LET THERE BE LIGHT Interview: Director Mila Aung-Thwin, Physicists Mark Henderson and Michel Laberge Discuss Nuclear Fusion Becoming Mainstream


And now for something completely different. Many of the writing staff here at ScreenAnarchy have different careers outside of their movie enthusiasms. Myself, I have a degree in Chemistry, and work as a materials scientist. So when the opportunity to talk to the pair of nuclear fusion physicists presented itself, I was excited to get a bit more scientifically technical than is the norm when talking movies. I hope you enjoy the discussion, which is not dumbed down, with the two principals in the current excellent primer on creating the worlds first operating fusion power plant, Let There Be Light.

With all the alternative energy options slowly encroaching on the fossil fuel majority, the least discussed energy source in the 21st century is one of the most sustainable: Nuclear Fusion. Unlike the messy fission process used in nuclear weapons, and the current power-plants around the world, where large, highly processed uranium or plutonium molecules smash together and for radio-active decaying material in the process, fusion is the process that occurs in the Sun, the energy source that in essence, kicked off life and civilization on Earth. Specifically, nuclear fusion takes smaller molecules, combines a lot of energy to make inert larger molecules, and in the process releases a heck of a lot of heat that can be used to vaporize water and turn steam turbines for electricity.

Mila Aung-Thwin’s engaging documentary, Let There Be Light, on the current massive fusion reactor being constructed in Southern France, with an international collaboration of governments, and $14 Billion dollars (and counting) in capital. You probably haven’t heard about it, because it appears to be one of the best kept secrets, utterly out in the open, in the world. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, ITER, is set to ‘turn on’ in 2025, and has been in development for decades, and constitutes one of the largest international public works projects since the International Space Station. Mark Henderson, is an American physicist who worked in Lausanne, Switzerland on the TCV Tokamak reactor for 16 years, headed to the south of France to work on the ITER Tokamak in charge of the microwave system that heats the plasma, and is one of the principle guides in Let There Be Light.

Concurrent to this, and also outlined in the documentary, are the number of private fusion companies like General Fusion, are shown. Dr. Michel Laberge is a Canadian physicist who has worked across Canada as an inventor, designer, and scientific project leader, before founding this private start-up to look at alternative nuclear fusion designs.

When they were in Toronto for the HotDocs film festival, I had the opportunity to sit down with Mark, Michel, and director Aung-Thwin to talk about the various goings on in the world of fusion, as well as the public perception. This conversation was had over two days, and has been stitched together and lightly edited for flow.

With its lengthy history, do you think that now is the time to offer a re-education of Nuclear Fusion as an electricity generating technology, or is any time a good time for bringing it back to the public conversation?

Mila Aung-Thwin (MAT): In my point of view, Let There Be Light is not a re-education for people. I am very surprised at how few people, even educated people, have any concept of what Fusion is. I was very happy that I was able to make the film, and happy with the timing. It seems like a turning point for ITER in its lifespan. When I first started the film, the organization was in crisis, possibly on the verge of collapse, they had a management problem with their last two director generals, and they were looking for a replacement. They had been criticized internally and that had leaked to the press to become a New Yorker article. Confidence was very low. And I showed up there on one of the very first days they were having the debate in their conference room. They let me film it, and it made it into the movie. Then they hired Dr. Bernard Bigot, and he started the shift the large organization, analogous to a supertanker, in the right direction. To me, all of that, and with funding being what it is, that is to say, precarious in the United States, and with the current high-profile debate over Climate Change, I think this is the right timing.

Mark Henderson (MH): I agree with all of that. I want to qualify though is that supertankers cannot make a 90 degree turn. Dr. Bigot has made a change in the direction of the ITER project, but there are a heck of a lot more changes that will take time to redirect things. We talk often on when the first plasma date is, and the probability of delays occurring is high. There are multiple things that make this film coming out now really important what with Trump, and Climate Change, and things like Brexit. There is a division in the world. Coming out with Fusion now offers something of a different solution to such a big problem.

Michel Laberge (ML): Any time is the right time for education. But fusion has evolved over the years and we understand the plasma and turbulence better. The software and simulation programs with modern computers has advanced our understanding a lot and is more readily available. I am a firm believer that now we can actually do fusion. It was probably a bit of a rough chance in the past, but now we have all the technology just sit down and do it. It is a good time for fusion. The problem is that over the years there have been over-promises that drove the idea back into obscurity. It is funny that fusion was more popular in the past when we couldn’t make it work, than now, when we can make it, nobody pays attention.

Energy is kind of boring to most people. You hit the wall switch and the light goes on. Are you getting excited about that? Nobody wants to pay attention to the shitload of stuff that goes into making that happen. People do not even know, but that does not stop them from complaining about any new power lines or pipe lines, or wind turbines, groups will scream murder. And yet everyone wants to drive their car like magic and turn the lights on like magic, and they want the sky to clean and blue by magic. Something has to give.

