Why Brian Cox is wrong about nuclear fusion
Who’s been watching ‘Human Universe‘ with Brian Cox? I’m especially talking about the last episode – ‘What is our Future?‘ Brian Cox is doing a great job popularising science – and science, as he says, is a ‘wonderful tool for making the darkness visible’. He has gravitas but you also feel as though you could have a social drink and a chat with him.
The problem is though, that science can tell us nothing about values, ethics and how to organise ourselves. In particular, I think this programme made two huge mistaken assumptions, around democracy and around nuclear fusion. I’m interested in human survival and democracy. If fusion is introduced into our current economic and political system, I believe that it will make those things less likely. Let me explain what I mean in an open letter to Brian.
Brian, you said ‘we live in democracies, so things change when people like you and me want them to change’. Really? Brian, we don’t live in anything like democracies. The people with the real power don’t put themselves up for election.
Come on Brian, this isn’t particularly contentious any more – I’ve had conversations with bankers who get it. My 19-year-old nephew and his mates get it too. When I ask them where real power lies, they rub their fingers together in the internationally-recognised gesture that means ‘money’. That’s not democracy, Brian.
Yes, we can vote for different political parties, but because of the party funding system (especially in the US), and because of the lobby industry, corporate ownership of the media and the power of corporate-controlled institutions, it’s not possible to elect a government that will challenge corporate power under this corporate-controlled system.
Nuclear fusion: two problems
Nuclear fusion is a holy grail we’ve been chasing for decades. We’re trying to recreate the power stations that exist in the plasma in the centre of stars – producing clean, abundant energy, the only ‘waste’ product of which is helium, that can be safely released to the environment. The programme showed the National Ignition Facility in California, where 192 lasers fire 1000 times the peak power generating capacity of the US at a target 1mm across in a single blast – it’s like bringing a star to earth! In 2013, for the first time, more energy was produced in a fusion reaction than was used in the process of creating the reaction. This was a very important milestone.
I can see why this is all very impressive and very exciting, especially for a scientist, but Brian, you said that you believe renewable energy to be ‘part of the solution’ (why not all of the solution?) and that nuclear fusion is ‘more promising’. However, I believe that nuclear fusion may create more problems than it solves. LILI has always focused on two enormous problems facing humantiy – ecological degradation and the prevention of democracy by corporate power. Nuclear fusion could easily make both these problems much worse. Let me explain.
1. What effect will nuclear fusion have on economic growth?
Brian, you said that science is about ‘knowledge for its own sake – not just to grow the economy’ – so I think you get the fact that it is human activity that’s causing the mass extinction event we find ourselves in – and the fact that economic growth will mean more human activity and therefore more ecological damage. But how will nuclear fusion affect economic growth?
I suggest that fusion will increase economic growth sharply – which means that, largely in the West, where the technology will be introduced first (at least initially), cheap energy will mean a huge increase in spending power, which will mean more consumption, more cars, more roads, more flights, more resorts, airports, mines, factories, second homes, consumer goods etc. etc. It’s not just energy generation that has an impact on the environment – all this increase in economic activity will squeeze out nature even more.
You mentioned that America spends ten times as much on pet grooming as it does on fusion research – you know that people will always find more nonsense to spend their money on. If we introduce nuclear fusion into a steady-state economy, that’s a different kettle of fish altogether. With our economy managed so that it stays within nature’s limits, the introduction of a limitless, clean energy supply would be a very good thing. The introduction of fusion into an economy whose only purpose seems to be to increase in size could be a very different, and dangerous matter.
2. Who will own the technology?
Secondly, and, more importantly – who will own the fusion reactors? You know that corporations (probably the existing energy giants) will own and run the technology the moment it becomes profitable to do so. I believe that Monsanto and Cargill attempting to completely control our food supply is a very bad thing, in the same way, I think that it’s a very bad idea for a few large entities to own our energy supply. Instead, we advocate small-scale, local, renewable energy generation – for example solar, wind and hydro. Then individuals and local communities can own their own energy supply, rather than being dependent on corporations.
