A submission made to Oxfordshire Green Party in 2005 as a first step to getting the National Green Party to change its policy concerning the use of nuclear technology for the production of electrical power.
One of many things that had struck me after living abroad most of my working life was the remarkable level of ignorance and indeed phobia amongst the general British public concerning nuclear technology. This even extended as far as the nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) imaging device having to be rechristened a 'Magnetric Resonance Imaging' (MRI) to avoid adverse public reaction to the word 'nuclear' in the description of what is a very safe way of imaging internal parts of the human body.
My thinking was that if such a polictical group as the Green Party, who were so vehemently opposed to the use of nuclear power, could in the light of reason be made to favour at least nuclear fusion technology, then perhaps the media and Britain's larger and more powerful parties could be made to take notice and perhaps begin to educate themselves to usefully benefit all.
The effort has so far fallen on 'stony ground'.
Date: September 2005
Power from Nuclear Fusion Technology
Green Party (GP) strategy condemns all nuclear plants. I believe this is wrong. We should support fusion types.
The Two Basic Types of Nuclear Power Plant
There are basically two types of nuclear reactor; a) fission types, and b) fusion types. All of the world’s commercial reactors built to date have been of the fission type. Research work has been done on the fusion type for many decades but no commercial fusion type has yet been built. However, things are about to change. There is a plan to build the world’s first commercial fusion reactor in France.
Fission reactors, the type currently in commercial operation, obtain their energy by smashing heavy atoms, e.g. uranium. The process produces a variety of lighter atoms, particles and radiation which are radioactively life threatening both while the reactor is in operation and for up to hundreds of years, or more, after the reactor has been decommissioned. Fission reactors are inherently hazardous --- a major technological problem being to stop them ‘running away’ and turning into a bomb. The primary feedstock for fission reactors tends to be located mainly in politically sensitive areas, e.g. Namibia.
Fusion reactors produce their energy by joining light atoms together to make heavier ones. Their by-products are far more predictable and controllable so that these types of reactor are inherently vastly less life threatening, than fission types, both while in operation and as far as residues are concerned. The waste products can typically be recycled within a hundred years. Fusion reactors are basically ‘fail safe’. A major technological problem with this type of reactor is to overcome its natural tendency to keep stopping. The feedstock for fusion reactors, e.g. hydrogen and lithium, are more readily available. Both are contained in small but useful quantities of most igneous rocks, which exist in many locations in the world.
Mankind’s Thirst for Energy
The human race requires an enormous amount of power to sustain its ‘civilisation’. Some of the composite civilisations that contribute to the world ‘civilisation’, and many individuals within those composite civilisations, consume vastly more energy than others. This is a separate point which will not be address here. The point being focussed on here is what might be called the collective rate of energy consumption, or power consumption, of the ‘world civilisation’. Much can be done to reduce it, e.g. by the use of; natural air and water movement, solar power, heat pumps and better insulation, but still there will be an enormous demand. However, even the deployment of such as a few wind turbines is opposed by many on environmental grounds; lack of aesthetic appeal, noise, and damage to bird life, yet great numbers of them will be required to make a large, but still inadequate, contribution to man’s current energy needs.
The use of fossil fuels, the world’s major source of power at present, has many disadvantages. They are; of finite extent, pollute by way of particulate matter and noxious gases, and promote global warming. They are also the most wasteful possible use of valuable mineral resources. For example natural gas, predominantly methane is a very valuable feedstock for fertilizer plants. To synthesise methane is in itself a major problem and very energy consuming. Oil is a valuable feed for many products; e.g. plastics and cosmetics, and coal is the ultimate treasure chest as a chemical starting point for countless materials. At present the human race is mesmerised by the pending energy shortage but the time will come, if we survive that long, that the high value of the products currently being so wastefully burnt will be realised and the action of our generation much criticised.
