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  1. “UK will devote at least £500” that sounds indeed very “cheap” 🙂

    On a more serious note, I wonder how long Amber Rudd is going to stay in office considering all the resignations and confusion in the british government.

    1. @nreverse

      Of that £500 in innovation research, at least half (> £250) will be going to innovation in nuclear energy. The vast amounts needed to build the 18 GW of nuclear that’s already in the pipeline and the advanced nuclear systems, like SMRs, Prism, etc that are not yet in the development pipeline is not included in that research figure. It’s also worth noting that the figure is described as a minimum.

      Compare it to the piddling amounts that the much larger US is investing in advanced nuclear research, and it’s not so small.

      1. I’m just saying that there is something missing because £500 something like 650 US Dollar. Maybe £500000 or 500 million but 500 alone can’t be right.

  2. Sorry, Rod, I don’t agree about fusion. (Fusion guy here.)

    Fusion and fission people should be on the same side, here; they have the same opposition. Radiation fearmongering hits both groups hard, poorly-disguised anti-growth ideologues hit both groups hard, and fossil fuel money will land just as hard on the fusion people once we get a viable product running.

    Personally, I started defending fission largely because it was the front line against the people who are going to try to knock out fusion later on. The Lend-Lease principle.

    Right now, fusion research is still in the stage of trying to characterize plasma physics more completely (electron-ion interactions, for example). ITER will be a great place to do research on plasmas that are in thermodynamic equilibrium: refine models, develop and test better materials, train O&M people, and other research reactor tasks. That’s all it’s for, and almost any fusion reactor that ultimately is built will use the research data it produces. It is absolutely not a waste of money if fusion power ever works.

    Will it work? Eventually, yes – it’s a 100% certainty. For starters, DEMO clearly will work, but equally clearly won’t be economical. A straight scale-up isn’t the only option, though. For example, a fusion reactor could be built that uses a spherical array of discrete electrodes (pointing inward, of course) to compress a plasma. Since these electrodes would be positively charged, they would remove electrons from the plasma, greatly reducing bremsstrahlung losses, and since the plasma would not contact the electrodes under normal operating conditions, the grid-collision losses that prevent fusors from hitting breakeven would be eliminated. Control would be achieved by rapidly (very rapidly) switching these electrodes on and off, pushing any instabilities in the plasma back into place. Now, I don’t have supercomputer access, so I can’t run a full model, but all the physics I know indicates that it will work – and scale down, too. These won’t be billion-dollar machines; my design basis is an 800 watt unit.

    So why don’t we build one? Computing power. A control computer for such a device would need to be tens of millions of times faster than any available today. A clock tens of millions of times faster than today’s computers would be optical, not electronic, but there’s no reason you can’t build an optical computer. Eventually, somebody will do it. When it happens, fusion power *will* (not may, *will*) happen. (If it doesn’t happen before then, that is. There are literally hundreds of designs for small fusion reactors, most of which haven’t been tested due to a lack of computer time and test stands.)

    And when it does happen, sticking together will help both fission and fusion. Since we will (again, *will*) be facing the same opposition, why not? Why form a circular firing squad? How does that help anyone?

    In the meantime, is fusion taking away funding or people from fission? Not really, except for construction resources, and there’s enough of that around for everyone. Plasma physics and fission reactor physics are substantially different, so the people doing fusion research wouldn’t be doing fission research anyway. Similarly, given how hard it is to get any money for fission research, which could be increased by a factor of ten by cleaning out the DOD’s couch cushions, do you really think fusion is taking that money away? If it weren’t going to fusion, it would go to some other non-nuclear project. I say congratulations to anybody in the nuclear field, fusion or fission, who can get grant money in this political climate.

    If you’re trying to build alliances, don’t push away the few people who are already in your corner. Let’s work together.

    1. @Stewart Peterson

      It’s good to hear from you. It’s been a very long time since I interviewed you for Atomic Show #065 in 2007. I can tell from your comment a little about what you’ve been up to. As I recall without doing any look-ups, you were quite young and at the beginning of your formal higher education journey.