When you see the scale of the ITER project, one compariso in the film is to the International Space Station, in terms of collaboration. Electricity is not a sexy as say, going to Mars, but unlimited clean energy is still pretty sexy. The press day for ITER plays almost like a tragicomedy, it feels really small in scale in compared to the actual project. It is baffling that ITER remains kind of a $16 Billion dollar secret. In terms of transparency, government, populist and media opinion, etc. how much transparency is too much? Where do you feel the needle for transparency should point in terms of getting projects realized.

MH: Well, right now the needle is so far away that any movement from that extreme is an advantage. Fusion is supposed to be a completely open source research project. My masters thesis was connected between Russia, the Soviet Union in the Reagan period, before the Cold War had ended. The technology was being developed in Russia, and we were taking that and comparing it to the solutions we had, and there was a complete open communication. One of the professors flew over to Kiev, to look at how they were doing things, and came back, told me how they did it, and I compared it to other solutions. There was 100% transparency, it was completely open. For me, transparency in Fusion technology, I am happy with 100% transparency, even if it entails how we spend funds, where we make mistakes, and all of that. This is entirely public money, we should be completely accountable for that. But at the same time, the public should realize what the research process has to offer, and it is a feedback loop to a certain degree. We tend to concentrate on one single methodology. And the Stellerator is a completely different solution than the Tokamak. At least the Europeans realize that we should not put all of our eggs in one basket.

If you look at the fusion program in Europe, you have Cadarache, France, a Tokamak. One in Frascati, Rome, a FTU Tokamak. One in Lausanne, Switzerland, a TCB Tokamak. There is another near Munich. A TJ2 is in Madrid. These are medium to large size operations, but they are all smaller than ITER. We need a variety of sized machines, depending on the experiment, it is easier to testing some things on a small Tokamak. It allows us to also explore ‘weird’ things, which would not be possible on ITER.

On exploring weird things. I get the sense that ITER is more at this stage an engineering challenge at this stage, would you agree with that?

MH: The environment at ITER right now is more geared to addressing the engineering challenge. But the basis of ITER is physics. It is a fundamental experiment that ITER has to allow us to understand to take, ‘the next step.’

But those things are understood. The problems I have seen you face on a day to day level that of building. Civil Engineering and structures that seems to be the ‘headache’ over the years. Less than what will happen on the physics side.

MH: Right now, my job is to make the tools. And that is why I am working with the engineers to make those tools available so that one day physicists can do the science. But there is a little bit of physics going on in terms of modelling to understand and confirm the designs we are using are correct.

How many toroidal magnets, like the one you see loaded on the ship in the film, and get it on the road from Italy to France.

MH: There are 18. The one you see in the film was just the prototype. And that was just the winding coil. That has to be assembled into a cryogenic system. The poloidal field coils are the real monsters, and there is a building on site specifically developed to build them. They are 15-20 meters high. The toroidal coils are relatively small.

At the end of the film, Michel has this lovely little speech about the cost of the bridge he happens to be driving over. How much it cost, and simply how many bridges it would take to realize Nuclear Fusion. It’s confident and pragmatic, but do you feel that it is simply a matter of throwing money at this, and it will work?

ML: Yes. It will cost money and time. But it is doable. The bridge analogy was to give an idea of the minimum resources the whole planet would need to get fusion to work. That is not a lot of resources relative to the world, a bridge a year on it. I am biased, admittedly, and think that this is important, but it isn’t much considering the benefits.

MH: To some degree we need to throw money at it to be allowed to make mistakes.

As someone who has a science background, I agree that you learn so much from failing.

MAT: People may not quite understand that this is an experiment, one of basic science at a very large scale.

Angela Merkel, who is in the film, seems to get this.

MAT: Well, she is a physicist, so she comes with that background.

MH: She was was pissed off that [the Wendelstein 7x Stellerator’s first plasma test] was a very short pulse. In the film you see her ask, “why can’t you go 10 or 20 seconds?” To me, that is characteristic of a physicist. They were concerned that the long pulse may generate too much energy and do damage. But with the Stellerator, you put current through, and it just sits there DC. They are using a microwave heating system, they could have engineered a longer pulse. The plasma stays on as long as the microwaves stay on.

ML: I am no expert in Stellerator. It has some advantages and some inconveniences. In the past it was not holding its heat as well as the Tokamak, mainly due to the magnetic field shape. It was impossible to calculate the containment fast enough, but now we have the computer power to do this. Now we do. Germany’s Wendelstein 7x, is one where the magnetic field is better optimized and can keep its heat as well as the Tokamak. I don’t know if the data is in yet. It takes a while to figure the data out. But the big question that this machine will answer is can this technology keep the heat as good as the Tokamak. The size of the ‘rock’ depends on the heat conduction, if you lose your heat very fast, you need an enormous machine, if you lose your heat slower, you can use a smaller machine. To extrapolate things out to a power plant, it depends on heat loss. With Tokamak, we know the science pretty good, and the size required for a power plant is ITER or more. Hopefully, the Stellerator will have a better confinement, and then you can make a smaller machine.

