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Lockheed-Martin apparently believes they are on the cusp of a breakthrough when it comes to nuclear fusion.  Color me skeptical, but very interested.

Fusion is what powers the sun, of course.  It also brings the promise of (relatively) clean nuclear energy, since the reaction products are not dangerous.  There remains radiation (and lots of it!) emitted during operation, and activation of materials in the reactor still occurs, but the production of radioactive isotopes as a consequence of the consumption of the fuel does not occur.  For this reason it is a dramatically superior nuclear process, but for one problem: it's damn hard to make happen, and thus obtaining more energy out, in commercially-viable amounts, than you put in has not been achieved.

It has always been "10 years" away from viability.  It was 50 years ago, 40, 30, 20 and now.  The reason for this is that creating the conditions under which fusion takes place requires an environment of extreme heat and pressure, and that takes energy to achieve.  You need to somehow not lose that energy put in to the environment or the reaction you get provides insufficient payback on your energy investment for your fusion reactor to make economic (and operational) sense.

I note that despite the alleged crowing if you read carefully you will find that Lockheed-Martin is not claiming that they have achieved an energy surplus, say much less a large one.  But they think they are on the path to do so.

If true, this would be revolutionary -- both in terms of the economic and geopolitical impacts.  Specifically, it marks the end of the "dig it out of the ground" oil economy as the only means of obtaining liquid hydrocarbons (you can make them from any carbon source, given available energy) and it further means that fresh water deficits can be cured, since there is no shortage (anywhere), nor will there ever be, of sea water.

If.

 

 

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One of the punchlines in my book Leverage is the following: Behind every unit of GDP is a unit of energy.

This is not conjecture or supposition, it is inescapable fact.  It also underlies the limit to what many claim is an "eternal" exponential capacity to grow an economic system; a fact that economists (including people like Yellen, Bernanke and more) just flat-out ignore.  Yet, as pointed out here, there's no cheating math -- or physics:

Allow me to explain why I am one of those scientists who are preoccupied with the physical. Economists are correct in saying that growth doesn't necessarily require more pollution, more carbon pumped into the atmosphere or more deforestation, even though we're getting all of the above today. Humans can learn, and we might figure out how to grow differently in the future, separating the benefits from the environmental costs.

There's just one crucial exception: energy.

Growth inevitably entails doing more stuff of one kind or another, whether it's manufacturing things or transporting people or feeding electricity to Facebook server farms or providing legal services. All this activity requires energy. We are getting more efficient in using it: The available data suggest that the U.S. uses about half as much per dollar of economic output as it did 30 years ago. Still, the total amount of energy we consume increases every year.

Yes, a bigger system might be more efficient but it is still bigger and still uses more.

The author of this piece appears to have bought into the globull-warming scam, but that's not material.  The fact of the matter is that there are no free lunches and yet the closest we can get to them in the energy realm all come from very, very large numbers -- specifically, E = MC^2.

"C", being a very large number itself, when squared is a monstrously-large number.  Thus, the ability to obtain very large amounts of energy from very small amounts of matter.

But even here, there is no free lunch.

Wake up folks....

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I seem to remember an entire section in Leverage on this....

The cost of conventional nuclear power has spiralled to levels that can no longer be justified. All the reactors being built across the world are variants of mid-20th century technology, inherently dirty and dangerous, requiring exorbitant safety controls.

This is a failure of wit and will. Scientists in Britain, France, Canada, the US, China and Japan have already designed better reactors based on molten salt technology that promise to slash costs by half or more, and may even undercut coal. They are much safer, and consume nuclear waste rather than creating more. What stands in the way is a fortress of vested interests.

What it really happens to be is a desire by governments to cost-shift civilian power to military budgets -- and the other way around!

You see, small, compact and powerful nuclear reactors, necessary for ships and submarines (due to size considerations) use the same fuel as do nuclear weapons, more or less.  That is, highly-enriched fuel is necessary for those reactors simply due to space considerations.

Commercial power reactors, on the other hand, have no need for that compact design and the problems that come with it (specifically, refueling such a reactor is quite dangerous, and if you screw up the results are catastrophic -- ask the Russians that have had at least one refueling accident that's known to the public, and probably more our spooks know about but the average person does not.)

We have had an alternative solution to the uranium-plutonium fuel cycle, which in commercial power comes with the use of high-pressure containment and water as a moderator/coolant, since the 1950s and 60s.  We proved this other nuclear cycle works at Oak Ridge.

The issue is not whether we can produce enough fuel to "feed" a uranium/plutonium cycle.  We can.  The issue is cost.  These designs are ridiculously expensive for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is the embedded cost of their waste, as they are very inefficient at burning up their reaction products and those products are extremely dangerous for ridiculous lengths of time.

This in turn means that the "quoted price" isn't really the price -- and the disposal problems are ones that people will try to defer.  We can no longer reasonably defer them, however, and this, plus the safety considerations, make the present designs untenable.

The Chinese aren't going to sit on their asses if we do.  They've decided to undertake what amounts to a Manhattan Project style development project over there, and if we don't cut the crap and get moving they are going to bury us on energy availability over the next 20 to 30 years.

All economic development and output rests on energy.  Delay on this account cannot be tolerated, because time is the one commodity you can never get back.

We know how to do this -- we developed it originally, and then sat on it for political reasons.  We are long past the time when we should take both the "No Nukes" whack-jobs and the political whackjobs that killed this path and make them sit on the nuclear waste their idiocy has produced - - and go build a smarter, safer and, in all probability more economic means of nuclear power.

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