[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.