And of course, control of our energy supply will hand more power to corporations, and chip away at our democracy just that little bit more. The work at the National Ignition Facility is being paid for with taxpayers’ money. If the fusion generation will be owned by corporations, and they will reap the profits, why aren’t they paying for the R&D?
We need wisdom more than we need science at this point
Brian, I agree with you that humans will continue to explore, and (unless they become extinct) will continue to spread out into the galaxy. But I would argue that we’re not ready for that yet. For one thing, rockets burn too much fuel, and therefore create too much environmental damage. As you say, the Saturn 5 requires more power to lift-off than the peak power generating capacity of the UK. That’s too much resource use and pollution for one launch – let’s at least wait until fusion comes online until we rejoice in millionaires enjoying commercial space flights. The destruction of our life-support system just isn’t worth it.
Some people say that it doesn’t matter whether humans survive or not – what will be will be, and if the universe loses humans, well then we deserve it, and it won’t matter anyway. But then we’ll never know what might have happened, will we? It’s much more interesting to stay and find out what the future holds. I agree with you on this point Brian – it’s better to keep exploring than to stagnate into superstition and ignorance, or to become extinct.
Let’s get this planet right first. We don’t have the wisdom to cope with nuclear fusion or the exploration of other worlds, because we can’t live in harmony with the ecology of this one. Once we can do that, which I would argue requires better leaders and a better system than the one we have now, then fine – but not until. Let’s solve our ecology and democracy problems first, and not try to export this flawed, undemocratic, ecologically-damaging system into the rest of the galaxy.
Alice Roberts, as your guest on ‘Space, Time and Videotape‘, said that scientists need to be talking with social scientists and philosophers to ‘understand what they’re doing in a social context’. Brian, if you’ve been doing this at all, I think you might have been talking with the wrong social scientists or philosophers because I think you’ve missed a lot of the social context.
Also in ‘What is our Future?’ you showed us the Svalbard global seed vault, where virtually all the crop seeds in the world are kept in cold storage. Now the clear message that the existence of this facility broadcasts is ‘there is a danger that our civilisation is about to collapse’. So let’s not just prepare for the worst, let’s work on what’s going wrong, and try to do something about it.
For example, after the Iraq war, companies like Monsanto monopolised the supply of seeds, and the US prevented Iraqis from harvesting and using seed from their own plants. They can never get their 10,000-year seed heritage back – the longest seed heritage in the world, as Iraq is where agriculture began. Who knew this was happening? Well, it’s happening everywhere – it’s just that the Iraq war gave GM companies the opportunity to do it wholesale via the direct control of a country and its legal system. See here, here, here and here for more information, or just do a search for Iraq/Monsanto. Let’s keep our seed heritage alive in our agriculture, not just in a frozen vault.
Grounds for optimism
Humanity is improving in many ways – the speed of change in my lifetime is incredible. Parenting is better, we have the internet, mobile communications, therapy, we’re moving in the direction of racial and gender equality, and of course science is telling us much more about the wonders of our universe. But at the same time, ecology is degrading, which can’t continue. Can human genius find a way to blossom whilst ecology is degrading? Maybe – but for how long, and what’s the risk?
In ‘Space, Time & Videotape’, you said that it’s good to watch something on TV and then say ‘I don’t agree’. Well Brian, mate, I love what you’re doing when it comes to science education, but I don’t agree with your position on democracy and nuclear fusion.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Andrew Rollinson December 31st, 2014
I read this over the holidays, which seems relevant:
“…Parliament on the one side [was] a kind of watch committee sitting to see that the interests of the Upper Classes took no hurt; and on the other side a sort of blind to delude the people in supposing that they had some share in the management of their own affairs” (1890, William Morris, News from Nowhere).
Capitalism is not a natural law; it is a human invention to protect the powerful, and as such it can be changed.
2Dave Darby January 8th, 2015
Quote by Ursula le Guin: “We live in capitalism. It’s power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”
I love that woman.
