Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Waiting on the Tokamak

Whatever Happened to Nuclear Fusion?

"The discovery of nuclear reactions need not bring about the destruction of mankind any more than the discovery of matches" –Albert Einstein, 1879-1955.

In one of my recent postings I mentioned fusion power as one of the huge technological advances waiting in the wings, and I realized I hadn’t heard much about it recently. I soon discovered that I could date the cessation of information back to the late 1980s, when there was a flurry of interest in a scientific concept called “cold fusion.”

Two scientists claimed they had extracted more energy from a room-temperature experiment than they put into it. The discovery was touted as the Holy Grail, the Lost Ark, and the Jewel of the Nile all wrapped in one enormous breakthrough. The problem was that nobody could replicate the effect, although they kept trying, and are trying still. It gave fusion proper – “hot” fusion, if you will – a bad name as well, and I haven’t seen much mention of it in the popular media since then – and that was over two decades ago.

Well, in the mean time scientists have pretty much put all their fusion eggs into one basket, and it is a really big basket. They’re building a huge “tokamak” (the word is a Russian acronym for words that mean “toroidal chamber with axial magnetic field”) – or what might be described as an atomic oven – in the Provence region of France.

Our existing nuclear power plants are all “fission” plants. Very big atoms like uranium and plutonium can be broken apart into pieces: different atoms that are still pretty big. The resulting atoms, combined, weigh just a little bit less than the big atom you started with, and that little bit of extra “stuff” gets turned into energy.

When you have a whole bunch of big atoms breaking apart at once, you have an atomic bomb. When the big atoms are diluted or separated so that they don’t explode, just a few of them break apart, or “fizz,” every second. The energy that’s created is primarily heat, which can be used to run a boiler and thus a power plant.

The problem with fission is that both the atoms you start with and many of the ones that are produced are radioactive. Some of them remain dangerous for millennia. We are accumulating a lot of spent fuel rods and we have to find a place to store them indefinitely, thanks to fission power.

Fusion, by contrast, is pushing together, not breaking apart. It turns out that four hydrogen atoms, the smallest and most abundant atoms in the universe, weigh quite a bit more than one helium atom, and if you can cram those hydrogen atoms together you get helium and a lot of energy.

The radioactive products of fusion are minimal, short-lived, and easily shielded.

Cramming atoms of hydrogen, more precisely of its isotopes deuterium and tritium, together requires lots of pressure, and the resulting nuclear reaction creates a lot of heat. It takes a lot of energy to create and contain the pressure, and the goal of this huge tokamak project is to get at least ten times that much energy out of the reactor in the form of electricity.

Previous attempts haven’t even broken the one-to-one ratio.

The big tokamak will be built by a consortium of the United States, Russia, the European Union, Japan, China, South Korea, and India. That represents half the world’s population. The project is called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or “ITER.” “Iter” is a Latin word meaning “way” or “road.” I guess if they had done it in China it would be called the “TAO.”

But there’s a recession, and although all of the partners have made commitments to the building of the enormous structure, budget-trimmers in all those governments are looking for programs to kill or mutilate. From what I can determine, ITER’s funding commitments are intact, but it has no wiggle room for cost overruns and design changes.

Maybe this is the best way to fund the really big research projects. When times get bad, individual nations are likely to put the brakes on projects they fund for themselves. (I could mention the Superconducting Super Collider and Yucca Mountain.) But an international consortium is like a treaty, and it’s hard to renege on committed funding in such a situation.

Anyway, this project is going to be around for a while. It was actually Mikhail Gorbachev’s idea, back when there was a Soviet Union, in 1985. It was 20 years before the site was chosen. The official agreement was signed in November, 2006, and since then the dirt-work has been completed. That may not sound like much, but the raised area where the project’s buildings will be constructed measures about one kilometer by 400 meters, and about 2.5 million cubic meters of dirt were moved to build it. (This is in France, so of course everything is in metric numbers.)

Experiments won’t begin in the tokamak until 2019. It will be a structure of 5½ stories underground and 19 stories above ground. I’ve included an artist’s conception of the machine from the official website ( Look for the tiny man standing on the bottom right to get an idea of the size.

Much of this huge machine will be composed of coils of copper wire to create and control magnetic fields to contain the doughnut-shaped core where hydrogen atoms will be injected under extreme pressure. These coils will be cooled to close to absolute zero, so there is a lot of cooling machinery. The tokamak will also have to have a plumber’s nightmare of piping to retrieve and carry away the heat that’s created, in the form of steam.