      We’ll have to agree to disagree about fusion. My research tells me that it is absolutely drawing funds away from fission and distracting smart people (like yourself) into research with no hope of producing useful power within the next several decades instead of building knowledge and a career in the far more useful field of advanced fission reactors.

      Fission might not be as interesting from a purely physics research perspective, but then I’m not terribly interested in plasmas or systems that cannot function without computing power that is several orders of magnitude greater than what is available today. I don’t see any possibility that such systems can be built and operated by mere mortals like the dedicated, intelligent, hard-working people I worked with on nuclear powered submarines.

      From an alliance perspective, there’s no sense connecting fission power developers with a group that is even more needy and less capable of supplying necessary financial resources. I’m aiming for the big bucks in energy; when ExxonMobil, Shell and BP recognize the advantages of shifting their annual CAPEX from digging new wells in remote areas to a serious effort to develop strength in clean energy production, I want them to invest in nuclear fission.

      1. Rod,

        Good to hear from you too. (It indeed has been a while, and your recollection is accurate.)

        We’ll probably disagree about the likelihood of fusion power working anytime soon, and probably also about whether a person should enter the field or not. But I don’t see why that has to become a debate about which side is allowed to continue to exist. Please show us your research, if it’s public information – you’ve been closer to the budget process than I ever have been, by a long shot, but I have never seen or even heard of anyone on the fusion side lobbying against funding for fission research. The vast majority of people on the fusion side, if asked what should be done right now, say “well, fission, of course.” Most are also willing to speak openly in favor of fission, if they had an effective forum to do so.

        Nor were the people on the fusion side ever inclined to work on fission, unfortunately. Most are electrical engineers or pure physics people, who would never have even majored in nuclear engineering in college. Those who did tended to focus on radiation interaction with matter and radiation metrology. There’s usually a fission track in these programs, and they didn’t take it, almost always because they weren’t interested in it from a technical perspective. There wasn’t a career calculation involved, for the most part.

        On the management side: it’s natural to not be interested in something that cannot be built today if you’re trying to solve today’s problems, but if you have a solution in hand that depends on the future development of a technology that currently does not exist but physically can be done – and you have no other feasible paths to solving the problem – why not solve as much of the problem as you can right now and then shelve it? Later on, when the part or subsystem you need comes along, and other people are looking at it with bafflement and wondering what you could do with it – well, you have a solution that you can run with. Now, of course that’s not good engineering when facing a well-defined problem, variants of which have been done before, but I’d argue that it’s good R&D when facing a hairy problem and no real answers.

        Can real people do it? Absolutely. Every lab in the world with a vacuum system and a high-voltage power supply can do it, and a few people have established the infrastructure themselves. (Check out fusor.net for the open-source fusion community.) The difference between current practice and the as-yet-unknown right answer is electrode geometry – a big difference, of course – but construction and operation is down pat, at least for small fusion reactors. A working small fusion power reactor – like the one I described – would have a different field configuration and therefore different electrode geometry, and there may be changes to the power supply, including computerized controls, but it would have to be a very unusual design for it to pose any construction or operating problems that haven’t already been encountered by generations of vacuum tube technicians.