MH: And for the initial demonstration of the technology, they could have left it there longer, and let it taper off, and you’d have a glow that looks like a plasma, and you could have gotten all the cinematography stuff for public relations. But scientists are really crappy at this kind of communication. We do not appreciate thinks like that. I have learned a lot from Mila. For instance, I was giving a public talk in Oakridge, which is in the film, and the night before I gave a dry run, just going through the practice. The Oakridge people were offering some technical questions and comments, making sure that I was not going to piss of the Department of Energy. And then Mila simply said: Mark, you are giving a talk like it is at a conference, you are supposed to be a public speaker, they actually here here to talk to you.

You mean, know your audience?

MH: Not exactly. The presentation was configured to that audience. But I was putting in too many pictures. And Mila said, just put up a blank screen and talk to the audience. Let them formulate the imagery. The power of oratory over Powerpoint. To me, doing this film has been an extremely positive experience to help my understanding. I think I was a decent communicator from day one, but through this experience, and trying to view fusion through Mila and Van’s eyes, it has been an appreciation to step back and better understand the mechanisms of how to communicate to different audiences. I have many appreciations for what they have done here.

Michel, you mentioned in the film that you worked for a printing company before starting up General Fusion, what did you do when you worked at Creo?

Well I studied laser fusion. I was an expert in lasers and optics. The printing company was producing large format imaging machines for the printing industry. And basically, we designed a process where you carve upon the printing plate with a laser. The optical train between the laser and the modulator, and the pixel. Lenses and mirrors and control systems. Very hands on. You kind of become an engineer there. The cost and the reliability is in mind while you build the product. The good takeaway was a practical view, a little bit beyond what is typical for research scientists. Also, I hired a lot of their engineers for General Fusion. *Laughs*

The design of your fusion reactor depends on pistons coming in to create compression at precisely the right time. And computing has caught up to make these controls systems cheap.

Yes, it is a simple control system, due mainly to a lot of fancy computing. Fast electronics can make adjustments while it is sliding down.

So all three fusion designs are magnetic bottles then?

ML: Yes, they are. We have a magnetic bottle, but we squash it to a density thousands of time denser than the other ones. And the reaction goes a thousand times faster – squared [A million] due to thermodynamics. We don’t have to hold it so long, and we can make it much smaller.

ITER is a prototype as a power plant. If it is successful and the learning and knowledge drops out of that success, do you scale it up, or scale it down? Or do you build the same thing.

MH: It has to be scaled up, a little bit, in size. There are people working the next demonstration designs. The idea is that from ITER, each country can go and build their own, a bit larger in scale than the ITER prototype, but each country can work on their own design. Some thoughts are on taking ITER and simply scaling it up, which is a mistake, to some degree. We need to learn what the physics say with ITER, and adjust to what we need, and what we can simplify. With ITER, it has all the bells and whistles to explore all the different regimes. Once we know the right regime, we should narrow down and make the right high-performance – lower cost per cubic meter. It will still be expensive and complicated. And it will be bigger. But it should be technologically simpler, in my view.

ML: Fusion is always better bigger. The fundamental reason for that is that a big rock takes a lot longer to cool down than a small rock. Thermal mass, it is pretty damn simple. You put some energy in there and it has to stay hot enough to give more energy out than in. You make a bigger blob, it will stay hot longer make the fusion longer. This is why ITER is going so big. We want to operate with much more power density, to make a little plasma by using huge power pulses. One time per second. Because the power density is much higher, the total energy required is less. The energy output will be less. The big Tokamak machine will be giga-Watt outputs, we want more along the lines of mega-watt output. An order or magnitude smaller. But it will also be an order of magnitude smaller to build, and hence sell, one. We are aiming for something more like a sub-station. Make no mistake though, it would still work better if it were bigger, and we cannot make it smaller, it will never fit in your car or cell phone. We think the smallest we can go is about one hundred megaWatts.

The sequence where Mark goes on site and has a simple social discussion with the French construction workers building the structure. In a way, that scene seems to reflect the films intent. Mark speaks to these guys, and they know they are building something, but the specific purpose of each thing, they only know vaguely. And the conversation is in multiple languages. All of a sudden the intersection between expert and layman is laid bare. Those connections, those sparks, are what is necessary to get things done at this scale. Is there anything in regards to the decades-long process of ITER, or the shorter scale of making Mila’s film that was cut from the film for time. Something that might make you feel, “I wish we had said…this.”

