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Government Power The Almighty Buck Politics

MIT Used Lobbying, Influence To Restore Nuclear Fusion Dream 135

An anonymous reader writes in with the story of how MIT's fusion energy experiment is alive and well even though its federal funding was axed. "'In the end, it is about picking a winner and a parochial effort to direct money to MIT,' said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group. 'It's certainly a case of lawmakers bucking the president and putting their thumb on the scale for a particular project.' MIT enlisted the support of a wealthy Democratic donor from Concord and the help of an influential Washington think-tank co-founded by John Kerry. These efforts were backed by lobbyists, including a former congressman from Massachusetts, with connections to the right lawmakers on the right committees. The cast also included an alliance of universities, industry and national labs, all invested in the fusion dream. 'It's ground-breaking research that could lead an energy revolution,' [Senator Elizabeth] Warren said. 'This was not about politics. This was about good science.' The revival of MIT's project, whatever its merits, clearly demonstrated what the combination of old-fashioned Washington horse-trading and new-fangled power — both nuclear and political — can do."
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MIT Used Lobbying, Influence To Restore Nuclear Fusion Dream

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 09, 2014 @03:29AM (#47193441)

    dollar-for-dollar the MIT reactor produced more papers

    The two ingredients for an academic paper are:
    i) Ability to apply the techniques for research in that field (every researcher in the relevant field can); and
    ii) Ability to find a slightly novel question to answer (of which there are plenty).

    There is no need to have written anything particularly clever or insightful or groundbreaking or efficient or useful (to the field or to the world).

  • Re:meh (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 09, 2014 @03:34AM (#47193449)
    Same as is always happening.

    A lot of hype from a few desperate hopefuls who don't understand the tech. Nothing at all from anyone who realizes that it's expensive, impractical and doesn't solve any problems that can't be solved with better and cheaper options.

  • by Beck_Neard ( 3612467 ) on Monday June 09, 2014 @04:59AM (#47193609)

    If that's the general argument, then it's wrong. Deuterium-Tritium fusion (the kind that all fusion efforts are currently pursuing) would produce not-insignificant amounts of neutron-irradiated waste. The waste would be just as hard to deal with as current nuclear waste is, although it would be produced in much smaller quantities. Still, though, both fission and fusion are much better than the alternatives (fossil fuels).

    Aneutronic fusion would be virtually waste-free, but it's very hard and in no one's plans for the foreseeable future.

    About us environmentalists, there are many different groups, and not all of us are retarded. People need electrical power, I accept that. Electrical power brings prosperity and higher standard of living, and a happier populace. I've been advocating for years for people to stop building fossil fuel plants and replace them with nuclear plants, and a lot of other environmentalists agree with me. Environmentalism isn't just Greenpeace and hippies.

  • by guises ( 2423402 ) on Monday June 09, 2014 @05:06AM (#47193619)
    You're being a little too vague here. What is "this sort of thing"? Lobbying? Who is "us"? Supporters of fusion research?

    It's true that the Slashdot crowd trends towards opposing lobbyists (unless they're the NRA), but there's also generally pretty strong support for science funding. It's not surprising to me that comments would largely take the attitude that this is positive.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 09, 2014 @05:46AM (#47193671)

    > It's not clear, and I don't have the expertise to determine whether the program is doing anything useful.

    Most of the major scientific achievement are not doing anything useful at their time of discovery.

    What was the usefulness of general relativity in the early 20th century ? Nothing before artificial satellite (i.e. GPS).
    What was the usefulness of galois theory in the 19th century ? Nothing. Now we have got major applications (coding theory...).
    What was the usefulness of Fast Fourier Transform (known since ~1800) ? Nada Now everywhere.

  • by Maury Markowitz ( 452832 ) on Monday June 09, 2014 @09:12AM (#47194343) Homepage

    > there is some truth

    There's *all* truth to that. Let me put this simply; there is almost zero chance that fusion, in its current form, will *ever* be a practical power source.

    Now when people read a statement like that they get their backs up about the future, and progress and science and all that. But that's not the issue. The issue is that *fusion isn't the only power source on the planet*. As long as one of these is "better" that fusion, then fusion won't happen. That's all there is to it.

    So why do I state my conclusion so forcefully? Because math.

    The Levelized Cost of Electricity is the key determinant in telling you whether or not a system will be built. The formula basically tells you what you have to charge for the power coming out of your system in order to break even. Anything above that number is gravy.