        And – there are things the fusion people can and do bring to the table other than money. Far more people support fusion than fission, for example. These people are generally not the most anti-fission people in the world; that is, they’re philosophically OK with what nuclear power of either type will bring, and generally have been fed bad info about fission. (In other words: “do you support fusion” is a good filter to keep out back-to-the-land ideologues.) That means that if they’re organized to support fusion by a group that also supports fission, they are more likely than not to go with the flow and lend their support to the group’s pro-fission work, too. When in that group, they also will hear discussions about fission, learn more about it, and grow to support it. Think about environmentalists who care about wildlife and only wildlife, for example, and go along with the anti-nuclear party line. They do so either because (a) nuclear power isn’t an important enough issue to them to distract them from the common cause of saving wildlife – to prevent them from working with anti-nuclear activists in that common cause – and/or because (b) they’ve worked with anti-nuclear activists long enough to see them as sensible people and consequently trust their colleagues’ judgment of nuclear power as being a bad idea. Usually there’s some combination of the two, and note that neither involves being an encyclopedia of anti-nuclear rhetoric, but that the psychological effect is very strong. People are very reluctant to see “their kind of people” – sensible people from similar cultural backgrounds and life experiences and with otherwise good judgment – as all simultaneously making an obviously bad decision. They tend to trust those people, and go along with them: after all, it’s worked in the past. Basically, the effect is to become trustworthy. As long as the other side is trustworthy and we’re right, the only people we’ll get on our side are professional skeptics, and that’s the small group we already have. Getting another allied group to work with you on a similar cause is how you develop trust by accretion. It’s a political move, not a direct business partnership – much like the difference between marketing and sales, you’re not trying to make the pitch in that moment, but trying to establish a good working relationship with someone to whom you could later make the pitch. It’s why real politicians join the Elks Club and so on: not to get the coveted Elks Club vote, but to get a gut feeling for who knows whom in the community and what values blocs exist, which they can then use when they need to make their pitch.

        Finally, while I also want the petrochem majors to invest in fission, you and others have convinced me that it’s not in their best interest and why: it’s a lot more profitable to extract, refine, and sell expensive fuel for which you don’t have to pay very much at the wellhead than to make a significant new upfront investment in a plant and make a small profit on the difference between that cost and the electricity price. Has this reasoning changed? Furthermore, even if it did make business sense for them, it would take a lot of time for (and this sounds silly, but it happens in big organizations where there isn’t a lot of horizontal talk across departments) socialization to occur and everyone to realize that it’s now OK to talk about a topic while still sounding sensible. Only then can the CEO act without the decision getting watered down by well-meaning layers of middle management who assume that what he/she said cannot possibly be what he/she meant, given other things he/she has said in the past. (Presumably you’ve seen enough of this happen to know what I’m talking about.) Sure, nuclear energy is the long-term answer, and the fossil fuel companies know it too – but don’t they have a financial interest in resisting it as long as humanly possible and a corporate structure that is predisposed to do so? Isn’t that why you have “smoking gun” posts?

    2. To Stewart Peterson
      Let me put my own position into words.

      I believe in a “money for all promising areas of research” approach, and that includes solar, wind, various fission, various fusion, batteries, etc.

      However, if you start saying stuff like “it’s guaranteed to work, 100%”, that gives ammunition to anti-fission people today to use this as an excuse to not use fission today to fix today’s global warming and ocean acidification problems. I’m with Rod Adams – AFAICT from the outside, fusion is nowhere close to ready, and no one can reliably tell me when it’ll even have a 50% chance of being ready.

      Whereas, for some fission designs, such as IFR, and especially ThorCon, I believe that they are ready, in that we could be in mass production in 5 or 10 years time with high degrees of confidence, like 80 or 90%.

      Fusion can continue to get research money. However, we need to set our priorities appropriately, and I think fixing global warming and ocean acidification, and solving for energy security, which also solves for no need for foreign wars for oil, and also general environmental pollution such as airborne particulates which kill millions of people every year, etc. – given all of that, I think we should prioritize that money to the solutions which look ready /now/, and that means conventional fission reactors, and as fast as we can go on IFR and ThorCon. These are problems that cannot wait for a decade or two. These are problems that need to be fixed now. Again, just the airborne particulate pollution alone kills millions every year, and every year we delay with this massive nuclear rollout is another year of millions more dead from easily preventable lung and heart problems (IIRC).


      1. John Smith,

        An IFR-derived reactor (SuperPRISM) is ready right now, and I’m a big supporter of certifying it and building as many as possible. The key is, though, that it doesn’t need much, if any, government money; it’s ready. A national electricity grid, run by a public authority (or a regulated monopoly, or an association of electricity producers that had to admit any power producer), with a billing structure that sold *access* to electricity as a service, directly to the consumer and from any power producer or combination of producers, would reflect the strengths of baseload power sources and, along with an FAA-style regulatory structure, would cause a stampede to nuclear power.

