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China's Fusion Super-Reactor
By Yoichi Shimatsu
Hailed as an "artificial sun" by the Chinese news media, a record-setting plasma energy experiment was a triumphant statement from the EAST (Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak) energy laboratory in Hefei, Anhui Province, in east-central China, west of Nanjing. On December 30, the national fusion-energy program accelerated particles of tritium and deuterium (heavy water sourced from the coolant water of conventional nuclear reactors) inside a toroid or ring-shaped vacuum raceway, called from its Russian origin a "tokamak".
To prevent the gigantic apparatus from melting down, high-charged electromagnets herd the particle flow through the hollow center of the tokamak, while permitting some of the deuterium to slam into the lithium lining (called a blanket) to create added tritium for the fusion process. By quickening the pulsations along the magnetic ring, the repulsive electric energy that keeps each single-nuclear particle intact is gradually overcome by rising heat and the thrust of acceleration.
At super high speeds, electron bonds that surround the nuclei start to weaken. Think of how that snug-fitting cap is blown off your head when the bicycle gets up to full speed and your hair is tousled in the human-powered "wind". At that critical moment, the attraction between the two nuclei enables their fusion, creating a particle of helium (a cluster of two nuclei with two electrons). The surplus material is ejected as high-energy neutron, plus various fragments of subatomic detritus. This transformation releases surplus energy, which manifests as intense heat.
As reported by the EAST team, practically unthinkable temperatures were attained, up to five times hotter than the interior of the Sun, or 158 million degrees Fahrenheit (70 million Celsius) for a record-setting 17 minutes. That's enough raw power to light up Beijing, Shanghai, New York City and Hollywood on a cold dark evening. It's even hotter than the heat wave of a nuclear bomb explosion.
Forget solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal, salt ponds, these being yesteryear's green energy sources; goodbye coal, oil, gas and fireplace logs, because nearly limitless energy will soon be available once EAST in China and ITER in France tweak the bugs out of their super-duper fusion machines. That's if slight errors in calculation don't cause a meltdown leaving gigantic smoking holes in the ground in Hefei and Marseille. The fusion scientists assure us that accidents can never happen, in the same vein as the famous last words uttered inside Fukushima No.1.
Being a retro techno philosopher of the liberal arts and journalistic freelancer after leaving behind organic chemistry ambitions at the welcome mat of Eli Lilly, I prefer to have real sunshine tanning my back on a remote island faraway from Fukushima, Hefei and Marseille and other radioactive hot spots. (Despite "scientific" claims that fusion energy doesn't emit radioactivity, any grade-school kid should should know by now, after the meltdowns at Chernobyl and Fukushima, that the half-life of tritium is 7 years and deuterium should not be swallowed with the fresh water from mountain streams at the risk of internal damage.)
Men or Machines
Excuse me for being a skeptic, but I smell a fried rat in the tokamak. This tendency of mine to be a techno-naysayer arose from a boyhood visit to the aircraft carrier USS Ranger in the early 1960s, the flagship at that time of the 7th Fleet parked outside Yokosuka Bay. The fleet commander, a vice admiral dressed in natty naval white, discussed the China Straits crisis and that new little conflict to the south in a remote place called Vietnam. My stepfather was a Defense Department official, who espoused carpet-bombing by B-52s, aerial dispersion of defoliants to remove forest cover over troop formations, electronic sensors for robotic guns along jungle trails, and dropping dozens of H-bombs over Hanoi, Shanghai, Beijing and Pyongyang as "the best solution to the problem". Leave to machines to get the job done, while our troops sit back and enjoy a beer.
The admiral smiled at those ready-made pipe-dreams, replying with the question: "Are wars won by weapons or men?" His point was that all the super-technology in the world cannot defeat the resilience and creativity of human intelligence and the sheer stubborn determination, guts, of local citizens anywhere to rid one's native soil of foreign occupation. He asked, "Remember how in the American Revolution, John Paul Jones took on the Royal Navy?"
After twenty years of grinding combat, disease and self-inflicted horrors, the admiral proved correct, as the last helicopter hastily fluttered off the roof of the American Embassy in Vietnam. Too must trust is placed on science and technology because we are too lazy to do the necessary work and too scared to make the ultimate sacrifice. Patriotism is about summoning up the personal will power whatever the risks.
The Three Kingdoms
Technology and science cannot answer the fundamental issues that determine the human condition. So how does this maxim apply to the new Chinese "artificial sun" circling mindlessly inside a magnetic racetrack?
First, let's look back on the military-techological past of China, specifically during the Three Kingdoms era (220-280 AD), as exemplified in the genius of Zhuge Liang (Chuko Liang), whose wizardry at pyrotechnics, robotics, psychological warfare aka deception, and convoluted tactics are legendary, as depicted in the John Woo movie "Red Cliff". The wizard of Shu devised a vast maze with fake trails and by landscape modification to the rugged terrain on the approach to the Kingdom of Shu (located in The Third Line region of southwest China, today with its research center for fusion energy in Chengdu).
