Why the Gee-Whizz Issue Prices so A lot • Watts Up With That?

Feature image: By Macskelek – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=94469485

By Christopher Monckton of Brenchley

Predatory science has refined, honed and polished its techniques for extracting nation-bankrupting sums of money from innumerate and scientifically-illiterate politicians and from the similarly-ignorant and likewise-effete civil servants who control them.

Nowhere is this unprincipled and unaffordable leeching upon the long-suffering taxpayer more evident than in climate “science”, where the gentle and demonstrably net-beneficial warming that has occurred and can be expected to continue at a rate below half the predicted midrange is presented as an actual or potential planet-destroying cataclysm that must be forestalled however disproportionate the cost and however small the resultant benefit.

The profiteers of doom in science, in academe and in the once-learned journals are joined in their folly, fraud and theft at taxpayers’ expense by the gee-whizz merchants, who hand-wavingly put forward preposterous proposed woo-woo “solutions” to the imagined (and imaginary) problem of mildly warmer weather worldwide.

A typical gee-whizz proposal is as blatantly anti-scientific as the supposed problem that its proponents purport to address; it sounds thrillingly techy and Boys’-Own-Paper golly-gosh exciting; it is cripplingly expensive; it is commercially unviable to a spectacular degree; the scamsters who propose it accordingly demand unlimited access to taxpayers’ money; the innumerate classe politique duly hands over boat-loads of other people’s cash; the proposed “solution” does not work and fails completely; and not one of the fraudsters is in any way held to account.

There are plenty of gee-whiz schemes to abate greenhouse-gas emissions. Windmills are a good example. They are anti-scientific in that continuous electrical power is required but they supply it only a quarter of the time, their energy density is low and their unit environmental cost is correspondingly high; they have given Western nations electricity prices six or eight times those of China or India; new wind projects are increasingly being abandoned because the cost exceeds the benefit even after the scamsters have trousered massive, multiple direct and indirect subsidies; they have made no difference whatsoever to the near-linear rate at which anthropogenic greenhouse-gas forcing has increased since IPCC’s first report in 1990; and the perpetrators of this disaster are laughing all the way to the bank.

Solar power ditto. Think Ivanpah, the solar collector array that fell apart because the panels and their complex heliostats were not weatherproofed, and would not have worked anyway; or Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where a vast solar array was smashed to smithereens within minutes by a single passing hailstorm, and the junked panels – which cannot be recycled – will have to go to landfill.

Electric buggies ditto. The batteries add between 30% and 100% to the weight of a typical vehicle, so that a buggy uses 30-100% more energy than a real auto; the capital cost of buying the thing and the electricity cost of running it are both well above the costs of buying and running a real auto; the three-phase charging network to replace real autos with buggies will cost even more than the buggies themselves; even a small crash tends to destroy the entire battery pack, so that insurance rates not only for buggies but for all autos are rising well above the already savage rate of inflation, making buggies still more unaffordable; the CO2 emissions from the manufacture of the battery packs, the installation of the charging network and the electricity needed to power the buggies mean that net-zero emissions for an individual buggy occur only after a decade of road use; but most buggies do not last that long because the batteries degrade or, worse, catch fire.

All of these nonsensical gee-whiz scams are nothing compared to the outright fraud that is taxpayer-funded nuclear fusion, as a recent piece here at WUWT reminded me. When I worked at 10 Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher sent me to have a look at the tax-gobbling Joint European Torus, a prototype gee-whizz tokamak fusion reactor at Culham, a few miles south of Oxford.

The top brass turned out in force to welcome me and show me round. The tokamak was half-constructed, and Professor Rebut, the director of the project, told me that the vast magnetic coils around the torus would contain ionized plasma as hot as the Sun, which would generate steam for electricity via a heat-exchanger.

I put on my most amiable and innocent face, and mildly asked: “I can understand that the plasma is ionized and the magnetic field can thus contain it, but, since the reaction is nuclear, large quantities of neutrons will be emitted, so how is it that they will not at once fatally and permanently irradiate the plasma-facing components, so that from the first moment of operation it will be impossible to make repairs?”