There are very few projects with such lengthy commitments. After years of experiments, ITER may reach its goal of producing ten times as much energy as it uses. Then more years will be needed for more research to make the process commercially viable. This long-term approach is welcome in a world that seems to see only the end of the current quarter, or at best the end of the current fiscal year, as the future. We need more of this kind of thinking.

So, fusion is still going to be a part of our future. It’s probably still two or three decades down the road, but by that time we are really going to need it.

As for cold fusion, it’s still out there, too. Just last month two scientists from the University of Bologna, Italy, announced that they had yet another room temperature device that produced more energy than it used. Most scientists are skeptical, as usual. It would really be nice if we could find such a simple process, but if that doesn’t happen, we’ll have to wait on the tokamak.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Liberty at Its Purest

A Fleeting Moment
"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." –Thomas Jefferson, 1743-1826.

The most revolutionary part of the American Revolution was the audacious conceit that all governments derive their power from the governed and by the consent of the governed. This was viewed by many as a very dangerous concept. It’s like telling your slave that he holds the key to his fetters.

But we proved it true, as have many who followed our path. When the governed cease to consent, there is no government.

At that very moment, as the former head of state is running for the border with what cash he could stuff in his valise, for that brief instant, the citizens have the purest form of liberty there is.

Cairo, January 28th.           Ramy Raoof on Wikipedia
That seems to be happening all over the Arab world. Egypt, with the largest population, followed the lead of little Tunisia, and there are cracks in the foundations of a lot of other governments we thought were stable. It looks now as if Kaddafi of Libya will follow Mubarak of Egypt. It’s like a chain reaction, and accordingly a lot of energy will be produced from it.

And unlike some revolutions, this one came from the governed themselves, leading themselves. There was no Adolph or Fidel or Saddam; there was just a big buddy-list on Facebook.

These people are suddenly free. They have a chance to build a lasting society that is fair to all. They know that if the military or some would-be dictator tries to take over, they can refuse to consent to them, too. They have feasted on liberty and are sure of their purpose. It is a magic time, and it will not last, but the choices made in the first few days will set the course for the new nation – and the mistakes made in the first few days will haunt it forever.

Such opportunities have been lost before. The Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity of the French Revolution turned into a free-for-all of pillaging and murder. The Russian Revolution, which guaranteed to give everything “from each according to his ability to each according to his need,” took better care of the needs of its ruling elite. More recently we have seen the excesses of the Mau-Mau revolt in Africa and the Islamic revolution in Iran, among many others. Choices and mistakes.

There are always emperors and despots and satraps waiting in the wings to seize whatever domains they can. There are always clergy offering the benefits of a God-ruled nation. There are always generals and colonels and non-coms eager to use their weapons to their own advantage. And there are always companies with plenty of money: Do you want it on, or under, the table?

And so liberty is parceled out, sold, and swindled. The bread-and-circuses scams are offered in return for money and power. The backs get scratched. The governed give their consent in many ways. Choices and mistakes.

At this point, no one knows how Tunisia and Egypt and Libya and South Sudan will evolve. Will Jordan and Saudi Arabia be next? Will there be confederations like the old United Arab Republics? Will these new nations be good neighbors or zealous xenophobes? Will this be progress or ruination?

We can only hope that all these countries will savor their instant of pure liberty and use it to benefit their people.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Deficit and Debt II

Cutting the Big Three

"The government deficit is the difference between the amount of money the government spends and the amount it has the nerve to collect." –Sam Ewing, 1921-2001

Now, what do we do about the Big Three – the federal government’s largest budget expenditures?

The biggest, at present, is Health and Human Services, which includes both Medicare and Medicaid. I assume it also includes the spending required under the new Affordable Health Care Act, the biggest portion of which will take effect in 2014.

Medicare is paid for, as we all know from our pay stubs and W-2 forms, by equal contributions from employees and employers. Please note that the chart I referred to in Part I shows only spending.

Medicaid, on the other hand, is almost fully paid for by taxpayers. It provides medical services to those with low and moderate incomes.

I think there are two desirable ways to reduce expenditures for Medicaid. The first is to increase employment and the second is to reform our tax system.

You can see from the chart that spending under this line item has been increasing substantially, and this is a direct result of the economic recession. Simply put, the more people out of work, the more people eligible for Medicaid. The increase also includes a growing number of older citizens whose retirement income is very low. Increased employment will help both of these groups, at least in the long run.

Fixing the tax code could also reduce the number of our citizens who cannot afford medical care and thus need help from Medicaid. It could help those people in many other ways, as well.
For decades, the rich have been getting richer and the poor poorer. The middle class has been shrinking. As reported in the International Business Times last September, “The top 20 percent of American earners – those making more than $100,000 annually – received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the country, compared with the 3.4 percent earned by those below the poverty line.