As the innumerable soldiers of northern warlord Cao Cao advanced ever-closer toward Shu, after stunning defeats masterminded by Zhuge Liang, these northern invaders encountered an army of robotic puppets and then zombies who were impervious to arrows and slashing swords. (It is still debated whether these zoned-out warriors were opiate-drugged prisoners or near-dead wounded soldiers resuscitated with herbal medication. Despite those astounding innovations, the better trained and highly motivated manpower of the North won the final battle to win the contest.
Which gets to the point, that fusion power, along with most types of "green energy", is essentially a means to fuel novel super-weapons rather than serving as a mere substitute for oil, coal or wood to warm your bathtub on cold nights. Why, after all, would the PRC, a country with low average personal income of about $12,000 per year and a network of energy pipelines from Central Asia and the Andaman Sea, be spending $1 trillion on fusion, a yet to be proven reliable energy source?
Myth for Military Cover
There are other examples of how myth cloaks military technology, for instance that shadowy rabbit up in the sky, visible in the glow of moonlight. Partly due to the fantastical folktale of the hare on the Moon who befriends a Chinese princess exiled on that desolate space-rock, Chinese officialdom has an obsessive fixation with setting up lunar bases connected by lunar rovers. The charming tale can be expected to sway public opinion among a rather naive Chinese populace, when the logic of realpolitik is more calculating, specifically in terms of Earth observation and gravitational tug. The Moon serves an excellent platform for tracking the U.S. Space Command's satellites and airships hovering over China proper, and targeting these irritating intruders for destruction with high-energy beam weapons stationed on Luna.
The "artificial Sun" meme likewise has proven effective on swaying mass psychology, given the crowd of tourists who gathered on a ridge overlooking the EAST tokamak in the chill of dawn to capture the sunrise on their phone cameras. Never mind frostbit toes or neutron bombardment of their brain cells. The weather report for that clear morning was ideal for a propaganda blitz about an "artificial sun". It all goes to show there is no literary genre more deceptive and sinister than science fiction, for example Jedi mind-control techniques in Star Wars or Orson Wells and Ron Hubbard's cynical exploitation of mass hysteria and paranoia over a soon-arriving alien invasion. These menacing tropes are a call to action for pilots to steer into suicide runs and taxation for improved aircraft. As stated by Wells in "The War of the Worlds": "By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the Earth, and it is his against all comers." Wall Street would not disagree. Space fantasies, like the tales of ancient gods, are aimed at Earth-bound populations to wage brutal wars and massacres over control of earthly resources.
Back to the Good Earth, besides the fusion reactor at EAST lab (Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak) in Anhui. Two other fusion units are operated by the Southwestern Institute of Physics (SWIP) at Chengdu, Sichuan Province, and J-TEXT located at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan. Despite the official claim that China's independent plasma research findings will be of great benefit to the European-led ITER project (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), now under construction in southern France, the massive budget allocated by the Beijing leadership for fusion energy indicates an unmentionable military-strategic objective of global geopolitical consequence.
Enter the Dragon
The astounding success of the EAST "artificial sun" test may imply that, with next-step development of an even more powerful electromagnetic accelerator, China could become the first great power to deploy a plasma-weapons platform with global range after engineering a linear accelerator for the front end of a plasma cannon. Given its potential to annihilate bomber fleets, naval armadas, vaporize missiles in flight, destroy spaceships, slip through tunnels to toast underground bunkers, and annihilate metropolises and even smaller nations, the "fire-breathing dragon" of plasma weaponry is the much-anticipated "super-weapon" that will ensure its operator permanent global domination over cowed rivals and fearful subject nations. That is until someone creates a super-duper fire extinguisher.
The Beast slouches toward Bethlehem in our brief allotted time. Fusion promises all the destructive power of the raging Dragon in the Book of Revelations, but unfortunately we contemporaries have long forgotten the secret code aka prayer to summon that sword-wielding alien, Michael the Angel, to come to our rescue. When faced with dragon-fire, you are absolutely on your lonesome own, which is the great realization that's already arrived as COVID verges into Year 3.
As for the dragon's nest in Chengdu-Sichuan, located inside The Third Line, that region has been the center of China's defense technology research, weapons production, aircraft design and space-exploration technology since the days of Chairman Mao.
The Third Line
The propaganda value from China's latest usurpation of world scientific leadership emerges in a global military-political context, which should not be lost on its fast-diminishing rival and clown, Joe Biden. Hefei, along with the more noteworthy Chengdu municipality in Sichuan Province, have been directly connected with research and production of military technology over the past seven decades, most of it under tight state secrecy since the early years of the Sino-Soviet split from the early 1960s through to the collapse of the Soviet Union and since.
