in annual deaths of between 20,000 and 30,000 are common. See for example the 32,000 “extra deaths” in 2015 compared with 2014.

Fitting a trend line to the data from 2011 to 2018 we can estimate what would have been the likely number of deaths in 2020, and then see the effect of an additional 20,000 deaths. These are shown as two filled red dots.

So as I said at the start, when we look back at 2020, we will see that the number of people dying in the UK was not significantly different from any other year. 

But if that’s the case why all the fuss?

I am writing this because according to many media, the death of 20,000 people from COVID-19 represents a national failure. I disagree.

The actions we have already taken, and the tens of billions of pounds we have collectively spent, have already saved the lives of thousands – and probably tens of thousands – of people.

If we had not acted, then we would be looking at excess deaths on the order of hundreds of thousands of people –  as seen in the 1919 ‘Spanish Flu’ – or even more.

What next?

Based on my crude analysis, and assuming the “lock-down” has been very effective, then I expect the number of deaths per day to rise until approximately 11th April 2020.

The New York Times Tracker below shows that the UK’s ‘death curve’ is similar to Italy’s and so the final toll – which will not be reached until the end of April – looks like being close to, but slightly less than 20,000. Better outcomes are still possible.

Until then, I urge you to Keep Calm and Carry On.

CV Deaths in context

Data Sources

 

 

 

Thoughts on UK corona virus

March 27, 2020

Well I didn’t see this coming!

And even now – as we all hunker down – I can scarcely believe it.

I struggled like many to make sense of the magnitude of what was happening, oscillating between a “this isn’t really very serious” and concern that “this really might be catastrophic“.

Eventually I understood that this was in fact very serious. I am writing this to try to express clearly my own understanding and explain why, slightly to my surprise, I am feeling positive about the UK’s response.

My sources of information have been:

In looking at the data I have ignored statistics about ‘cases’ or ‘hospitalisations’ because these terms are not clearly defined – and the true scale of the epidemic is still unknown. I have – grimly – only concentrated on deaths.

7000 UK lives saved so far

Deaths in the UK from Corona virus are shown below. The data were complete today 27th March 2020 and the national ‘lock down’ began on 22nd March, day 81 of the year. The deaths reported here would have been from people who were ill before the ‘lock down’.

UK CV deaths in contextThe vertical scale on the graph is logarithmic and can be tricky to read, but this type of graph allows one to  see the trends in data more clearly.

In particular – the rapid so-called exponential – growth typical of the early stages of an epidemic appears as a straight line, and the slope of the line tells us the time for the number of deaths to double.

If we extrapolate from data around day 74 – just two weeks ago – we might have plausibly expected many thousands of deaths by now. But looking at current data (day 85) we see the trend has significantly changed. So whatever we did – social distancing etc – has saved by my estimate around 7000 lives already.

I emphasise this because media coverage speaks only of failure and death. They make it seem like we are paying a great economic cost pointlessly. In fact, the price we are paying is high – but unless my understanding is flawed, we have already saved many lives.

I expect the initial three weeks of this current ‘lock down’ (out to day 102 in the year) will achieve more, but I think it will be extended, and there may a ‘super strict’ phase. The international lesson (see below) is that it takes around 6 weeks of the strictest measures to control the spread of the virus.

The above graphic is from the New York Times and is updated daily. It charts the number of deaths versus the time since the 25th death in that particular country.

(Link to New York Times Tracker)

What happens next?

Nobody knows. It’s the future and it is notoriously unpredictable, even guided by the experience of other countries (above).

But using the epidemic modeler we can make some guesses.

UK Epidemic Model

I took the basic numbers describing the spread of the virus from the internet (R0 = 2.4 etc.) and assumed there were 10 initial ‘seeds’ in the UK population of 66 million. I then chose the date of ‘lock down’ (Day 67 in the model but day 81 in the year) such that the death rate matched the observed death rate – about 50 deaths per day.

For a wide range of parameters, the model predicts that the peak in hospitalisations will occur in two to three weeks time – and there will be about 5 times as many patients as there are now.

It looks like the field hospital being built in the ExCel centre is likely to be required. Also around 10,000 intensive care beds may be required – more than twice those currently available (New Scientist Article) but this number is being increased rapidly.