The faces of the boffins, in response to this killer question, were a picture. They had hoped that, like the rest of the classe politique, I knew no science. And their faces told me that I had asked a question they had not wished me to ask. They mumbled about lining the interior of the torus with a specially-devised cinder-block that would absorb the radiation, and even showed me a sample. But they were not convincing. I recommended that no further funding should be made available to that or any tokamak project unless a) a proper answer to the irradiation question were available and b) the downstream power delivered to the final consumer, after allowing not only for the considerable internal inefficiencies inherent in fusion reactors but also for transformer and transmission losses, exceeded the input power required to run the tokamak by an order of magnitude.

Trouble is, the convention in British politics is that the papers of one administration are withheld from all subsequent administrations. This gives very great power to the civil service, but makes it impossible for politicians to learn from their predecessors. When the ITER project began in the south of France in 2007, several British governments had come and gone. Sure enough, ITER was simply a grander and still costlier iteration of the fatally defective JET design, and the defects I had noticed two decades previously had simply not been addressed.

The recent WUWT article on ITER quoted Scientific American – normally a wholesale swallower of gee-whizz projects – as saying that ITER “looks less and less like a cathedral and more like a mausoleum”.

Scientific American had managed to obtain internal documents from ITER, but only after a freedom-of-information lawsuit had compelled that vast and self-serving bureaucracy to hand them over.

The ITER Council: bureaucracy at “work”

ITER’s spinmeister, Laban Coblentz, blamed the delays revealed in the documents (coyly described as “schedule slips”) and cost overruns on supply-chain delays, faulty thermal shields and off-spec manufacturing defects, as well as an order by the French Nuclear Safety Authority to cease assembly of the reactor in January 2022 on the ground that radiation shielding was inadequate.

So let me tell you what is really going on. It is far, far worse than we are being told. ITER’s lavish website burbles vapidly about “a thrilling human adventure” in a “truly multi-cultural environment” with “every conceivable sporting, leisure and cultural opportunity” in an atmosphere of “diversity and inclusiveness” and “team spirit” in a “supportive and efficient workplace”. Not a word about what is really going on.

Work began on the militantly ugly and disgracefully messy ITER site among the once-beautiful forests of the South of France a few dozen miles to the north-east of Aix-en-Provence as far back as 2007. I have had charge of several substantial construction projects, and neither I nor my clerk of works would ever have permitted such scandalous untidiness as is evident onsite.

By January of this year, more than 15 years after work began, just one of the 18 giant orange-pig-shaped segments of the plasma-containing torus had been put in place in the tokamak pit at the heart of what is supposed – one day – to be the reactor.

After a decade and a half of construction, just one of ITER’s 18 toroidal segments is in place

Why only one segment, after all this time? I did some digging. The reason is that the ITER people have only recently woken up to the fact, gently pointed out by me to the JET boffins back in 1985, that though the giant magnet around the walls of the tokamak can contain the primary plasma, which is ionized, it cannot contain the neutrons that are the intended reaction products, because neutrons possess no electrical charge ex definitione.

Likewise, photons are emitted at such an energetic rate that they, too, can cause considerable damage, not by nuclear radiation but by melting the walls of the chamber.

How, then, can one answer the containment question? The cinder-block nonsense was never going to be sufficient. A fundamental redesign of the tokamak was needed, not only to cope with bombardment of the plasma-facing components  (the interior walls of the tokamak) by neutrons and photons but also to handle abnormalities in the primary plasma that might fatally disrupt it, leading to an inadvertent failure of containment and a consequently instantaneous, substantial and destructive release of energy – in plain English, a meltdown.

One difficulty faced by ITER is that it is so much larger than all previous tokamaks. As the late Professor R.V. Jones of Aberdeen University used to say, “In physics, scale matters.” As the reactor ramps up from the warm-up or low-confinement regime to the operational or high-confinement regime, oscillations at the edges of the plasma occur. During these edge-localized transient events, which result from the increased confinement time, the fiercely hot plasma of hydrogen isotopes loses some of its energy as energized particles escape containment and meet and melt the plasma-facing components.

