George Will backs plasma-fusion research

Not a terrible idea. But really, you don’t have to cut food stamps to pay for fusion.

George Will thinks we should put more money in to plasma-fusion research. He may well be right. Obviously he would be right if for $30 billion we could have cost-competitive fusion power in 20 years. But that confident assessment comes from the head of the Princeton fusion lab; those of us who remember that fusion power was “thirty years away” fifty years ago are more skeptical.

In several ways Will’s column is more intelligent than the policies of the politicians he supports. It recognizes that public goods need public funding. It doesn’t demand – as Republicans going back to Ronald Reagan have demanded – the abolition of the Department of Energy, which pays for fusion research. It mentions global warming as a reason to seek alternatives to burning hydrocarbons.

What it doesn’t do is ask the question of how plasma fusion competes with inertial-confinement fusion as an R&D target, or how either of them competes with other forms of non-fossil energy production (e.g., wind, solar, and geothermal) or with battery technology. And bizzarely, it calls the fusion work “basic research,” thus skipping over the question about how much public funding should go to science, as opposed to technology. If you want to look for ways in which the current generation is cheating the future, the tiny size of the National Science Foundation budget has to be #1.

It’s not hard to understand why the Party of Ignorance isn’t enthusiastic about adding to the store of knowledge, especially since the actual work gets done mostly at universities, by people who vote Democratic. But why it’s puzzling why gradually bringing the NSF budget up to the level of the NIH budget (about a fivefold increase) or even of NASA (roughly a tripling) – hasn’t been a goal of the current administration, of either of its immediate Democratic predecessors, or of Democrats in Congress.

Footnote And no, of course it’s not necessary to cut back on transfer payments to fund R&D. How about a modest carbon tax instead?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

28 thoughts on “George Will backs plasma-fusion research”

  1. “..Party of Ignorance isn’t enthusiastic about adding to the store of knowledge, especially since the actual work gets done mostly at universities, by people who vote Democratic…” It’s recurring, that university people think they have the better answers, if they can only find a wise prince to make it so. It’s also a constant that some people are skeptical:

    In Behemoth Hobbes said: “… as the Presbyterians brought with them into their churches their divinity from the universities, so did many of the gentlemen bring their politics from thence into the Parliament; but neither of them did this very boldly in the time of Queen Elizabeth. And though it be not likely that all of them did it out of malice, but many of them out of error, yet certainly the chief leaders were ambitious ministers, and ambitious gentlemen; the ministers envying the authority of bishops, whom they thought less learned; and the gentlemen envying the privy-council, whom they thought less wise than themselves. For it is a hard matter for men, who do all think highly of their own wits, when they have also acquired the learning of the university, to be persuaded that they want any ability requisite for the government of a commonwealth, especially having read the glorious histories and the sententious politics of the ancient popular governments of the Greeks and Romans, amongst whom kings were hated and branded with the name of tyrants, and popular government (though no tyrant was ever so cruel as a popular assembly) passed by the name of liberty. The Presbyterian ministers, in the beginning of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, did not, because they durst not, publicly preach against the discipline of the Church…”

    This is not too different from Bill Buckley saying he would rather “… entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”

    1. Who said anything about entrusting the government to the universities? But that’s where most science is done, and one reason Will’s pet politicians don’t support better science funding is that they hate professors.

      Hobbes and Buckley also had in common hatred of democracy, preferring neither rule by the wise nor rule by the many, but simply rule by and for the well-born and powerful. If I agreed with them, I’d probably want to remain Anonymous, too.

    2. Actually Bill Buckley was probably right, if you’ve ever experienced university ‘governance’.

      1. University governance used to work very well when it was done by professors (usually with no particular expertise in public policy). It was only when the MBAs started taking over that it went to hell.

        1. The sociology of universities (the massive postwar scaling in size and resources) may have made that professionalization inevitable. At some level of complexity, organizations spawn a managerial class. (that is not to simply endorse MBAs in university government).

