Promethean Fire: Fission & Fusion

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(Excerpt from “The United States Joins The New Silk Road: A Hamiltonian Vision for an Economic Renaissance”)

The preamplifier of the laser inertial confinement fusion project at the National Ignition Facility, located at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, CA. By achieving controlled and sustained fusion reactions, mankind will be harnessing the virtually unlimited power of the Sun. A crash program to develop fusion power will secure the next great leap in energy flux-density for man.

The United States needs much more power! The development of a national high-speed rail system will alone require a significant increase in the amount of electrical power available for the nation, with initial estimates indicating 50 gigawatts of electricity required to power this advanced transportation system (a roughly 5 percent increase over current electrical generation). Add in the energy requirements of a revived and expanded manufacturing base, and the requirements to power the development of new water resources (as well as the need to replace existing power plants which are reaching the end of their lifespan). Taken together this will require a massive build-up of nuclear fission power, concurrent with a crash program for the development of fusion power.

While the exact number of plants required will depend upon the design and capacity of each plant, the total could easily be in the range of a few hundred.

Providing the increased electricity to power a national high-speed rail grid will reduce our dependence on oil to power the transportation of people and goods. This will be part of a natural process of economic growth, as measured by increases in energy flux-density.

Energy Flux-Density

Economic growth, and human progress more generally, has always been associated with a general increase in the energy flux-density of the process as a whole (as can be measured by total power per capita and per square kilometer of a national economic territory). A more refined measure includes a focus on the qualitative phase-shifts associated with transitions to new domains of physical chemistry—typified by the transition from chemical forms of power to nuclear forms.

The history of the United States displays this reality quite clearly. From the nation’s founding to the early 1970s there was an overall growth in the power per capita, supported by transitions to fuel sources with greater energy density (more energy per weight of the fuel) and demanded by the new processes unleashed by processes of higher energy-flux density (more energy flow per unit area through the relevant productive process). With the rise of the British-Malthusian zero-growth policies in the 1970s this growth stopped, and the conditions of life of the general American population stagnated and began to decline. Had the natural growth process continued with the full development of nuclear power—as President John F. Kennedy’s administration had forecast—we’d have a more productive, power-rich economy today, easily capable of supporting the level of infrastructure presently needed.

The fact that today’s power grid would be taxed simply by the power requirements for the type of advanced highspeed rail system needed in the United States merely underscores the reality of the failed policies of the past decades, and the need to overcome this loss with a major driver to develop nuclear power.

Fission

A single railway car of uranium nuclear fuel provides as much energy as a coal-carrying freight train stretching the entire length of California—from San Diego to the Oregon border. This is a reflection of the immense qualitative advance of nuclear reactions over chemical reactions.

While fission power already provides the world with the safest electricity source (contrary to popular opinion, nuclear power has resulted in far fewer deaths than other sources of energy), an array of new designs for nuclear fission power systems are ready to further improve nuclear power. Smaller modular reactor designs might offer benefits for rapid mass production. New fourth-generation systems offer greater efficiency and safety. Breeder reactors can ensure the entire fuel cycle is fully exploited, and what is now considered nuclear “waste” becomes additional fuel. There is also the prospect of developing the thorium fuel cycle (in addition to the current uranium fuel cycle). All this is simply waiting to be implemented and developed.

Fusion

At the same time that the capabilities of nuclear fission are being fully developed, a crash program for the development of fusion power will secure the next leap in energy flux-density. The development of fusion power has been long delayed in the United States due to dramatic under-funding (with the fusion budget being consistently an order of magnitude below the required levels). With a concerted effort a functioning demonstration fusion power plant could be as little as 10 to 15 years away.

Even with minimal support, slow but steady progress is being made in the construction of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)—a joint effort between the European Union, India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, currently being built in France. While ITER is not designed to generate electricity, when it comes online in the late 2020s, it is expected to generate ten times more energy than is put in.

Additionally, China and South Korea have strong and ambitious domestic fusion programs. They are pursuing various types of designs and are rapidly working towards fusion power demonstration systems, fully capable of putting electricity on the grid. There is also a surge in private efforts across the United States, focused on developing new ways of generating controlled fusion reactions (designs that were abandoned by the U.S. government program in the 1970s).

Nuclear Platform

While much can be said about the details of different systems (fission and fusion), it must be stressed that they are all aspects of a single process: the full-scale development of the capabilities provided by the nuclear domain. This is truly an entirely new level of physical chemistry (including the frontier areas of low-energy nuclear reactions). This is not only about providing effectively limitless power (obviously incredibly important in itself), but also opens up new methods of processing raw materials, creates new resource bases, enables new manufacturing methods, and allows for the creation of new materials. With the control of the atomic nucleus—the power of the stars—mankind has the potential to reach an entirely new level.

Total per capita primary power use in the U.S. from 1780-2010, divided by energy source. Two projections indicate what could and should have occurred under the continuation of a healthy growth process. Curve A is a 1962 projection made by the Kennedy administration, which focused on the then-coming role of nuclear fission power. Curve B is an estimation of what were possible had the Kennedy vision been pursued, followed by the development of controlled fusion (following the 1970s realization of its feasibility). Sources: U.S. DOE, EIA, Annual Energy Review 2011; Atomic Energy Commission, Civilian Nuclear Power: A Report to the President, 1962.