Geo-politico-economic shock multiplies

2 July 2011

One of the most astonishing pleas came from an environmentalist confessing loathing for the nuclear industry

You could call it hubris. In our March issue I lapsed into a presumption that something like a renaissance had begun for the nuclear power industry. Scarcely had that month’s MPS reached you before Mother Nature showed who was boss. The world was aghast as Japan quaked.

Not that times had been particularly placid until then. Crises had been shaking global economics for years. New political revolutions had sprung into view. Then suddenly the tectonic plates too grew restive, the tsunamis wrought havoc and engineers (among others) were humbled.

The established prophets of nuclear disaster claimed receipt of their vindication. Some people spoke of abandoning fission energy forthwith and forever. Planners in high places thought again about their variously ambitious schemes for the nuclear ‘decarbonisation’ of electricity generation, or at least slowed down their efforts. The Chinese, for example, allegedly put their plans on hold. Alternatives to nuclear energy were resought and the whole gamut of fossil fuel options and renewable energy sources was presented afresh to a public which had thought the book closed.

Not everybody condemned nuclear power. Advocates, indeed, survived. One of the most astonishing pleas came from George Monbiot, an environmentalist still confessing his loathing for the nuclear industry. Writing in The Guardian, a UK newspaper, this most fervent of greens concluded an article (headed Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power) with these words. ‘Every energy technology carries a cost; so does the absence of energy technologies. Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.’

Which voices will prevail? It remains difficult to predict what will happen to nuclear power. China’s important uncertainty reminds me of the judgment of Zhu Enlai, a long-time player in Chairman Mao Tse Tung’s government. Were he alive today and challenged to opine on nuclear power, he might well reply as he famously did to a request for his assessment of the French Revolution (which began in 1789). ‘It is too early to say’, answered Zhu.

What a spin we are all in

It was during one of the bad-news peaks that followed Japan’s quake-tsunami disaster in March. The polarisation of the world’s energy policy buffs’ views about nuclear power was, shall we say, intense. Then the international community of nuclear physicists received its copies of one of its most respected journals and found a striking challenge inside. It was actually a quotation from the ambient text on one page, prominently displayed to draw the reader’s attention to a particular passage.

‘Will nuclear polarisation’, the quotation demanded, ‘facilitate a solution to the energy problem?’.

The answer in the ambient text began thus. ‘There is an old theoretical observation by Russell Kelsrud and colleagues that the fusion rate in tokamaks[*] could substantially exceed the rate of depolarisation of nuclear spins. While the spin dependence of the 3HeD and D3H fusion reactions is known, the spin dependence of the DD fusion reaction has never been measured.’ The narrative continued, to climax in a plug for the 20th Spin Physics Symposium at Dubna in 2012†.

Energy policy buffs (and high-energy physicists), wherever you are, please note. It could turn out that, even if fission-based nuclear power is killed off, a fusion-based variety would bring the real renaissance.


* Tokamaks are certain favoured concepts for thermonuclear fusion power reactors. They were conceived originally in the Soviet Union and are generally called by the Russian acronym, tokamak.

† The complete feature, titled ‘Julich welcomes the latest spin on physics’, begins on p28 of CERN Courier, April 2011.

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