Back in the early 1950s, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) was hard pressed between the U.S. 7th Fleet prowling the Taiwan Strait and secret dispatch of military advisers to Vietnam, while a newly hostile Soviet Red Army massed along Chinia's western and northern borders. To avert enemy capture of China's second-rate and puny armaments industry, Chairman Mao ordered the PLA to begin construction of a military-industrial complex along "The Third Line" in the rugged mountainous terrain of Southwest China, bordered by Burma and the Tibetan autonomous region.
Laying rail for transport in and out of that remote region meant drilling and digging by hand hundreds of tunnels, a monumental achievement. Tunneling became a routine task for the Chinese military for protection against bombing runs and also concealment from U-2 spy planes and earth-observation satellites. Vast sectors of the armaments industry, along with nuclear power plants, were concealed from aerial surveillance inside underground tunnels and caverns, under the Chairman's maxim to "dig tunnels deep." The spy novel "Decoded" about code-breaking by author Ma Jia offers a rare look into the military-industrial complex of that era.
This inland industrial complex has more recently enjoyed a revival as a center for production and testing of military aircraft, assault vehicles, satellite communication systems, short-range rockets, ballistic missiles and manned spaceships. The region also became the center for nuclear reactors for producing H-bombs, despite a serious catastrophe in . In additional, rocket launch sites are installed further west in Gansu and Qinghai Provinces. The majority of atomic-bomb complexes were concealed under the mountains alongside the Beichuan Valley in Sichuan, but were destroyed by the powerful Richter 8.0-plus Sichuan Earthquake of 2008.
Natural Disaster as a Spoiler
In an aside, let me mention that at the time I was involved in mountain environment projects with Amdo Tibetan yak-herding families in far eastern edge Sichuan Province. On a much-delayed flight out of Chengdu, the Russian-made watch on my left wrist, which contained a tiny Geiger counter, bleeped wildly, picking up four huge radioactivity releases over the Beichuan Valley, indicating nuclear leakages free-flowing out of quake-destroyed reactors. Upon landing in the yak-herding region, the Geiger watch indicated that the small rural runway had also become contaminated from plutonium particles scooped up in the small jet engines. In the chaotic emergency response to the remote earthquake, the rescue organized had overlooked the possibility of extensive damage to the nuclear facilities.
Earlier, during the 2001 UN Year of the Mountain, I had attended an eco-conference in the Altai mountains at the juncture of the borders of China, Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, and there met Kazakh Professor Kanat Sarsenbaev, who had been planting trees along rivers to "phyto-remediate", that is, to remove the radioactive mine tailings left by Stalin's secret atomic energy project, which prompted the Kremlin to occupy the Chinese Altai region to extract uranium for the first Soviet A-bomb. (This gripping tale is retold in Thomas Laird's book about U.S. consul-general to Sichuan Douglas MacKiernan "Into Tibet: The first CIA spy killed in action".)
The Kazakh professor and I happened to visit a local mine in Burjin, downhill from the conference, where various types of boron-rich minerals were being excavated for use as a shield against radioactive emissions at long-contaminated mining and very messy processing sites. As an unintended result, during the Sichuan nuclear horrors, I managed to inform the Science Ministry about this tried-and-proven source of boron for helicopter-drops onto the ruined reactors in Sichuan, just in time to prevent wider mass exposure during the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. While some foreign foes of Olympic events in China may curse me for trying to save human lives, as far as I'm concerned there are no political or cultural boundaries when it comes to the radioactivity threat to our frail bodies, regardless of nationality, since we are all vulnerable and naked before its lethality.
The point of this diversion is that high-risk new technologies are difficult to design and build, but can be even harder to suppress or remediate when things go badly wrong, bioengineered coronavirus being another case in point. As proven time and again, no so-called experts are going to step forward to inform you about remedial action or even the need to evacuate. The scientists and doctors simply write off their victims as dead meat. Before fantasizing over the potential applications of fusion power and its byproducts, national planners and scientist should consider the unintended consequences of technology failure, for instance, a potential meltdown of fusion reactors, despite all the calm assurances from the high priests of nuclear science. Remember Chernobyl, Fukushima and more recently that leaking Taishan reactor near Hong Kong and Guangdong. The human genome is in all probability is going extinct faster than slower, so your chances of survival are shrinking rapidly.
The Third Ozone Hole
An immediate problem related to that "green energy" fusion project along the Third Line is the inevitable escape of a host of radioactive particles, not only neutrons (remember the neutron bomb) but also irradiated metals including cobalt and molybdenum fragmenting off the tomakak walls and being released into the atmosphere. The ITER scientists in Marseille admit that more than 10 percent of the radioactive compounds are "lost" somewhere outside the tokamak. Once these super-heated metal particles reach the clouds and cycle back to the ground in rainfall, the entire Sichuan Plateau and Tibet could be at serious health risk. The same goes for the Mediterranean region, which is already contaminated with detritus from nuclear-power disasters in the Lower Rhone wine-grape region.
