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Fear of Fusion: What if It Works?

Times Staff Writer

When two scientists announced last month in Utah that they had achieved room-temperature nuclear fusion, the news shot through the halls of science like a scalded cat. “It was,” one Berkeley physicist said, “like seeing your car suddenly jump on the roof.” It was that unexpected and stunning.

But now that the first waves of astonishment, wonder and euphoria have passed, a few scientists, environmentalists and ecological activists have begun to have more troubling thoughts. For one thing, they say, even if desktop fusion really works--a matter still very much up in the air--it is unclear that the power produced will be as cheap or clean as many have suggested it might be.

And even if it were, given society’s dismal record in managing technology, the prospect of cheap, inexhaustible power from fusion is “like giving a machine gun to an idiot child,” Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich says.

Laments Washington-based author-activist Jeremy Rifkin, “It’s the worst thing that could happen to our planet.”

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Inexhaustible power, he argues, only gives man an infinite ability to exhaust the planet’s resources, to destroy its fragile balance and create unimaginable human and industrial waste.

The Power to Pollute

That fusion itself may be a clean energy source, especially in comparison with fossil fuels, is beside the point.

Not all pollution is caused by burning fuel; there are many other pollutants that fast-growing industrial societies throw into the atmosphere--compounds from rubber tires, fumes from drying paint, and hundreds of other byproducts of industrial processes. And clean-burning, non-polluting, hydrogen-using bulldozers still could knock down trees or build housing developments on farmland.

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A mere technological change in fuel sources also does nothing to change man’s attitude toward nature--what UC Berkeley physicist John Holdren calls the “pave the planet and paint it green” mentality.

In addition, Holdren says, despite the claims made, there is no guarantee that fusion will necessarily be a clean process; in some circumstances it can produce deadly neutron radiation and poisonous tritium. Worst of all to some observers, its cheap inexhaustible energy would let the planet support many more people than its current population of 5.2 billion. And this, they say, would be a crowded Earth, without forests, wilderness, open space or the chance for solitude. What would the planet be like without “psychological space?” asks Richard Charter, a coastal lobbyist and environmentalist who notes that many of the aberrations and turmoil of inner cities can be blamed on “just plain crowding without hope.”

In the euphoria over fusion power, UC Berkeley anthropologist Laura Nader says, many people just assume that cheaper, more abundant energy will mean that mankind is better off, “and there is no evidence for that.” Between 1950 and 1970, Nader says, there was “a doubling of energy use,” while at the same time, quality of life indicators all declined.

“The Age of Progress is really an illusion,” Rifkin says. Far more people--800 million--go to bed hungry today than at any time in history. “There has never been a previous example of that. And yet we continue to delude ourselves with the illusion that this is the Age of Progress.”

No Panacea

Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich says he has no problem with the notion of cheap, clean, inexhaustible power, per se, which could be a tremendous boon to mankind.

The problem: Industrialized societies, so far, have not used power wisely. The world’s limited supply of fossil fuels is rapidly vanishing up smokestacks and out tail pipes. Rifkin cites a 1985 University of New Hampshire study showing that 88% of the Earth’s oil and gas reserves will be depleted by 2025.

And even if fusion turns out as well as it has been promoted, Ehrlich says, it won’t be a panacea. Most problems in the Third World, for example, are social, political or economic, not technological, he says. “The idea that you can solve the human dilemma with a single technological breakthrough is incorrect.”

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For the foreseeable future, much of the world will remain involved in small-farm agriculture and it’s unclear how fusion power would alter that life style.

Fusion proponents, he notes, also estimate that commercial applications of their work are at least 20 years off. And it will be 30 years beyond then before fusion power has significant impact. In this sense, says Ehrlich, fusion is irrelevant because, he asserts, the world will have long since succumbed to over-population, famine, global warming and acid rain.

What About Solar Power?

The current unqualified euphoria for fusion also concerns Barry Commoner, director of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Queens College in New York.

He argues that fusion power could prove to be a dangerous distraction from existing energy sources. It does not make sense, he say, to jump on an unproven, possibly dangerous technology like fusion when a safe, proven and decentralized technology like solar power is there for the asking.

Since fusion “does not yet exist,” Commoner says, “it would be foolish to design a transition based on the assumption that it will exist. It’s like starting to build a bridge over a river without knowing where the other side is.”

To those people old enough to have been present for the original debates on nuclear fission, the unbridled enthusiasm for fusion power sounds strangely familiar.

In 1946, Holdren says, a famous physicist named Arnold Sommerfeld predicted that with the development nuclear energy, “electricity would be too cheap to meter” and nuclear energy would abolish poverty from the face of the Earth by 1960. “They always oversell,” Laura Nader says. It is only much later that you hear about the downside.

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Quick-Fix Hopes

To Rifkin and Ehrlich, this is the real danger of fusion power--it gives people the false hope that a technological quick fix to the world’s problems is just over the horizon.

“Fusion energy is an expedient short-lived diversion to the real problem,” Rifkin says. “It gives some people the false hope that there are no limits to growth and no environmental price to be paid by having unlimited sources of energy.”

But in thermodynamics, which is to say in real life, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. “Even if one component is cheap,” Rifkin says, “you pay the price somewhere else.”

PRO FUSION AND CON FUSION Even if fusion power works, its first applications are still 20 to 30 years away, and any significant impact from it is 50 years off, some experts say.

PROS

It could provide cheap, clean, inexhaustible power.

It could provide a means to end world poverty, hunger, acid rain, deforestation, the damming of free- running rivers, global warming, smog, oil spills, strip mining and nuclear meltdowns. It could stabilize world population by raising the living standard worldwide. It could result in the mining of minerals out of rocks, the desalinization of seawater. It could make the Sahara bloom. It could result in hydrogen-powered cars that emit water vapor, not smog-producing hydrocarbons. It could reduce geopolitical tensions over oil and produce a solution to the balance of payments problem at the same time. It could fuel interplanetary exploration, providing a new power source for spacecraft. CONS It could serve as a power source for space-based laser and particle beam weapons. Its provision of unlimited power could prompt a global population explosion that could create unmanageable industrial and human waste, destroy open space and cause the extinction of plant and animal species while destroying the quality of life. It could have little or no effect, because many world problems are unrelated to energy concerns. It could produce exaggerated claims that never will be realized, as happened with nuclear fission. It could create naive belief in technological solutions that might delay necessary efforts at social, economic and political progress. It could be that it will be neither cheap nor clean, producing, for example, tritium byproduct that is a deadly poison. It could cause the public to neglect safe, proven renewable resources such as wind and solar power.


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