To try to divert these outbursts of high-energy particles away from the walls, it is necessary to install a divertor plate at the bottom of the torus. This plate is intended to tolerate far greater heat and particle loadings than the walls themselves. Various substances have been tried over the decades. Carbon was the earliest, because it does not melt. However, it is degraded by neutron bombardment; it becomes rapidly irradiated by tritium, one of the by-products of the fusion reaction; and it suffers from both chemical and sputtering erosion.

Position of the divertor system at the foot of the torus (Hassanein & Sizyuk 2021)

Next, tungsten was proposed, for it is tougher than carbon. However, it is unstable when interacting with the plasma, and also when highly irradiated. It gives off a secondary plasma of its own, which causes the divertor plate to disintegrate, releasing vapor which can contaminate the primary plasma, and requiring the divertor plate to be replaced. Downtime will, therefore, be considerable.

When power is increased compared with existing low-power tokamaks, and especially during edge-localized transient events, the behaviour of the dense secondary plasma generated from the divertor plate will affect the durability of the plasma-facing interior walls of the torus. At the strike points where the plasma interacts with the divertor plate, even during normal operation the ITER torus will be subjected to plasma fluxes sufficient to vaporize the divertor plate at the strike point, where the initial flux incident upon the divertor plate is focused. Secondly, the ITER divertor plates (when installed) will be too close to the primary plasma. Thirdly, the divertor area as currently designed is too small to handle the highly radiative secondary-plasma generation, evolution and vaporization:

Looking down a segment of the torus towards the too-small area for the missing divertor

One cannot simply replace the damaged divertor plate, since the deposition of a large amount of energy at the strike point as currently designed would generate such intense radiation and scattering of plasma-particle fluxes from the dense secondary-plasma cloud that internal components in the confined divertor area would be damaged. More downtime, and a lot of it.

A temporary fix might revert to the use of carbon rather than tungsten, because carbon is not as radiative as tungsten. However, as noted earlier, carbon has its own problems. Hassanein & Sizyuk (2021), whose paper in Nature on the problems with the existing ITER design may well have influenced the French nuclear regulatory agency in its decision to halt construction of the reactor until the problems have been rectified, suggest that completely different tokamak designs – such as the snowflake or super-X magnetic containment configurations – might offer better protection by distributing the core-plasma particles over a wider area on the surface of the divertor, decreasing the heat loads on the divertor plate.

Left: Princeton’s nowflake tokamak. Right: Magnetic field lines in the snowflake divertor (image by Vladimir Soukhanovskyy).

In the divertor of a Super-X tokamak, the plasma exhaust is spread over a wider area than in the conventional divertor hitherto adopted by ITER (image by UK Atomic Energy Authority)

Or the divertor plates and strike points could be moved further from the core plasma, and a special divertor chamber could limit penetration of the secondary plasma into the operating chamber, contaminating the primary plasma.

Given these fundamental problems with the existing ITER design, it is no surprise that the regulators have ordered a halt to further construction of the reactor, leaving the lone segment of the inadequately-thought-through torus mournfully in place. A further problem is that the entire building around the reactor is tailored very specifically to the existing design. To accommodate the changes suggested by Hassanein & Sizyuk, and particularly if a radically different reactor design turns out to be necessary, pretty much the whole thing will have to be torn down and rebuilt, but only after a new design has been finalized and tested.

While they are at it, they had better make sure that they surround the entire building with a secondary containment structure. At present, the reactor is directly under the exterior roof. Chernobyl ought to have taught the world the necessity of a secondary containment building.

ITER, therefore, is now likely to be decades late and tens of billions over budget. If there were even one sufficiently curious policy wonk working in the government of any of the 35 nations foolishly embroiled in this doomed project, the governments in question would be pulling out their funding at once. Like all gee-whiz moonbeams-to-cucumbers notions, this granddaddy of them all is irremediably failing, at prodigious cost to us all.

Feature image: By Macskelek – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=94469485

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