One of the temptations that arise in the perverse minds of nuclear scientists is the delusion that new untested technologies can solve vexing environmental problems. An electromagnetic particle cannon is easy enough to rig up as a means to "better utilize" surplus plasma, as is now being done routinely from an old nuclear complex on the French border with eastern Belgium and Germany, which are bombarded secretly without public disclosure, much less local municipal approval. Presumably, the purpose of plasma-cleansing is to eliminate fossil-fuel pollution from carbon-emitting vehicles, home heating and factories. This is like using a ray-gun to cauterize a pimple.
These sorts of absurd panaceas are likely to be deployed for "remedy" of the causes of ozone loss over the Tibetan Plateau (Sichuan is on the eastern rim of that "Third Ozone Hole" ). The heavily industrialized Sichuan Basin is positioned between 3,000 and 4,800 meters above sea level. The cold temperatures in the snowy mountains, therefore, cause a massive inversion layer, trapping vehicular smog and industrial emissions. Major sources of ozone can be identified, including industrial emissions of CFC-11 from a type of polyurethane used for insulation of wall panels; commercial satellite and military rocket launches from the Sichuan space port and nearby launch pads in Gansu Province; high-altitude test flights from the massive military and civilian aircraft complex based in the provincial capital Chengdu; and heat emissions from nuclear power plants. The temptation is to scrub the air with neutrons to open blue skies, however at the risk of further degradation of the ozone layer.
Green and Mean
Incredibly or perhaps ridiculously, fusion power along with nuclear reactors have been promoted by the IAEA and UN COP as the leading edge of environmentally correct "Green Energy", as opposed to more efficient combustion of plain old "fossil fuels" such as the gasoline that powers your car or motorcycle or the gas that enables proper baking in an old kitchen stove. While conventional emissions without smokestacks lack the intensity to rise above cloud cover, super-heated nuclear thermal uplifts easily reach up to the jetstream and even higher.
There are ground-level environmental risks as well from nuclear plants and the next-generation fission reactors. Unmentioned in press articles about the EAST lab's release is that tritium emits harmful beta rays during its half-life of 7 years, while deuterium when ingested can contribute to cancer and heart failure. Heavy water is easily absorbed into clouds, fall to the ground in raindrops, and are difficult, indeed practically impossible to remove from urban and rural storage systems or to separate from drinking water by home filtration. Many and likely most of the spectators outside the EAST release ingested potentially dangerous amounts of both types of nucleated water.
Sunny Skies over China
The false promise of beneficial effects from super-technology has huge public-relations value in China's censored media, as expressed in the all-too clever ideological somersaults of thought-police chief Wang Deming, whose aim is to undermine the democratic traditions of China in order to elevate his party boss to parity with the founding father of the People's Republic of China, the highest praise accorded to only the rarest of mortals.
So please sing along, Young Pioneers. "Out of the EAST rises the Sun, Long live our Leader Mao Zedong!" (The East is Red). For Americans, fortunately, this type of idol worship sounds like an absurdist parody along the lines of Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" (nobody should sleep tonight) in homage to the homicidal princess Turandot. However for an easily impressed captive audience in China, the Imperial fusion-energy trickery has chased away the once-feared American gweilo (white ghosts) without firing a arrow or losing a single brave soldier.
What a wonderful prelude to the coming Lunar Year of the Black Tiger! (Since this mythic feline is a swimmer, watch for an amazing stunt at sea in the months ahead.) Public demonstrations of sensational but crude power are typical of weak-minded regimes, which cannot trust their public to respect democratic norms of lawful governance.. The political neoimperialism of the Kremlin a la Putinesco, now mimicked by imperial court jester Wang Deming's conflated praise of his new emperor, are a passing phase of infantile adoration of brute power on the thrones formerly held by those benevolent demigods Genghis Khan and Ivan the Terrible.
As in a marriage on the rocks, a democracy-upholding Uncle Sam now has little choice other than to smile courteously and bow out during this rocky period of American separation from Moscow and Beijing. Instead remember that in certain seasons democracy blooms like tiny flowers over a meadow rather than towering trees along the peaks. In this era of smaller but more beautiful, a Cinderella hidden in the shadows demands our attention far more than her preening arrogant and ugly stepsisters. So let us remain cool-headed, wait out this hiatus in great power relations, and by all means avoid the merciless false sun that blazes over their swollen heads. When the fusion stunts blows up in their faces, I suppose that a predictably charitable and kind-hearted American public will once again open their hearts and purse strings to help lift the spirits of a downtrodden Chinese people in their moment of disappointment, sorrow and regret. History will soon repeat itself; that is the only certainty anyone can count on.