Globally the life threatening pollution caused by nuclear explosions, whether intentional or not, is potentially so wide spread that it is harmful for all life, including mankind, e.g. the Chernobyl ‘partial melt down’ in 1986. Because fission reactors can easily be used to make fuel for atomic bombs the world’s major powers, which possess nuclear fission technology, try to stop it being obtained by others which they think more likely to have an accident, use it in anger or, perhaps most importantly, threaten their hegemony. Hegemony which they wish to keep in order to maintain their own extraordinarily (compared to the rest of the world) energy wasteful life style. Fusion technology, if made commercially successful, will not readily lend itself to the making of bombs and is inherently almost incapable of producing widespread pollution. For this reason if developed in the west, where technology is currently most advanced in this area, there should be less ‘defendable’ incentive for it to be withheld from those currently less dominant, developing countries where power demand is currently rising most rapidly and to such high levels. From the west’s point of view there is also the possibility of developing an income from the sale of the high technology of fusion reactors to compensate for reduced sales of high technology arms --- should they chose to reduce such arms sales when ‘given’ this ‘half ‘chance! As such the sale of fusion technology could promote the overall well being of the planet and all life on it, whereas the west’s long standing and present practice of selling arms, and promoting political instability to encourage sales, often to help secure its own access to fossil fuels owned by others, serves to do the opposite.
Ever since man’s dependence on fossil fuels has required that he source them from beyond his own borders their gathering has been a political issue. For much of the last century to the present day the situation has been dire and the cause, or a major factor contributing to, most of the wars, particularly to their great geographical extent. The cases are too numerous to mention but include many conflicts and upheavals that may not, at first sight even seem to be so related, e.g. the Venezuelan revolution in the 1930’s, the second world war’s excursions into Romania, the Caucuses, Iraq and rest of the near and middle east, the war with Japan in the 40’s, the war between France Britain and Egypt in 1956, the Iranian revolution of the early 1950’s and late 70’s. The Iraqi wars of the 1920’s, 90’s and early new millennium. The source shortages and demands of energy hungry, profligate nations are getting worse. The pressures for conflict are increasing. Modern attitudes in the already industrialised societies and modern communications are making overt ventures by their governments, intent on securing their power requirements, more difficult to contain. The result is that their deceit and duplicity towards the very populations that put them in power are increasing. The fabric of society which we value is being destroyed by our own government’s attempts to satisfy short sighted popular demand at home (since we live in democracies) with the practical realities of achieving it, the maintenance and extension of hegemony.
It is easy to become so mesmerised by the potential hazards of nuclear power as to overlook the dangers and environment damaging consequences of the present sources of power. To alleviate the pressures on the feedstock requirement for present sources, e.g. oil and gas, can result in a net decrease in overall hazard to life on the planet even if that means for alleviating the pressure in itself contains risk. By way of example, the Americans have, to date, spent over 300 billion dollars (i.e. 3 x thousand, million dollars) on the 2nd Iraq War. Some US sources estimated these costs will rise to 2 trillion (i.e. 2 million, million dollars) by the time they have fully withdrawn from the country) The cost of rebuilding Iraq will cost much more than this. The war has been conducted by the profligate American’s, with British support, only because they know the money can be got back by taking Iraqi oil and gas. The ‘contracts’ for this have already been ‘set-up’ with 30 year irrevocable contracts --- irrespective of any regimes that might subsequently occupy Iraq ---- and to hopefully protect oil and gas recourses to the north and south of the country, i.e. the Gulf area and Kazakhstan and neighbouring states. Such 30 year contracts are of course technically impossible but, with the way international politics works, provide a thread to justify future invasion by the US if they find their long term balance sheet is not balancing in the way they wish.