“That translates to a ratio of 14.5-to-1, up from 13.6 in 2008 and almost double the low figure of 7.69 recorded in 1968.

“The U.S. income gap between rich and poor is the greatest among Western industrialized nations” (

People making the minimum wage, even much more than the minimum wage, are having great difficulty providing their families with even basic food, shelter, energy, transportation, and education. They pay exorbitant interest rates because their credit histories are in shambles. Most of the bills they pay have late fees, and they fly so close to the ground with their bank accounts that they often get hefty overdraft charges. They get their utilities cut off and have to come up with large deposits in addition to the arrears. If the family car breaks down they can’t pay to fix it, and that puts their jobs at risk. They never catch up, and it gets worse every year.

These are people who get Food Stamps and utility assistance and other government help, and their children are covered by Medicaid. That’s the price we pay for their inadequate incomes.

No, I’m not a Huey Long-style advocate of redistribution of wealth, but I do believe that our tax code puts an unequal burden on the growing population of the working poor. I think we should exempt more income from taxation.

According to 2011 guidelines from the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, a single person making $10,890 per year or less is in poverty, as is a family of four making $22,350 or less. (These numbers are higher in Alaska and Hawaii, where it costs more to live.) I think it would be reasonable to double those amounts, and let those who make that much or less be totally exempt from income taxes. Millions of our citizens would then be freed from the expensive and enervating annual ritual of filing tax returns. They would get more take-home pay. And they would need less government assistance.

There’s no “poor people’s association” lobbying Congress for special exemptions and loopholes, but there are plenty of groups working for such perquisites on behalf of the wealthy. As a result, the tax code is about the size of a major encyclopedia, with smaller print. I would be in favor of getting rid of most of the loopholes and taxing those who make more than twice the poverty rate on a sliding scale. It would have the effect of reducing that 14.5-to-1 inequity cited above.

O.K. We’ve solved that problem. All we have to do is get those people on the bottom of the income scale to vote for tax reform, right? There sure are lots of them. Well, unfortunately, many of them listen to Rush Limbaugh, watch Faux News, and vote Republican. Many of them think Barak Obama caused their financial distress. Changing that is the real challenge.

Now for the Department of Defense. As I write this, an ocean of Egyptian citizens is assembled in Cairo’s Tahrir Square demanding the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. There are similar uprisings in several other Middle East countries. What this means for the United States of America has yet to be determined, but such turmoil is always dangerous, despite the solidarity we feel towards those struggling to free themselves from repressive governments. The world is a dangerous place, and we need to be ready to respond, anywhere on the globe, to threats of many kinds. We need a healthy, efficient military.

That being said, our military has wasted billions of dollars in recent decades. Congress, which is charged with overseeing its expenditures, sometimes exacerbates the problem. Witness the C-17 transport plane. Its parts are made all over the country, that is to say, within many different states and their several congressional districts. The Department of Defense told Congress it didn’t want any more C-17s because it had a less expensive alternative. Congress voted to buy more C-17s. There are two meanings of the word “oversight,” and sometimes Congress seems to be using the wrong one.

There has always been waste in the Defense Department. We’ve all heard about pricy toilet seats and spanner wrenches. We’ve seen the evidence of obscenely excessive payments to government contractors. We know there are outmoded weapons systems that keep getting funded. But given the immense size of our defense expenditures, even a reduction of just a few percentage points would result in very significant savings, probably more than would be realized from all those things I mentioned in Part I.

Well, the Republican Party, trying to stuff itself back into the garments of fiscal restraint it discarded years ago, is talking tough about defunding NPR, but defense spending, it says, is not on the table. The GOP’s pompous hypocrisy is sometimes more than I can stomach.

The defense budget must be “on the table.” One of the basic tenets of our government – of the Constitution Republicans are so quick to extol – is citizen control of the military. Every new or renewed military program should be subject to strict analysis based on need and economic viability. That’s what we pay our members of Congress for. I don’t care if defense contractors offer them a better deal.

Our two lengthy wars are winding down, we’re told. They will have cost us trillions of dollars. As we withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan it is the perfect time to reassess our defense spending. I’m sure there are significant savings to be found there.

And, finally, let’s look at interest on the national debt. You’ll notice on the chart that Treasury Department spending in Actual 2010 was over $250 billion less than was spent in Actual 2009. Part of that was because of reduced bailout and stimulus funding, but much of it is due to extremely low interest rates resulting from the recession. We’ve been paying off maturing bonds and bills that had high interest rates and issuing new ones with very low rates. That’s a good thing, but it won’t last. As the economy recovers, there will be more demand for investment, and that will cause interest rates to rise.