3Kevin Walters January 23rd, 2015
Another starting point for this discussion would be what you consider to be an appropriate amount of energy use per person per annum in the UK, the US and globally?
4Briant February 4th, 2015
I just watched this program on Australian television and I, basically agree with the points above. I am not sure that fusion will ever be feasible. Even if all the (massive) hurdles are overcome, I believe that it will be much more expensive than renewables are already. Just like existing nuclear technology – maybe more so.
I had another issue with his connection between energy usage and length of life – and education! This is not cause and effect. The cause and effect is that rich countries have good nutrition, sanitation, clean water and good medical systems plus education. Their citizens can, of course afford all the things that use lots of energy and they can afford that to pay for the energy. I think Brian Cox has been fed this stuff.
Also, my nuclear physics is VERY rusty but surely a full blown fusion reactor will produce elements other than Helium?
5Dave Darby February 4th, 2015
Yes, scientists tend to be very focused on science, and often miss the political consequences of their work.
Well, the fusion reactions in the centre of stars certainly produce more than helium, and supernovae produce all the heavier elements too. Helium is the first to be produced though, and it’s the ‘easiest’, if ‘easy’ is a term that can be used for nuclear fusion! So I’m not sure that fusion on earth could produce anything other than helium – maybe a nuclear scientist could correct me if I’m wrong.
But if we start getting close to supernova conditions, it might be time to start getting worried.
6Christoph March 24th, 2016
The Problem is that renewal energy will function on the recent level of human development. But please tell me, how will we leave the earth?
Hey – we have a whole universe around us. Are you intendig to leave it to the “Ferengies and Klingons”? Dont get me wrong, it is there, we will take it. But we won´t do that with wind power.
7Matty T August 15th, 2016
Knowledge is not power, it’s human growth! If we look after this planet and strive for new technologies we will be infinitely better off.
8Robin Smith September 11th, 2017
Prof. Cox may do well to look into things with a little more scientific method and put aside the planet saving until the science has been properly attended to, unless he want to introduce more suffering into the world. That is, in wealthy nations where most energy demand comes from, the population is in decline in general. In poor nations where there is little energy demand the population is growing to the extent he mentions. So to ask that the demand for energy of the poor be bought up to wealthy levels is a scientific neurosis – evidently there is not demand for it per capita. It’s no sue saying “they should be given more wealth/energy” if, a priori, the likes of the wealthy, including Prof. Cox, effectively own all their land(through who we all work for here etc). If they were to be given more wealth it would simply raise the rental and selling price of land the wealthy owners, own. And the poor natives would be none the wealthier because their rents would rise to the extent of the subsidy. If they remain poor, how will they afford more energy even if fusion worked perfectly? This is a very deep rooted question, challenging the mainstream world view of both the left and right and rich and poor. The intellect is not so necessary to look into it. Wisdom is. And the ignorance displayed about this question is astonishingly without bounds. Its not limited to Prof. Cox. David Attenborough also blames too many people for the worlds problems, ignoring that the institutions he upholds teh most are effectively robbing the poorest nations causing the population there to grow. So will the wise ones please stand up and say “with justice in the distribution of wealth(those who work for it, get it, those who do no, do not), population will tend toward natural levels and likewise will energy demand – both will become ‘sustainable’ much as I dislike using that abused term. Again, this needs open dialogue where *all* prejudicial worldviews are put to one side for a few moments to look and see what’s really there. Instead of the sentimental ignorance of these kind of shows.
9Dave Darby September 11th, 2017
I think that ‘justice in the distribution of wealth (those who work for it, get it, those who do not, do not)’ would require a good, hard look at the banking system (especially interest), and if implemented would go a very long way (if not all the way) to solving our problems around sustainability, equity and democracy. You’re describing the labour theory of value, which pro-corporate types do all sort of contortions to deny. But it’s undeniable. If you trace back anything of value – someone, somewhere worked to produce that value. This would be a pointless conversation to have with most scientists, who are logical enough, but who have spent all their time reading the physical sciences (necessarily), and very little time reading political science.