        Trade that off with an agreement that no new plant would be allowed to be a net producer of nuclear waste until, say, 90% of the long-lived synthetic transuranics were gone, and the stampede would go to IFRs. Maybe the government issues a loan guarantee to the first couple of plants, but once it clearly works well, why wouldn’t private industry pay for it all? (Especially if power producers can raise prices to buy the equipment, like every other business in the world is allowed to do.)

        So – where’s the conflict? Get out of the way of the IFR (and any other reasonably OK reactor designs, meaning any that are remotely under consideration today), and fund fusion research too. “It will, 100%, work someday once we solve the technical problems, since there’s no law of physics keeping us from doing this and we just need to find the best answer” doesn’t seem like too zealous a sales pitch to me. It’s roughly what’s used to promote every research field, especially in biomedical research.

        Now, given the anti-growth mentality of anti-nuclear activists, I’m willing to bet that they aren’t going to push fusion to defeat fission; both feel equally “yucky” to most anti-nuclear activists. If that judgment call is the difference between our views on this issue, that’s a different discussion; I think we both agree that both fusion and fission research should be funded, and that fission is the answer right now, to a problem that needs to be solved right now.

        I’ll give you a time estimate for fusion: as soon as a computer is available that is fast enough, assuming someone had the foresight to do the detail design and write the control code in advance, it would take me (or anyone else) about $30,000 and 90 days to get the machine I described up and running. (As in any other project, you can trade time for money; given two years to build parts instead of buying them, it could be done for about $5,000.) Let’s say it runs into unforeseen problems or the control code has serious bugs: maybe two years? Let’s say we’re going from a dead stop: five years? If I were given those resources and that timeframe and told to get results immediately, I would build a general-purpose test stand and do a series of 90-day sprints, trying the different untested configurations in the literature. I would start with the two other configurations I have on the drawing board, and then I would open it up to the world, disclosing the electrical, chemical, and vacuum characteristics of the equipment and testing any configuration that the community could come up with. One might work, and at this point, a crazy idea out of the blue is the only thing that would get concrete results in less than 10 years, but I wouldn’t personally bet on it – that’s why I’m a proponent of the systematic plasma-physics approach.

        If we’re talking about DEMO, the over-under among people in the field is 2045. There’s now enough construction experience with tokamaks to project how long it will take to build one and not look like an idiot; ITER’s startup date plus 12 (error bars: 10-15) years is reasonable. Of course, if ITER slips, DEMO does, too…

        For now, let’s go build some SMRs.

        1. @Stewart Peterson

          There’s an ironclad rule understood by all honest budget analysts/requirements action officers – money can only be spent one time. Creating a budget is a zero sum game. Even if the budgetary authority is allowed to run a deficit, there is a fixed limit on how large that number can be.

          Therefore, money spent on any project must necessarily mean that it is not available to be spent on another project. That ironclad rule becomes even more important if both projects fall under the same general spending account; the tradeoff cannot be made less visible by taking tiny amounts from dozens to hundreds of other programs in different accounts. The people in charge of those other accounts zealously protect their allowed resources and distribute them over their assigned responsibilities.

          My beef with fusion is that its proponents have been selling it as an ENERGY investment. That means that it gets funded by the same segment of the budget as fission energy, even though fission has been producing reliable, controllable, emission-free, abundant power for more than 60 years. R&D for fission is necessary to make it a better servant of mankind; basic research is needed for fusion to simply make it work on a repeatable, reliable basis. Those are totally different endeavors and should be funded from completely different segments of the budget.

          1. How far away should they be from each other, in your opinion? (IOW, please define “segment.”) How far away does it have to be in order to not interfere? There isn’t a basic research agency, so all basic research proposals have to sell themselves as having an application somewhere. Undoubtedly, energy will be the application for fusion, once it works – so off to the DOE go the fusion grant proposals.