    The formula, which you can read in depth here:

    basically boils down to five numbers. The first is the amount of money you pay for the plant, and more specifically, the amount of interest you pay on the loans you took out to build it. The second is the cost of fuel to produce a given amount of power. The next is the peak power that the plant can produce, and next is the percentage of time that the plant actually does produce that. Finally there's the lifetime of the plant, which feed into all of the others. It's something like this:

    price of your power = (all the money you put into the plant over its lifetime) / (all the power that you exported to the grid)

    We measure money in dollars and cents. We measure power in kWh. This is why your power bill lists a figure in cents/kWh, and why the grid operators measure in $/MWh.

    Ok, so fusion. So the price of fuel for a fusion reactor is low, about the same as a fission plant. So we can eliminate that figure for a rule-of-thumb calculation, and leaves us with the lifetime cost of the plant, the CAPEX+OPEX. Now we look at the other side, and we see two figures, the peak power and the percentage of time it runs. We can simplify by listing our CAPEX/peak power as a single number, dollars per watt.

    So basically the entire cost structure comes down to the cost of the reactor, and the amount of time it spends running. The rest we can scale out linearly against other power sources.

    So what do we know about these two factors?

    Well in terms of percentage power, or capacity factor as we call it, fusion reactors are not competitive. Because of neutron embrittlement, they need to be shut down all the time so the reactor core liner can be removed and replaced. Newer designs place lithium-infused blocks inside the containment vessel; this means the vessel itself lasts longer but you still need to open it up all the time to get at those blocks. Generally we might expect a fusion plant to have a capacity factor on the order of a good hydro plant, on the order of 60%. For comparison, a fission plant is around 90%, a wind turbine is 30%, a solar panel is about 15%.

    Ok, now the CAPEX. Any fusion reactor of practical output is going to be one of the most fantastically complicated devices ever made. They are utterly crammed with high-end materials, poisons, huge electrical and magnetic systems, high-end vacuum pumps, etc. Depending on the design, it's also flammable, and the fire will cause radioactive rain, so you still need a complete containment building. Now on top of this all, the energy density of a fusion system is *tiny*, so you need to build *enormous* reactors.

    And that's where it falls apart. There is simply no way, under any reasonable development line, that the cost of building the plant, and servicing its debt, can possibly be made up by the electricity coming out. PV, one of the worst power sources in terms of cents/kWh, is currently running at about 15 to 20 cents/kWh. A fusion reactor almost certainly cannot be built that will produce power at under ten times that cost. And that's assuming it ever "works

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 09, 2014 @09:17AM (#47194381)

    Because Republicans never funnel money into pet projects [wikipedia.org] or friends [wikipedia.org]. You are probably one of those idiots that think Republicans are for smaller government. The only thing the parties disagree on is where to waste our money.

  • by Karmashock ( 2415832 ) on Monday June 09, 2014 @09:51AM (#47194639)

    that's a half truth. People agree its a problem but they do not agree on the means of solving the problem.

    The radical environmental fringe wants radical action. The majority want a slow and measured response that doesn't upset things too much.

    the other side of the radical coin wants to do nothing at all.

    Every time either radical fringe encounters anyone that doesn't want to everything they want right away the exact way they want they accuse them of belonging to the rival fringe when of course 95 percent of the time they're just yelling at someone in the middle.

    And they've already asked for the cookie, because not only do they want the issue fixed by throwing literally trillions of dollars at the issue, they want to control that funding and regulation themselves. Which means the entire planetary economy would be in their hands.

    And no... I don't think that's a reasonable request. And yes, they have effectively demanded that.

    They want a global regulatory system that can order nations to comply indifferent to the wishes of their citizens. And they want that system to be in the hands of some UN body that they've seeded with their own people.

    And because I'm sure you'll say it isn't trillions... I'm not just counting the money they're asking for but also the money the global economy will lose by complying... it does work out to trillions. Which isn't that hard to do really.

    Consider that the US economy is something like 11-12 trillion a year all by itself. Cost the US 10 percent and you're looking at trillions in effective costs JUST in the US alone. Expand that over the whole world and its a lot more money.

    And then factor that given economies have less money or are more reliant on dirty industry and so will be disproportionately harmed by the whole thing. Which means some of them won't comply or will fight compliance... and then you'll have to go through a trade war process in each situation.

    Look at the problems the US has had getting sanctions on Iran for example. The EU says they'll comply. The UN says they'll comply... but the Iranians seem to be able to sell their oil anyway. So what exactly did that accomplish?

    I personally think the solution is making fossil fuels uncompetitive through superior technology. I don't want to regulate them or tax them out of existence. I don't think that's practical.

    What I do think will work is replacing them with something better. ACTUALLY better. The crux of our problem is energy storage. We have reasonable energy generation with solar and wind. But we have no reasonable system to store it. Batteries are not practical. At least as they currently exist. Maybe flow batteries would be okay... but I'm dubious.

Civilization, as we know it, will end sometime this evening. See SYSNOTE tomorrow for more information.