Money represents resources. Irrespective of the tragedy of all the lives that have been lost, the war has been extremely expensive in terms of world resources that have been damaged and consumed. Further, the progressively more extensive, security measures that are being implemented in the world, particularly ‘the west’, are, besides taking away our freedoms, very expensive, e.g. greatly increased budgets for the various ‘security’ forces. Our governments attempts to recoup these, to satisfy, in the face of the bear pit of democratic debate, popular demand for the maintenance of living standards, inevitably requires, under present thinking, the further tightening of the screws of hegemony, the further exploitation and ‘destruction’ of the weaker nations, the further pressure to create asylum and economic refugees, the further increase in security forces, the further loss of our own liberties. The deceit of our own government is caused by these failing attempts to ‘square the circle’. Not all these problems can be addressed by the change in energy policy proposed here, but at least it is argued that it can make a contribution in the right direction when the larger picture is viewed and seen for what it is, as a whole.
Nationally Britain currently has a policy to ‘run down’ its nuclear reactors. Already Britain is a mere shadow of its former industrial self and a current, widely held view is that this is acceptable as we progress into being a predominantly ‘service economy’. I believe this focus on a service economy to be partly a fashion, and the time will come when we will realise, according to present trends too late, that we need to be as successful as possible on almost every business front, engineering included. Note, for example, that within the last ten years we have had to import large transformers for Didcot Power Station from Germany and railway trains for ‘Virgin’ from Italy because nobody in Britain could produce them. These are expensive, high technology items that need to be paid for with foreign currency. Also note, for example, that all large, multi-skilled, high tech. design construction contractor in the UK, of the sort capable of building such as oil refineries, are foreign owned, I think all American now. We have roughly a third of the number of nuclear power plants (fission type of course) of France or Germany and we are ‘running them down’. When, as I believe eventually will happen, fusion technology begins to grow and blossom Britain will have negligible foot in the technology and no people familiar with operating nuclear plant. Contrary to the politicians usual perception of industry and organisations it will not be possible to suddenly jump back into this technology and find the appropriately trained people. For Britain to advance into this new area it will have to import both at a premium and will inevitably do so with great inefficiency, e.g. the present government’s poor efforts to increase the capabilities of the NHS, an organisation that already had an enormous core on which to build. We, Britain, will also have missed the opportunity to benefit from the ‘band wagon’ of exporting the technology around the world.
The present government is keen to see the population better educated, particularly in science subjects. The fact is that throughout my life time physics, chemistry and engineering courses in UK universities have been steadily closing. The fact is that there have been progressively fewer industries with strong involvement in these subjects for students and university departments to help find financial support from. The fact is there are fewer jobs in the UK for such students to go into when they graduate. The fact is that the present government, contrary to its claims, does not indulge in ‘joined up thinking’ and coherent, synergetic policies. Neither, incidentally, do the two major opposition parties.
University departments, particularly in science and technology have limited capability if they are not a reflection of the surrounding society. Already the best future for those in science and engineering lies increasingly with the US, Japan and perhaps more so with India and China. Britain must at least look to maintaining what industrial base it has, least it truly becomes a ‘nation of shop keepers’. It needs to look to using such as nuclear fusion technology to maintain its ‘industrial momentum’, of manpower and ‘know how’, to swing from the branch of a viable past to the branch of a viable future.
It is worth noting that France which currently has about sixty nuclear power plants, and hence infrastructure, e.g. university departments, and skilled plant manpower, e.g. engineers and technicians, to support this has recently declared its intention to construct what is likely to be the world’s first fusion power plant capable of feeding power into the grid. As such they are aiming to do exactly what I describe above, use what they have to ‘swing’ into the future ---- with all the benefits that can bring.