  2. Essentially, Will gets basic physics wrong. “Einstein’s theory that mass could be converted into energy had been demonstrated six years earlier near Alamogordo, N.M., by fission — the splitting of atoms, which released the energy that held the atoms together.” Well, not really. Einstein’s formula (E=mc2)holds that if I burn a log in my fireplace, I’m converting mass into energy. If Will (ok, if Will’s research assistant) had done his (or her) homework, the following would have popped up: “E=mc2 had a supporting role in the story of nuclear fission research. Not as the mechanism behind nuclear power, but as a tool: Because energy and mass are equivalent, highly sensitive measurements of the masses of different atomic nuclei gave the researchers important clues about the strength of the nuclear bond. Einstein’s formula does not tell us why the nuclear binding energies are as large as they are, but it opens up one way (among several) to measure these binding energies.”

    The problem is that Will is, if you’ll excuse the pun, willfully ignorant of science. Most notoriously, in 2009 he declared that global climate change was not a problem. See here: A good summary of Will’s ignorance can be found here:

    Will, of course, looks and talks like the kind of guy that Central Casting would send over if you needed a character for a movie described as “erudite college professor.” Don’t be fooled. He ain’t that smart.

    1. He’s smart enough about what he knows. But he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He also describes a plasma as a sort of gas, which isn’t right.

      1. Mark don’t be fooled.

        He’s a consigliere– his heyday was having dinner with the Reagans. He knows what people tell him, there isn’t some incisive and deeply read research mind behind that pundit who appears on talk show TV.

        His strength is being what Krugman calls a ‘Very Serious Person’ or rather someone who hangs around VSPs and translates their thoughts to a wider audience.

        You won’t, from him, get a balanced appraisal of the potential for nuclear fusion say v. where solar cells will be in 30 years time, or energy storage technology. Let alone a pathway to zero carbon over that time frame (ie the more manageable task of thinking about the next 10-20 years when our predictions for technology *adoption* (if not discovery) actually have some validity).

        On foreign policy, domestic policy, science etc. Wills is a ‘cut across the top’ and summarize kind of guy. That’s his job. He’s not a deep thinker.

        You’ll get more real analysis out of reading one of Kevin Drum’s more detailed pieces.

  3. @Mark Kleiman

    But why it’s puzzling why gradually bringing the NSF budget up to the level of the NIH budget (about a fivefold increase) or even of NASA (roughly a tripling) – hasn’t been a goal of the current administration, of either of its immediate Democratic predecessors, or of Democrats in Congress.

    It’s hard to say, other than that this stuff tends to have fewer broad-based lobbies than the big budget items like Social Security or the Military, so it tends to get cuts and funding freezes more easily during downturns. Both Republican and Democratic Congresses and Presidents have been lukewarm towards drastic raises in national science funding, even when it might seriously help down the line in terms of national growth.

    The “fusion” stuff, for example, is very slowly improving but not there in part because there’s no federal or private money for either newer versions of tokamak reactors, or even for trying alternative forms of plasma fusion that might work better than tokamaks (although I’ve heard Lockheed’s Skunkworks people have been fooling around with a polywell-style fusion reactor proposal). The “inertial confinement” fusion programs haven’t produced much that’s useful in terms of usable energy, but they continue to get funding because they’re also selling them as a way to make sure our nuclear weapons work when actual nuclear weapons testing is banned.

  4. Most of the world’s fusion power research eggs are concentrated in the basket of the international ITER project, currently building a huge tokamak at Cadarache in France. The project timeline, if all goes well, will have “2020: first plasma, 2027: start of deuterium-tritium operation.” ITER should produce net energy, 500MW of it. But it’s not a commercial prototype; that has a codename, DEMOS, but no timeline or funding at present. We won’t therefore see a deployable proven design before at least 2035, and a large park of reactors before 2045.

    Will’s call for fusion research is just another glossy way of saying “don’t do anything now on climate change.” It’s the Lomborg con. Don’t be fooled.