            The DOE manages a lot of things that aren’t directly producing energy – the NNSA, for example, has nothing to do with energy unless you count submarine propulsion. The NNSA itself is a great example of government disorganization; everything with the word “nuclear” attached to it, with a military customer, was lumped together even though they have nothing to do with each other. That doesn’t mean that those missions are inherently in conflict.

            Now, I recognize there’s a difference between an appropriation vs. money being allocated out of a line item. As far as I can tell, you’re talking about two groups fighting over the allocation of money out of a line item. If, however, there’s an appropriation for fusion, it’s not coming out of any other part of the budget; if the appropriation hadn’t been made, the government would just be in a little less debt. Congress doesn’t care about thousands or even millions; you and I do, but they don’t. No lobbyist has ever argued for money to be taken away from one agency and given to another agency; that’s how you make enemies out of the other agency’s supporters, and why do that, if Congress is willing to run a deficit anyway? Just ask for the (deficit-increasing) appropriation, don’t try to make it budget-neutral, and don’t attack anyone else – isn’t that how small line items sneak through?

            Yes, it drives balanced-budget supporters (like me) nuts that this stuff happens in Congress, but isn’t that how it happens? I’m all ears, but the system would have to work much differently from how I’ve been led to understand that it works, in order for me to be wrong on this.

            1. @Stewart Peterson

              No lobbyist has ever argued for money to be taken away from one agency and given to another agency; that’s how you make enemies out of the other agency’s supporters, and why do that, if Congress is willing to run a deficit anyway? Just ask for the (deficit-increasing) appropriation, don’t try to make it budget-neutral, and don’t attack anyone else – isn’t that how small line items sneak through?

              I spent nine years on the inside of the budget and spending process of the Federal Government. Your understanding is inaccurate, but I don’t want to take the time to provide a staff lesson this morning.

              Suffice it to say that appropriations for spending follow budget authorizations. Any funds that get appropriated for a project that was not part of the original budget authorization computation and justification process must be taken from a program that was part of the process. The only exceptions to that rule are in “supplementals” that are mainly focused on national security or war fighting.

              I can’t tell you how many lobbyists I dealt with while I was in DC who pretended not to know that their efforts to obtain “earmarked” funds for special research and development projects were harmful to programs that were actually needed. In my case, explaining this could get a little uncomfortable when the lobbyist wasn’t a registered lobbyist, but a newly hired “business development” executive for a company like Booz Allen, EDS, Boeing, etc.

              A high portion of those BD executives were relatively recently retired O-6 or flag officers who still had lots of friends in high places. At least three separate times, I was strongly encouraged to set up a meeting and listen to the pitches by the guy who signed my fitness report because he was a friend of one of those defense R&D salesmen. Fortunately, I was a “terminal” O-5 without any designs on promotion and also without any risk of being fired as long as I did my job properly.

              Based on conversations with other staffers at other agencies, the budget/appropriation process as influenced by lobbyists who move through revolving doors works in similar fashion throughout the government.

              Commentary about the Department of “Energy” would need a full length book.

          2. While I am perfectly ready to defer to your judgment, I’m trying to understand what part you’re addressing. Do I understand correctly that it’s not the Congressional side, but the allocation of money from within line items? Or is it the preparation of the budget request?

            I’m also still wondering where you believe basic research should get money from. (Personally – I’ve never submitted a grant proposal, so I’m not the enemy here. I’ve always asked myself, “is this project important enough that the government should forcibly take other people’s money and give it to me?” I’ve never been able to answer “yes.”)

            1. @Stewart Peterson

              I’ll defer on your first question. Not much time available.

              Basic research shouldn’t be Big Science needing many billions over decades before results are available. Finding money should be less political and less about jobs programs for an oversupply of PhDs and more about genuine curiosity about focused questions. IMO, of course.

  3. Lenka’s comments on how the anti-nuclear side will now have more influence in continental Europe concerns me. The part about their blackmailing Eastern Europe into avoiding nuclear (in order to gain entrance into the EU) disgusts me. (Not that I didn’t already know about it.)

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