Is Fusion the Answer?

Humanity's energy situation gets more precarious by the day.  Our oil production has peaked, gas supplies are starting to show signs of strain, the world's hydro capacity is pretty much maxed out, nuclear fission suffers from economic and public acceptance problems, solar power is still too expensive and wind power is still in its infancy.

To compound the problem, it has become obvious that coal is the industrial heir-apparent for large scale energy production -- even though the risk of climate calamity from pursuing such a course is abundantly clear to everyone.

This uncomfortable situation has led to a lot of energy day-dreaming. What if there was a clean, cheap, decentralized energy source that could provide enormous amounts of power at low cost with no environmental risk?  Ahhh, think of the the magic we could make!  One such daydream has recently attracted a lot of attention in the community of environmental technocrats.  Enter the Polywell reactor.

Developed by an eminent physicist, the late Dr. Robert Bussard, if the Polywell research came to fruition it could result in a very small, quite inexpensive fusion reactor.  Such a device would be very safe to operate, produce no radioactive wastes or greenhouse gases, would produce prodigious amounts of power, and could be used in applications like ship engines or individual factories as well as traditional electrical power stations. All in all, such a power source is not just an industrialist's dream, it's an environmentalist's dream as well.

The traditional view of such a device is that it would be virtually free of negative consequences.  With that much clean power at our beck and call, anything we dreamed of would be possible.  Even better, all our mistakes from the past could be rectified.  Humanity would finally be on the road to environmental nirvana, without sacrificing any of our beloved creature comforts.

There is, unfortunately, a darker view of such a development.  Every human invention has had a dark side to balance its promise -- given the dualistic nature of our universe, it could scarcely be otherwise.   So before we leap enthusiastically and uncritically into the middle of our energy daydream, it would be prudent to ask what the dark side of such a wonder might look like.

My position on new sources of large scale energy -- whether they are fission, fusion or renewable energy -- springs from my understanding of humanity's interaction with the rest of the biosphere.

There is no question in my mind that we are now a species in overshoot. The rising levels of atmospheric CO2 point to this, as does the decimation of ocean fish, the drop in soil fertility, the increasingly parlous state of the world's fresh water, and the world-wide increase in socioeconomic instability. For a look at our situation by someone who investigated it carefully, see this PowerPoint presentation by Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of the famous 1972 analysis, "Limits to Growth".

Because we are in overshoot, we are drawing down the planet's physical resources and damaging its biosphere, potentially beyond the possibility of recovery on time scales meaningful to humans. If we place any value on the other species that share the globe with us, and even on our own descendants, we have an ongoing responsibility to avoid such behaviour.

There are two factors that are the primary drivers for this damage. One is our sheer numbers. For example, we would be causing species extinctions even if all 6.7 billion of us lived like Bangladeshis. Unfortunately, we don't all live like Bangladeshis -- the other factor that is damaging "the planet" is our level of activity. And our level of activity is driven by the energy available to us.

It doesn't matter all that much where the energy comes from. Regardless of whether it's fossil fuel, nuclear fission, fusion, hydro or or Zero Point Energy, any large scale exosomatic energy can drive human activity to damaging levels. Each energy source has its own unique problems, of course. We're currently mesmerized by the damage caused by fossil fuels, but even solving the CO2 problem would address only one of the overshoot indicators I listed above.

In order to bring the global ecosystem back into balance by taking homo sapiens out of overshoot, two things would be required. The first is a reduction in human numbers, and the second is a a reduction in human activity. Now, we could accomplish this rebalancing by reducing only one of those factors, but the multiplication in the shorthand ecological equation I = PAT suggests we would have to reduce either factor far less if we could address both simultaneously. Simply retaining the status quo with minor changes in the kind of energy we use won't work because we are already in overshoot. Ensuring the status quo would simply guarantee that we remain in overshoot.

It's unlikely that we will (or even can) reduce the human population by the degree required before the effects of overshoot overwhelm our global civilization. As a result, we are reduced to trying to reclaim the situation though our activity levels alone. That consideration leads us straight back to the fact that large amounts of energy are the driving force behind human activity.  More energy produces more activity; more activity produces more ecological damage.  It's that simple.

It's a truism to say that we are in the situation we are in, with the energy we have available. We can object on various grounds to any of the energy sources we currently use, but the fact remains that we are currently using them. Because of resource draw-down, oil and natural gas will soon become less available. From an ecological perspective that's a good thing for the climate, since it may reduce our CO2 emissions.  Also, if we don't manage to fully replace that energy (or at least the useful portion of it), a reduction in overall energy availability should also reduce our level of activity.  If we do manage to replace it all, we should expect very little to change, regardless of whether the replacement is ethanol, wind, solar power, coal, nuclear fission or Mr. Fusion.

It should by now be obvious why I'm worried about the development of new large-scale sources of energy, irrespective of their individual characteristics. Clean fusion would enable increased human activity just as much as increased coal use (though without the added threats of increased CO2 or particulate pollution). And, from the perspective of the other species that share the planet, increasing the level of human activity even further is the very worst thing we could do

August 5, 2008
© Copyright 2008, Paul Chefurka
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