Greenpeace on Fusion

[BPSDB]In a debate about Greenpeace’s alleged predeliction for, shall we say, embellishing facts over on Bad Science, attention was drawn to this. Greenpeace oppose fusion research and think that the money being spent on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) would be better spent on renewable energy. That is their right but they do not help their case here.

First off, they are right to say that fusion is not going to be the solution to climate change. A commercial fusion powerplant is decades away (Cynics sometimes say we are 40 years from commercial fusion – and always will be) but we need to limit carbon dioxide emissions now. Having said that, if fusion research pays off then there will be enough energy to maintain an advanced industrial civilisation for everybody for literally millions of years. Greenpeace’s statement that it will lead to a dead end is a statement of faith not scientific fact. Research is being done because nobody knows whether fusion is viable or not.

The press release then says:

“Today, the nuclear industry presents itself as the solution to climate change in a massive green-washing drive. Far from being a solution, the nuclear option stalls real action to combat dangerous climate change. It is taking away the money for real solutions that are ready and economically available at a large scale, such as wind energy.”

The nuclear industry runs fission plants which Greenpeace oppose of course. Here they conflate commercial fission plants with ITER. I cannot be certain as to why but people who know little physics might be fooled into thinking fission and ITER are pretty much the same thing.

Greenpeace appear to be ignoring the fact that our energy has to be supplied from somewhere. Their spokesperson Jan Van de Putte talks of renewables but they will simply not be enough. Domestic solar panels and wind generators are becoming increasingly common and do indeed reduce ones demands on the National Grid but they do not reduce the demand to zero. So even if we all lived in houses fitted with solar panels and windmills, we would still require commercially produced electricity. And that is just for domestic use. Add in industrial needs and the requirement increases yet further. Van de Putte talks blithely of renewables but the wind farms and solar panels needed to deliver all our electricity needs would cover an enormous area. Already NIMBYs are opposing the building of wind farms. So for the time being, we are going to need fission reactors.

The release then goes on to say:-

“Fusion energy – if it would ever operate – would create a serious waste problem, would emit large amounts of radioactive material and could be used to produce materials for nuclear weapons.”

I really do not know to what “serious waste problem” they refer. Now it is true that if a reactor uses deuterium-tritium fusion then there will be a lot of neutrons flying about and they will make the reactor vessel radioactive over time. However, Greenpeace refer to the emission of radioactve material which implies gaseous waste. The end product of fusion is helium which is not the slightest bit radioactive. Tritium is indeed a radioactive gas but since it iwill be a fuel in this kind of reactor one presumes the operators will not be too keen on their plants emitting any.

As for producing materials for nuclear weapons, I suppose the reactors could be surrounded with uranium so that the fusion neutrons will produce plutonium but frankly the military will find it easier to continue to produce plutonium in breeder reactors. Tritium and deuterium can be used in fusion bombs but deuterium is obtained by electrolising heavy water and tritium is currently produced without the need for fusion reactors.

If Greenpeace are serious about tackling climate change, they would do well to refrain from issuing press releases that contain factoids that the reasonably well informed can spot as nonsense. By doing so, they risk turning the undecided against them and actually damaging the environmental cause.


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6 Responses to “Greenpeace on Fusion”

  1. Joe Says:

    “Renewables reduce your energy consumption but not to zero”. Why not to zero? Serious energy saving measures should reduce the net consumption to zero, Leaving those industries that really do need energy to move closer to the Sahara energy fields.

  2. M. Simon Says:

    Polywell Fusion Plants may be only a decade away.

    We Will Know In Two Years

  3. rob Says:

    For all sorts of reasons (such as the influence and ‘reach’ of one’s voice) there is a temptation to reduce complex problems to single-issue solutions: for/against nuclear; for/against renewables; etc. The reality is that multiple solutions are called for, preferably with a sophisticated scheduling aspect. The reduction of energy waste is something that can be done now, with relatively little technological stress and at low cost (switch off ‘hot-air curtains’ by shop doorways; ban outdoor space heaters; insulate roofs (FFS), reduce air-con demand by painting roofs white, and so on). The transition to renewables is a medium-term action; research and subsequent adoption of fusion is a long-term action. We need all of these – and more – used in an intelligent and non-dogmatic way.

    It would be typical if the human race disappeared amidst the clamour of some childish “My answer’s better than yours!” spat.

  4. softestpawn Says:

    In principle, we can get our medium term future energy needs from the sun:

    Is Solar Power Enough?

    but there are all sorts of security, political and environmental costs (and possibly benefits!) of doing so.

  5. James W Makepeace Says:

    Polywell fusion plants are most certainly not a decade away… although if you believe everything you read (and read between the lines) they tell you the next step for them could theoretically happen on that time scale… That’s a big difference !
    Magnetic confinement fusion (as proposed by ITER) is definitely at least a couple of decades away, and huge challenges remain to be overcome before it can possibly work, but we definitely need to make it work, however difficult the challenge.
    Within the next 2-3 years we will know from the National Ignition Facility in Lawrence Livermore California if fusion can be triggered by lasers in the process known as “Inertial Confinement”. If successful, this doesn’t mean that NIF will become a fusion reactor… it was never meant to be that, simply to prove the process is possible… but it does mean that another project (HiPER) can start turning the NIF achievement to the task of developing laser fusion energy through the new application of “Fast Ignition Inertial Confinement”, which uses a second laser shot to make it much easier to trigger fusion in mass-produced deuterium/tritium fuel pellets… something which the doubters have conveniently ignored in their press releases, but which brings the possibility of commercial fusion energy a huge step closer.
    It’s sad to say, but Greenpeace are really the dinosaurs on energy issues. They have nailed their flag to the mast of renewables, and continue blindly to chant that mantra, despite the unquestionable proof that mankind cannot manage its huge energy appetites on renewables alone…. absolutely not a chance ! General society melt-down would come first… probably with some of the most horrendous consequences that any paid-up tree-hugger could ever imagine !
    Yes we need to keep developing renewables… absolutely ! … but we must also recognise that renewables will never be the whole answer.
    Greenpeace have a duty to the world they purport to inform about these things to actually learn the true acts and the underlying science before they get us too far down a track which will lead to the lights starting to go out within just a few years.
    Greepeace need to learn that fusion and fission are not the same thing. Fusion is hugely more efficient than fission and the waste products are both incredibly low-risk and so very much easier to deal with than high-radioactivity long half-life fission bi-products. The fuel is effectively an infinite supply, (longer than we will last on earth), the output is only harmless Helium and the process of fusion is (far more than fission could ever claim) nature’s chose way of releasing vast amunts of energy. Just look up into the sky any time, day or night… fusion lights the sun and all stars. THAT is the bottom line !
    Let’ stop pretending there might be another way to do this … there isn’t ! We have only a very short time now to harness fusion , using both electro-magnetic and laser apporoaches, and we absolutely need to have both, so no silly thoughts please about cancelling either type of project.
    We must start raising the pressure on politicians right now… they can’t easily focus on anything which takes longer than the life of a government to achieve, but that’s what fusion demands…. a LONG research and development programme, which must bridge the divide between nations. This problem is much much bigger than national differences. We all live on the same small fragile planet… and we and our children currently have nowhere else to go.
    Get the politicians on the case and stop the scientists attacking each other as they squabble over funding. Fusion energy is PRIORITY ONE while we have water to drink and food to eat !

  6. Alcari Says:

    Greenpeace, as usual, are a lot better at outrage than they are at science.

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