MAT: The stuff we cut out did not hit at an emotional level. I kept that stuff in as much as possible. People might say, after seeing the film, they wished more of the technical problems were explained. There are some really boring problems with either the technical side or the bureaucracy side. It could have made a Frederick Wiseman style documentary about the human dysfunction in organizations or governments, but you want the positive. You have to make that choice. That scene with the construction workers was filmed relatively late in the process. I wish I had gotten more scenes like that. That kind of environment doesn’t lend itself to that kind of interaction at often. We were lucky to get it by chance.

MH: The way that transformation in their minds happen is visible. At first it was, “What is this guy talking about?” And we had this big camera, and we were worried the foreman might come down, because these guys were the lowest on the totem in terms of the jobs on the site. With that said, seeing the evolution of idea that we are aiming to change the world, to make this possible, that was a moment.

MAT: One of the guys after did say, “my foreman wants to talk to you now.” And I thought we were going to get scolded. And the he was, “Boss, these are the guys.” And the foreman asked us to explain things like we did for his guys. And so the foreman was excited and interested in the same information!

In the ITER circles, at any level, from the top to the bottom, is there an over/under that ITER will be operational before the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona? ITER’s first plasma is due to happen in 2025, the catholic church is scheduled to be complete in 2026. They will possibly both experience setbacks along the way, that is the nature of things.

MAT: Funny you should say that. I had some good shots of the Sagrada that I did not get to use. When I was at ITER’s office in Barcelona, I did see a political cartoon, of ITER currently, and over a series of panels it slowly becomes the Sagrada Familia. It’s a very fun cartoon.

MH: I think the church will be done first. But that is not controversial! There is more society behind getting that cathedral done. There is more importance associated with getting that cathedral done. On one level, and I am not Christian, but I still think that ITER has a better benefit to the world. People of Barcelona, I would appreciate your support.

But they are both symbols and they are both multigenerational projects

MH: Absolutely, nuclear fusion is coming up on its 100th birthday, the basic idea of trying to pursue and control this reaction came about in 1920.

In the movie, Mark at ITER talks about cathedrals, and you, Michel, you talk about going to Home Depot.

ML: When I started this thing, I did not want to make the big Tokamak. My little company would have no traction, fighting 14 Billion dollar operations. So I had to go another way. It is more risky. There is more science done around the Tokamak. But if what we were going do works, it would be cheaper to build, and it would be smaller and faster, so we can put it on the market quicker. This is what we aim to do. The science risk is higher than ITER, but the technology risk, the practicality and the economic risk is smaller. The changes of producing a viable power grid is about the same. We have more physics risk, but easier to implement. They have less physics risk, but a harder job to turn this crazy machine into an economical grid.

Michel, what are the challenges of working on solutions for problems that are typically huge public works projects? How do you get funding in the private sector without the large government infrastructure?

Funding is gotten with great difficulty. It is actually a very hard sell. You put on your tie and suit, and grab your laptop to make the rounds of all the bankers and investors, and you try to convince them to give you some money. It ain’t easy. I am batting at probably 1% success. It is enormously hard work. But you do find some people that understand the process is long, and hard, and a bit risky, but if it makes it, it is a big deal. So on that point of view, they can see money at the end. There is very little recognition of fusion, however, recognition of energy being a problem is growing, with climate change and green energy. Talent is difficult also. In Canada we put out very few fusion scientists. In the USA there is more. But the job prospects of a fusion scientist is not great, and few students go that route. It is hard to find people and hard to find money, but we are going for it and we have succeed so far finding both. We were nominated as the most innovative company in British Columbia, and we had to go to the awards nights, I hate going to these things. So my PR guy was kicking me in the butt and saying, “Go. Go. Go!” And there I met this Malaysian guy, he was interested, and went and talked to his boss about it, who came and visited our place. Malaysia will need power, it is one of those rapidly growing countries, and they are buying all sorts of coal and making pollution. And they understand that fusion would be a good thing, so they invested.

The film has some really wonderful animated sequences. Mila, Can you talk about why you chose to include these?

MAT: There was so much historical backstory behind the development of fusion, so many stories. I love these little anecdotes. It is sort of why Mark is where he is at today. It has to do with this guy at a distant outpost of the Soviet Union who came up with the design. These are very long stories that have an impact, 60 to 70 years later. Humanity is still working on the same device, but at a much larger scale. We could not do that, tell these long tangents, in an observational film, so we went for animation. We went for it.

Michel, do you think the animation department in LET THERE BE LIGHT accurately captured your dance movies

ML: I am quite impressed with the movie. What they were playing, which my PR guy might object a bit, is the big ITER vs. the little guy. Mila was into the contrast, and the scrappy underdog with General Fusion. Maybe we cringed about it a bit about this. Compared to ITER yes we are smaller, but not so small. But, I don’t dance.