  5. “What it doesn’t do is ask the question of how plasma fusion competes with inertial-confinement fusion as an R&D target, or how either of them competes with other forms of non-fossil energy production (e.g., wind, solar, and geothermal)”

    , fission…

    The basic problem of fusion is that what it really competes with is fission, both are power sources where you have to manage radiation, instead of just dumping it into the environment. (The way coal does.) And, barring success with the considerably more difficult aneutronic fusion, fission wins that competition on any rational basis. It’s just that much easier to do.

    1. Brett,
      I agree with you when you say that fission and fusion are both power sources where you have to manage radiation. I also agree with you that fission is much easier to do. But fusion produces light isotopes, which tend to have much shorter half lives than fission products. Fusion-if we could ever do it-is much cleaner than fission.

      I am not sure you are correct that fusion scientists are Democrats. The inertial confinement guys tended to come from nuclear weapons research, and were fairly heavily Republican. At least this was my experience, when I worked in an inertial confinement lab. (They had cool lasers, with which they let me play in chemical research.) It is also the case that engineers lean much less democratic and scientists.

      1. Aneutronic would be much cleaner. I’m not all that sure regular fusion would be a lot cleaner, given that most of the ‘waste’ of a fission plant is actually just fuel that’s been contaminated enough to need reprocessing. Either, so long as you’re not going aneutronic, involves the reactor itself becoming radioactive after a while, and in the case of fusion, that’s some darned expensive ‘waste’ you’re throwing away at the end of the reactor life.

        I’ve simply got my doubts about the feasibility of any power source that requires cryogenic superconductors in close proximity to a neutron source.

  6. That’s the problem with fusion research: We just don’t need fusion. It has no particular advantages over existing sources of power, (Even the availability of fuel; We’ve got enough fission fuel around to run our civilization for longer than we’ve existed as a species.) and one big disadvantage: It’s really, really, hard to do. Absurdly hard to do.

    Unless you break down and admit that fusion is meant to be done on a large scale, and go back to the old plans to base fusion power plants on large fuel pellets, aka “bombs”. Which we knew how to do decades ago. That’s the real joke of fusion research: It’s an endless search for a way to do something we have long known how to do, and don’t need to do, in an unnecessarily difficult manner, because people freak out over bombs.

    Now, once we get out into space, fusion has obvious advantages over fission, in terms of fuel availability. But that’s not going to be an issue for a long time to come.

    1. Actually, it’s not true that we have enough fission fuel to run our civilization indefinitely using current reactor designs, and due to the limited supply, U-235 fission will never solve global warming on its own (although it can contribute at a 2nd order level as part of a package solution with wind, solar, etc). If all the world’s electricity were to come from current U-235 reactors, we’d only have enough uranium to last a few decades:

      Breeder reactors would extend this to millenia, but at the cost of spreading highly weaponizable plutonium across the globe. Future thorium reactors might circumvent these problems, but as far as I know don’t exist in commercial form yet.

        1. if you want to power the world for more than a few decades with nuclear fission, you either need the thorium fuel cycle (not yet in commercial existence), or Pu-239 breeder reactors.

          Breeder reactors are a proven technology, but one with an enormous (I would say decisive) disadvantage. The appeal of the standard U-235 fuel cycle is that fuel-grade uranium cannot produce a nuclear weapon; it needs to be further refined by about an order of magnitude in purity. Fuel-grade Pu-239 is immediately weaponizable and can be used (at the very least) to produce Hiroshima-class weapons. A world which solves its energy/global warming crisis by large scale deployment of breeder reactors is one that has resigned itself to ~5000 caches of weaponizable Pu-239 scattered across the globe. Given the reality of corruption, state sponsorship of terrorism, and civil war in the modern era, I think that in such a world terrorist acquisition of nuclear weapons would be inevitable. Furthermore, even though it’s not my area of expertise, my understanding is that breeder reactors are much more expensive and prone to sub-critical accidents than are uranium-cycle reactors; see the von Hippel chapter here for more details:

          Given the track record of the fission industry, I’d estimate the order of magnitude R&D cost necessary to develop and commercialize thorium-cycle reactors to be ~$10 billion. If you’re going to sink that much into speculative nuclear reactor research, it seems rational to at least split it 50-50 with fusion, given nuclear fusion’s enormous qualitative advantages.