Local For the last several decades the European centre for nuclear fusion research has been at Culham, near Abingdon. It is to be expected that those working on the project believe in nuclear fusion as a technology capable of producing nuclear power. It is therefore to be expected that they will not approve of the Green Party’s current blanket opposition to all methods of generating power from the atomic nucleus, but will approve of a policy that singles out the specific technology they are working on as a possible future candidate for commercial operation. If we the Green Party, more particularly the Oxfordshire Green Party and most specifically those wards that contain significant numbers of employees working at UKAEA Culham, support development of nuclear fusion technology for producing power, we can expect to benefit electorally. The fact is that with the French aiming to build a much larger facility of their own, see above, Culham is likely to be slowly ‘phased out’. Britain’s apathetic prevarication is loosing the initiative has only just hung onto until now. The decline of Culham, and the income it derives from European partners in the project, will take time. During that time we, the Oxfordshire Green Party, can benefit as described above. At best we can hope that our new stance concerning nuclear fusion technology will help promote an overall change in Britain’s position on this subject so that Culham will continue, for the foreseeable future, as a major research centre.
Green Party Profile and Publicity. Because the other major parties have as yet not endorsed nuclear fusion technology the Green Party, if it does so, will gain a significant amount of media interest. This will be greater now that it might have been some years ago because;
1. We have a significantly higher profile than before, so naturally attract more media attention.
2. We are a party that, to many people, seem rather extreme and impractical. However, over the years many of our policies have, or are being, accepted as realistic by progressively more people. The populace are therefore more likely to take notice when we advocate policies that may seem unusual at present. Many of those with the appropriate understanding, of which I believe there are more than immediately apparent, are likely to ‘show their colours’, or at least hold us in greater respect and gravitate to us, either immediately or over a period of time.
It might be noted that once the uncertainties of the last election (in May 2005) were over the Labour Government began trying to open up a pro-nuclear debate, because they see nuclear power as the only way to make up the large power deficit that is approaching. They are right to be concerned. By changing our stance to support the development of nuclear fusion technology we the Green Party, at least pick up an element of this to show ourselves to be more in touch with modern technology and were it might lead, than the present government, or other political parties, are.
I am not suggesting that we approve nuclear fusion technology for the sake of gaining media interest. Merely that to support it is the right thing to do. It is good forward thinking. A fortunate ‘spin off’ is likely to be that we do get good publicity, as viewed from a number of aspects, as outlined above.
Finally it needs to be pointed out that it is now over forty years that research has been carried out into producing electrical power using nuclear fusion technology. Progress has been made but there are still many problems and, as with all research into new technologies, the successful outcome is not guaranteed, either in purely technical terms or in terms of economic violability.
Part of the protracted length of the investigation so far has been caused by lack of political will hence, of course, money. Part of this lack of political will has been fostered by cheap oil and gas although, as has been pointed out above, there have been severe ‘hidden costs’ to obtain these. I propose that the Green Party not only ceases to oppose the development of nuclear power plants using fusion technology but actively supports their development as perhaps an attractive alternative to fossil fuel plants. The money needed to give the development program a large boost is small compared to, for example, the 300 billion plus US dollars already spent in just a few years on the 2nd Iraq War’, the several times more billions needed to repair the damage done by the ‘coalition forces’ in Iraq and the money needed to rebuild New Orleans because of the stupidity of allowing the city to develop on continuously sinking land which has long been below sea level. Even ten years ago my then undergraduate son studying geology told me that New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen. How much better did some specialists in the subject know of the stupidity of the development? It is better to make a conscious decision to pursue development programs that may, if things work out, produce almost nothing but benefits for those involved, and mankind as a whole, rather than flitter money, i.e. world resources, away on obviously foolish pursuits.
I propose that the Green Party supports the development of Nuclear Fusion Technology.
© John Stephen Battye 2005
2010 post script:
1. The Nobel Prize winning American economist Joseph Stiglits has subsequently estimated the cost of the Iraq war, for the agressors, to be three trillion (i.e. 3 million million) US dollars.
2. I notice that it seems that efforts by principlaly the US and UK Governments to hide the real cost of the war, has been a significant corntributary factor in causeing the subsequent financial crisis within those two countries and so arund the rest of the world.
3. The Oxfordshire Green Party not having taken the steps to get the Green Party of England and Wales to change its policy, in 2009 I sent the above article directly to The Green Party of England and Wales with the suggestion that they pusue the above suggestion.