Most of the time, the hottest place in the solar system is the core of the sun. Some of the time, the hottest place in the solar system is tucked away in an obscure building on an anonymous industrial estate on a former airfield in rural Oxfordshire.1 There they use extreme heat and power to smash atoms together to release energy from their fusion.
This is JET, the joint European torus. It was planned forty years ago, has been operating for thirty years and, if all goes well, in another thirty years its successor’s successor will be producing electricity with virtually no fuel and virtually no waste.
It may not happen, of course. There is the old and pointed joke that nuclear fusion has been thirty years in the future for at least the last thirty years. But at Culham, the home of JET, they are adamant that the physics and maths of the problem has essentially been solved. All that is left is engineering and scaling up. As Brian Cox put it a few years ago
What frustrates me is that we know how to do it as physicists, how it works. It is an engineering solution that is within our grasp. I don’t understand why we don’t seem to want it enough at the moment.
If – or when – it does work at commercial scale, the potential impact is enormous. For all practical purposes, the fuel needed is unlimited and the waste produced insignificant.
This then is strategy of the grandest kind. And it is a profoundly public strategy. Compared with the normal range of a blog which claims to be about public strategy, this is heady stuff. I don’t understand the physics and engineering here much beyond the level needed to have my mind thoroughly boggled, but I like to think I know a bit about public strategies. I spent three fascinating hours touring JET and MAST2 at Culham last week – anybody can go, though the tickets are hotter than Glastonbury, so you have to book months in advance.
So here are a public strategist’s reflections on fusion, prompted by my visit.
1. Ambition measured in decades
It is a frequently heard criticism of governments that they are incorrigibly short term in their thinking, driven by electoral cycles and by ministers’ knowing that they are unlikely to be in post to see the consequences of their decisions. There are plenty of examples people can point to of that, and they often do. You can mount an argument that the public sector is very bad at deciding and pursuing long term strategic goals, but it’s had to deny that there are some kinds of long term goals which only governments pursue at all. The symptom of that is often commercial viability, but that’s a measure of uncertainty more than anything else.3
What only governments can do is long term challenges where the goal may be clear, but the method for approaching it is not. The most famous example of that is the space programme. In a post mainly prompted by one of the most extraordinary pictures to come from that whole endeavour, I quoted Bruce Baugh making exactly that point.
This is a statist venture from beginning to end, and demonstrates the ability of the modern regulatory state to undertake and complete large useful scientific endeavors. There is, so far, simply nothing comparable in the corporate sector, and it’s worth keeping in mind that when people talk about doing away with any but the most minimal state, this is one of the things that’d be done away with along with someone favorite caricature of the pork barrel.
It’s not that it’s logically or conceptually impossible that a mission like this could happen any other way. It’s just that three hundred years in to the industrial revolution and nobody’s yet done this kind of thing any other way. And that’s worth noting along with sheer wonder of the achievement itself.
It isn’t yet clear that the bet on fusion power will pay off, though the odds are looking considerably better than they once did. But is clear that without a public strategy, the bet would never have been placed and, whatever the potential, we would never have known if it could be realised.
2. Sustaining public support
The fact that only governments can make long expensive bets on the distant future doesn’t mean that they can do it readily or easily. In public policy terms there are two fundamental requirements. The first is sufficient wealth to make the investment at all. The second is sufficient public support to allow it to be made.
In the case of fusion power the first requirement is managed by spreading the cost. The ‘E’ in JET is for ‘European’. Its replacement, being built in France, will effectively be global. The second requirement is in some ways more interesting. At a time when governments around the world are making painful choices about expenditure, continuing to pay the stake on a thirty year bet may look indulgent. So why do it? I suspect that there is no single tidy answer to that. Some of it could be about devolved decision making to bodies such as the EPRSC and the availability of supra-national funding through EURATOM. Some of it may be an element of double or quits – that having spent so much time and money getting this far, it would be foolish to throw in the towel just when it might be getting somewhere. Some of it may be simple obscurity. Some of though is clearly trying to influence people to look favourably on what they do – which I appreciate, since it is presumably why they offer visits in the first place.
3. Simplicity of purpose
Perhaps the most famous mission goal in history was set by President Kennedy in 1961:
I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.
A year later he further boosted the political weight behind Apollo, and positioned it as a defining moment for the national psyche.
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Nobody has pulled off anything quite like that before or since. The strength of Kennedy’s position was not that he was executing a well defined plan. There was no plan, and there couldn’t be, because nobody knew how to set about the task. But the goal was impossibly aspirational, absolutely precise – and very simple.4
Fusion research shares some of those characteristics, though without the advantage of inspirational speeches from US presidents. The goal is clear and its achievement will be unambiguous: either a fusion reactor produces sustainable net power or it doesn’t. The principle of how it should work was clear as soon as the audacious idea of mimicking the sun was formed. But what actually needed to be done to make it work in practice cannot have been at all clear at the outset. Having a clear plan is invaluable. But a strategy based on simplicity of purpose is critical.
4. Pragmatism of delivery
Grand visions of simple strategic purposes may be essential, but they don’t deliver anything, as any inventor of a perpetual motion machine will eventually tell you. Lewis Carroll nailed the basic principle of strategic delivery well over a hundred years ago:
Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.
Delivery is relentless pragmatic and prosaic. There is no glamour at Culham, there is nothing futuristic.5 A lot of the ancillary equipment looks dated and a bit shabby – though mostly reassuringly solid. This is down to earth steady progress built on foundations of robust engineering.6
What, if anything, can we learn from all of that for public strategy?
On the face of it, an obvious conclusion might be that programmes such as this are so exceptional in their length and complexity that there are few if any lessons to apply to the more mundane tasks of government. If those were the strategically distinctive characteristics of the fusion programme, there might be little more to be said.
But while those are the most obvious characteristics, I am not sure that they are really the most distinctive. What really stands out is the combination of precision of purpose and painstaking pragmatism in achieving that purpose. There are very good reasons why political goals and decision making rarely reach that level of simple clarity – but all the more reason to keep that as a standard to aspire to.
All pictures were taken on the visit – more can be found here.
- On some accounts, it is the hottest place in the universe. But there is no need to quibble about details. ↩
- MAST is the Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak. Tokamak is a contraction of тороидальная камера с магнитными катушками (toroidal’naya kamera s magnitnymi katushkami — toroidal chamber with magnetic coils), abbreviated in the Russian style by syllables rather than initial letters. So MAST is a Russian contraction nested in an English acronym. It probably reveals too much to say that I am entertained by that. ↩
- For a powerful recent example, read this essay by Tim Heffernan about the future of copper mining, “When working out the cost-benefit analyses of new developments, mining firms look ahead a quarter of a century and more. Their potential investments measure in the tens of billions of dollars; their calculations, understandably, err on the side of caution.” That sounds like – and is – an enormous undertaking But it is a bounded one: the challenge is not that the problem of getting copper out of the ground is not understood, it is the massive and sustained programme management needed to do it in a way which is profitable in the long term. ↩
- Of course it was also deeply rooted in the cold war. Kennedy wanted to conquer space in no small part because he feared that the Russians would control space and thus earth as well. ↩
- On the contrary, there are orange carpet tiles. ↩
- Turning JET on briefly draws 2% of total national grid capacity (so is carefully timed not to coincide with the end of Coronation Street) and because even that is not enough, has two enormous flywheels acting as mechanical batteries. That sort of power engineering is just one example of the infrastructure needed before the fancy stuff can even begin. ↩