          The key advantages of fusion (and the reasons why, IMHO, it’s worth funding), are
          1. Truly unlimited fuel supply.
          2. Virtually zero nuclear weapons proliferation hazard.
          3. Very low levels of radioactive waste relative to fission plants, and unlike fission no long-lived or transuranic waste at all. This is a moderate boost to #2 as well, since there’s no hazard analogous to that of dirty bombs being assembled out of the high level waste that today sits around dozens of poorly guarded sites in the US.
          4. Greater mid- to far-future utility (mostly, as you say, space travel related).

          1. I should add that I’m not a thorium-side expert, and I’ve been out of the loop for several years on most things nuclear. If the thorium reactor picture is much rosier than I remember, I will be happy to be surprised.

          2. Thank you for the breeder reactor piece. Really interesting. Interesting the Russian scientist disagrees with the (pessimistic) conclusions ;-).

            The technology is a nightmare from a safety/ reliability viewpoint. And there is the proliferation issue. The result is costs which far exceed other low carbon alternatives (solar with pumped storage; wind with PS; fossil fuel with carbon capture and storage).

            In 50 years time, if we have a serious uranium shortage, then it’s a go-er. But I suspect by then we will have a plentitude of low carbon alternatives (tidal & ocean power, really cheap solar cells, etc.).

            Thorium? Again it’s one of those ‘might be’. Other than India, I don’t see a pressing desire to pursue it. When we do pursue it, we’ll doubtless find it too has its own set of engineering and implementation issues which make it less clean, and more costly, that we project.

            One has a feeling with civilian nuclear power of Jospeh Tainter ‘the collapse of complex societies’. More and more complex solutions to problems. Ie it’s a technology which is, to use Taleb, “fragile” rather than “anti-fragile”. One which has to be preserved for thousands of years regardless of social or economic conditions around it. Look at the mess failed states like Syria (is fast becoming) are creating with a few hundred tonnes of chemical agents. Now imagine a country blowing apart with 5 or 10 operating reactors. Call that country Pakistan (or Russia) and you begin to get a feeling for the risks.

            Fukushima Daichi shows us that even the most technologically sophisticated country, with a national reputation for quality control that leads the world, can basically screw up, big time, when it comes to nuclear power. And in terms of social order, and concern for quality, Japan is far ahead of the United States or Great Britain, say (but apparently not so in nuclear safety).

      1. The article also mentions that you can draw Uranium out of seawater. It’s a lot more expensive – about 10-20 times more expensive than regular sources – but since fuel is only about 14% of the costs of a nuclear plant, it’s not a total budget-breaker. It could make it more expensive than solar power, though.


    Wikipedia tells me $10.5bn of the $27bn budget of the DOE is for the nuclear weapons complex. As the stimulus shrinks, that percentage will grow.

    Add in other useful functions like Energy Information Administration (to register energy efficiency of appliances, and to record oil and gas production and consumption, for example) and you still wind up with a $13bn a year department say. With no R&D outside nuclear weapons and civilian nuclear energy.

    You can abolish DOE, but you cannot abolish its function. That will be around for another 100 years at least (maintaining existing nuclear weapons and cleaning up the mess of building them).

    Will is back in the Jerry Pournelle ‘all we need is a High Frontier (and nuclear fusion)’ space. These people are anti-government *except* when it comes to Space Travel/ Nuclear Power/ Nuclear Fusion. Newt Gingrich as well.

    Interesting that they always make those exceptions.