We’ll have a fine line to walk in coming years as the economy regains strength. As soon as it does we need to start reducing the debt while we do our best to keep inflation under control. It’s clear that we will pay off some of that debt in inflated dollars, but we can’t use that as our strategy. The first thing we have to do, as soon as the health of the economy improves, is provide the government with income that equals its expenditures, in some combination of cost reduction, increased revenue from increased employment, and (gasp!) tax increases.

Then we can start paying down that debt.

Deficit and Debt I

Investing in Our Future

"Everything has a cost. We cannot kid ourselves into thinking that by failing to invest in our future, that we're somehow saving resources -- that we're being clever and somehow saving money." –Gov. Martin O'Malley (D-MD)

If you’re one of those people who think we can solve our national fiscal problems by cutting discretionary spending back to 2008 levels, eliminating foreign aid, getting rid of the Department of Education, cutting back the staff at the House of Representatives, rooting out fraud, waste, and abuse in the Food Stamp program, cutting federal support for National Public Radio and the National Endowment for the Arts, and repealing “Obamacare,” you should take a look at this website:

This chart showing where the federal government spends its money comes from the National Debt Awareness Center. I don’t agree with all of its principles (it advocates a national sales tax, which I think would be a disaster), but it performs an important public service by updating this colorful chart every month. (I’ve inserted the chart that’s current as I write this. The one on the link is much larger.)

You’ll see that the biggest expenditures are at the bottom, and do not include the items I mentioned above. We spend the most money on the Treasury Department (most of which is interest on the national debt), the Defense Department, and Health and Social Services. In a separate chart below this one is what we spend on Social Security. Those four items are the really big ones.

The reason Social Security is in a separate box is that it’s not a part of the federal budget. It’s still paying for itself, disbursing money it collected in past years, and will continue to do so for a couple more decades. Its eventual insolvency is a serious problem, but one that can be dealt with by raising the limit on the income on which it is assessed. Those who make over $106,800 per year won’t like it, and they do have a lot of political clout, but it is the simplest way to insure permanent solvency of the program. Because everyone came home from World War II and caught up on being fruitful and multiplying, we have a big lump of people retiring for the next few years – like a snake that swallowed a big rat. Raising the maximum wage contribution for Social Security is the least painful way to deal with it, and it can be a temporary increase.

So the immediate problems are human services, defense, and interest on the debt. While axing NPR might make some people very happy, it won’t make a noticeable difference to our deficit. We have to do something about the Big Three.

The current Republican mantra is that our problem isn’t lack of income, it’s excess spending, but that’s simply not true. In order to get a handle on these huge expenditures, we have to increase our income.

It’s common wisdom that we shouldn’t raise taxes during a recession, and I agree, for the most part. It would be like requiring a bleeding patient to donate blood for his own transfusion. So how can we increase our income?

We have to come up with something new. As President Obama put it in his State of the Union address, “None of us can predict with certainty what the next big industry will be, or where the new jobs will come from…. What we can do – what America does better than anyone – is spark the creativity and imagination of our people.”

It might be a breakthrough in solar cells, or high-speed light rail, or cancer research, or three-dimensional imaging, or, after years of promises, fusion power. It might be all of these things and more. It has to be something that helps humanity take the next step. We’ve done it many times before: we’ve had many industrial revolutions in our history, from the Erie Canal to the railroad, the skyscraper, the airplane, the assembly line, penicillin, the transistor, the computer, and the Internet. There’s always a next step.

The president called for increased federal support of education and research, and I agree. And I’d like to see the two combined.

I think the biggest technological advance we could make at this point in our history is finding new ways to educate our children. We do a dismal job of it. Our educational system is still modeled on Henry Ford’s assembly line. We did a much better job when it was modeled on the family garden.

If you grow corn and beans and tomatoes and rutabagas you quickly find that each crop requires different amounts of water, different kinds and application rates of fertilizer, different tillage methods. Some do better in partial shade while others require full sun.

People are similar to plants in that way: children learn in different ways, and the cookie-cutter approach doesn’t work for all of them. Our latest approach has been to define a set of skills students should acquire and then test whether they have done so. We penalize the schools with the highest number of failures, without regard to the many other forces involved. We have stripped our schools of history, music, and art so more time can be spent teaching students to make change and solve simple equations, and they have gotten dumber and dumber. We need something new! Any improvement in the efficiency of our educational system will reap long-term benefits in technical innovation.

There are so many breakthroughs on the horizon, and each one will benefit our economy, but only if we continue to be the ones making a significant portion of the breakthroughs.