  • So the model tells me to expect it to all get worse for about another two weeks. 

Of course a model is just a model, and people are not uniformly distributed around the country. In fact London, with about one eighth the population of the UK has about a third of cases. So the situation is likely to be worst in London.

So I expect that things will get worse. And the death toll will rise to probably between 10,000 and 20,000. But I feel it is important to bear in mind the actions we have taken will have saved hundreds of thousands of people from a premature death in the most appalling of circumstances.

Each year in the UK roughly 500,000 people die, and so – while each death is a loss – the likely death toll is … I can’t find the right word. But it is typical of the number of excess deaths from flu in a bad year.

Could we have acted sooner?

Technically, Yes. But – and I am not an apologist for this government – I think nobody could quite believe the scale of what was required, or the rate at which things were changing around the world.

By the time of the ‘lock down’, public opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of it, but even one week earlier that might not have been the case. If such an epidemic happens again, then I think our collective memory of the crisis will allow for much earlier action. This seems to be the case in countries in the Far East that successfully battled SARS and prevented it becoming a pandemic.

By the end of the year, our collective actions will have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. The epidemic modeler predicts that if the government had acted:

  • one week earlier, the death toll would have been ~5,000 rather than ~10,000.
  • one week later, the death toll would have been ~25,000 rather than ~10,000

In the longer term…

It is important to realise that even when the epidemic subsides – the corona virus will still be out there. When the social restrictions are lifted, the epidemic will grow again, until a vaccine is distributed.

Our experience of the crisis is likely to affect us collectively in too many ways to comment on here, but I am hopeful that this will have a positive effect both socially, and in our response to the climate crisis.

  • Air travel: This may never be the same. Ongoing quarantine regulations may yet mean that we might have already experienced peak-air. Wow!
  • Teleworking: Working from home and collaboratively across sites – organisations on the edge of adopting the technology will have been forced to do it. Vast numbers of commutes and business trips could be saved.
  • Cars: I am really enjoying quieter streets and I feel it will be hard to return the noise of even two weeks ago. Could the tide have turned against ‘excessive’ car use?
  • What government can do: We have seen that our government can act in dramatic ways with broad social support and – if we want it too – it can spend unbelievably large amounts of money on policies that people want, but which are not popular with many strong lobby groups.

Enough

I wish you all well wherever you are.

I am thinking in particular of colleagues in Italy and Spain where matters seem to be worse than in the UK, and of colleagues from China who have reached out to me with moving kindness.

Why no blog?

March 27, 2020

In case anyone cared or noticed

Sorry I haven’t been touch lately. I have been having a miserable time at work and found it hard to settle to other tasks requiring concentration. Like writing coherently.

I had hoped to work on for another year or two, but in the end, I just couldn’t bear the thought of it and I will now be leaving NPL at the end of April. With just 15 working days left I can feel my spirits rising.

And then hopefully my enthusiasm for writing will return.

Michael

 

 

Research into Nuclear Fusion is REALLY a waste of money.

December 4, 2019

In the previous post I argued that…

Research into Nuclear Fusion is a waste of money

I felt pleased with this article – writing it helped to clarify my thoughts.

In particular (although I didn’t  express this as clearly as I wanted to) I realised that it wasn’t just the specific overwhelming technological problems that made Fusion Research a bad idea. Any power generation scheme that is that complex and expensive will inevitably never be built. I illustrated this with a quote I heard some time ago.

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

It was only after I had written the article that a colleague at work pointed out another article that said the same thing.

Why fusion will never happen

Distressingly, this article is much more clearly written.

It was published by Maury Markowitz in 2012, and amusingly illustrates Fusion Power with a picture of a unicorn jumping over a rainbow. 

art_trade__unicorn_and_rainbow_by_royalty_9-d2y1jq1

Fusion Power (from Matter 2 Energy)

Since then the fundamental truth has only become truer.

I feel a certain sadness in acknowledging that this long-hoped-for technology will never materialise.

But once understood, there is only one rational path of action: we should stop throwing good money after bad and stop funding fusion research right now. 

 

S

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 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

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.


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