  8. As a lapsed fusion physicist, I’d like to offer some limited pushback against the idea of magnetic confinement fusion (what PPPL does) as an unrealistic pipe dream. The early optimism about fusion reactors was clearly unwarranted and has generated a lot of skepticism about the whole enterprise. However, if you look past top-line, single-number predictions (usually now-historical dates for when the first commercial fusion reactor would turn on), fusion reactors made immense progress during the second half of the 20th century:

    The “triple product” plotted in blue is a useful proxy for progress in magnetic confinement reactors; the most recent reactors (JET, for example) reached breakeven, the condition of producing more energy through fusion reactions than was required to sustain the plasma at a fusion-capable temperature. A necessary (but not sufficient) criterion for commercial viability is reaching around or a little above the dashed blue line. Unfortunately, this chart is a decade old, and since then, progress has collapsed, in part due to repeated cuts to federal funding for magnetic confinement research. Most cutting edge magnetic confinement research has moved overseas; the US still leads in inertial confinement (laser) fusion, but the prospects for commercializability are much dimmer here, and ICF research mainly gets funded as an unnecessary workaround past nuclear test bans.

    1. Nick

      We are jaded and war weary because from whatever date most of us turned 17 and started paying attention ‘commercial fusion energy is 50 years away’.

      I remember Jerry Pournelle ranting on about a crash programme to solve the energy crisis (he reckoned Nixon would never have had to leave office) in about 1979. Solar Power satellites and nuclear fusion.

      There is no doubt scientific progress. But we still have no idea whether we are going down a blind alley? ie that once we create a working nuclear fusion reactor in a lab sense, this will scale to civilian power use. After all the choice of the Pressurized Water Reactor was more or less an accident, (the British went with the graphite reactor, which was better for making bomb fuel), and based on Rickover’s success in making a mobile power plant out of it and the US government subsidization of civilian nuclear power. Say 2/rds of the world’s reactors are PWR, and it was an early case of technology ‘lock in’, rather than technological superiority.

      There is a substory there, about the decline of the USA as the pre-eminent technological power. The anti-science bent of various House Committees and one of your leading political parties is another sign of that. On climate science, you have seen a widespread and deliberate attack, including direct attacks on the personal affairs of individual scientists, to discredit a scientific research process. Jane Jacobs alluded to this growing disrespect for knowledge in her last book ‘the Coming Dark Age’. It makes me sad.

      As you say ‘since then, progress has collapsed’. Which means young scientists won’t join that research track, which means the capability decays and eventually disappears.

      I think of fusion as a very interesting piece of science, and the potential return is so great it’s worth pursuing. However it’s a technology for the second half of the 21st century, if not the 22nd.

  9. Most government revenues now feed the public’s unslakable appetite for transfer payments. The challenge for today’s political class is to moderate its subservience to this appetite sufficiently to enable the basic science that will earn tomorrow’s gratitude.

    Of course that’s Will’s point. He knows little about fusion or energy, but he definitely wants to cut these opaymenst, and will grab any excuse.

    More generally, isn’t it past time we stopped reading and listening to these know-it-all “pundits,” like WIll and the other gasbags? When and by whom was it decided that there is a group of people who are able to offer intelligent, informed opinions on any public matter that comes up, be it fusion, Greece, biology, energy, macroeconomics, North Korean politics, or anything else? There are no such people.

    1. It’s a function of the old media age.

      Newspaper columnists were unbelievably influential in the past– really since mass literacy in the mid 19th century. Consider Walter Winchell.

      When the same space was read by millions, and it was printed on newsprint, then the top columnists thrive. Often they do so by catering to the readership’s prejudices (the WSJ Op-Ed page is a case in point especially re its war on climate science; the Financial Times manages to work in some relatively leftist views such as Martin Wolf’s strident criticisms of austerity).

      The age of the Television changed things (think how influential Oprah is) as did the age of mass national radio networks (Rush Limbaugh). You had to be photogenic– many columnists were not. But with 3 big TV channels (radio has actually become more concentrated– in the age of Clear Channel, there are not very many independent radio stations out there) that’s still a limited number of outlets.

      The internet however opens up the cacaphony, and as Paul Krugman points out, the ability of some obscure researcher or academic out there to point out you are talking bollocks, and to have that voice *heard*.

      Based on what’s happened to radio, though, I don’t have any confidence that demagogic pundits have had their day. If you have a point of view, you can always find a group that your view articulates what they believe.

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