Politics Again

All cities on this planet should have the problems that Bern has. A recently arrived colleague, born in Spain, and working in the UK recently commented on how beautiful and delightful this city of Bern is. The air is clean, the river’s water is crystal clear, and there are lots of wooded areas around the city that invite a brisk walk, an athletic run, or a leisurely walk with the kids. I can only criticize the fact that the city has not managed to attract any really decent avant-garde theatre or dance group, but in the whole, this is the nicest little capital that I have lived in. It is provincial, and it has a postcard quality to it.

However when you listen to the debate going on in the city’s parliament about yesterday’s clean up action that cleared the anti-nuke demonstrators from the front lawn of the BKW at the Viktoriaplatz, you would think that we are in Syria and that the police has been trained by Al-Qaeda. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Now let me get this clear. Demonstrations are part of our culture. Camping on private property without permission is not kosher. That nuclear power generation is going through an abortion process is nothing that I am opposed to. Sooner or later, this was an inevitable step. Nuclear fusion has the advantage of not producing green house gas emissions, however it is not a form of renewable energy, and the legacy problem of dealing with the byproducts has yet to be solved. We need research and deployment of renewable energies, but we also live in a market society. Deal with it folks, or else turn off the computer, go bathe in the Aare, eat raw vegetables.

Now, what there is to criticize is how the executive of this city dealt with the demonstrators that camped at the Viktoriaplatz. The police did what needed to be done, and they did as professionals. Frankly I really do not understand what these people are whining about!

What I gather is that revolutions are popular these days, and that (political) demonstrations are the new entertainment. Politentrainement?

Get on with it people! Oh, you already have.

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Books: Social Something and the Agent

I have failed at understanding what it is that twitter does or at conveying to you how I use facebook. The truth is that I do not know what these websites are good for, and truth be that I use them but I can also live happily ever after without them, like I can live happily ever after without bars. I go into bars. I meet people at bars, I talk with people at bars, and I can live without bars. It has always been this way.

I remember a discussion many years ago with a friend in Schwabing (Munich) about bars when he insisted that we go to a bar (1). For the life of me I really could not get what he found so particularly interesting about bars, I always preferred sitting in his Schwabing kitchen having a coffee, tea, or a glass of wine and some good conversation while a few rooms down the hall some music played in the background. He had a neighbour whose last name was Depp and my visits to him had this highlight of marveling at the neighbours door and wondering what it is like to wake up each morning having Depp as a name. The Depp and the bakery scents from downstairs together with lots of argumentation marked my experience of those days. I could not warm up to the idea of bars, still can not. But then, I do lots of things out of curiosity, not necessarily out of preference. The bars are now digital, they are called twitter, facebook, myspace and what have you not. I like digital objects. Actually, I love digital objects. But now I am stressed. Yesterday a friend with whom I had not conversed in a while asked if my book had been published….

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Imitating the Sun on Earth: Fusion Reactors

Last week I visited the Wendelstein 7-X fusion device being built at the Greifswald branch of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) and was given a tour of the site in addition to an excellent presentation by former IPP director Professor Friedrich Wagner. This visit took place in the company of a group of young jurist from Germany, Austria and Switzerland who were meeting in Greifswald to discuss the topic of risk and law, or the law of risk. A report of the substantial discussion of the meeting will follow later and will be available from the NCCR Trade Regulation website. (photos)

The idea behind fusion research is to develop a power plant that releases energy by the same mechanism as the Sun does, that is, by fusing light atomic nuclei. What is special about nuclear fusion as a source of energy is that one gramme of fuel – hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium (produced from lithium) – generates as much energy as eleven tons of coal (90’000 kilowatt-hours of energy). When these two hydrogen isotope nuclei fuse, helium and neutrons are produced releasing large amounts of energy. In addition, the fuel itself is very abundant on earth and for all intent and purpose one may consider this to be a renewable source of energy. The energy is captured as thermal energy and converted to electrical power using turbine technology. Fusion reactors generate radioactive byproducts however these decay to background levels within one hundred years, and thus do not pose the problem of nuclear waste disposal that fission reactors do.

The sun, like other stars is a naturally occurring nuclear fusion reactor and exists not as a solid, but as a plasma. A plasma consists of electrically charged particles. The plasma of interest in the case of nuclear fusion consists of hydrogen isotope atoms that have been ionized, that is, where the electron that usually keep the atom in its neutral non ionized state has been supplied with enough energy to break loose. On earth, we have all seen plasmas in the form of neon signs or fluorescent light bulbs. Other examples include most flames, polar auroras, welding arcs, lightning and comet tails.

The first commercial commodity fusion power plant is still in the future. The two devices now under construction in Europe, ITER in France, and Wendelstein 7-X in Germany, are research devices meant to demonstrate proof of concept. In addition to these European efforts, there is the Large Helical Device (LHD) in Japan which is the largest supercoducting stellarator in the world. All of this confinement, that is the containment of the plasma is needed because like a coal fire, a fusion fire does not happen on its own, it must be ignited. To ignite a plasma and cause fusion to occur a plasma temperature of 100 million degrees is needed. To produce this kind of plasma temperature, one relies on magnetic a

Of the research fusion reactors being built, ITER is a tokamak and Wendelstein and LHD are stellerators. The difference is one of geometry. A tokamak has a magnetic toroidal confinement (like a doughnut) and the other a Möbius confinement for the plasma. In either case, the torus or the Möbius create a tube closing on itself where the plasma is confined. So, what is this plasma and why does it need confinement?

Last year a film made by the IPP on behalf of the European Fusion Development Agreement with funding from the European Union won the MIDAS Award. It is only nine minutes long and gives an entertaining and informative account on how a fusion power plat will work and what environmental properties are to be expected.