What’s All the Fuss About Nuclear Fusion?

Principal designer Annie Kritcher of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory speaks at panel discussion during a press conference on 13 December 2022 announcing the achievement of Breakeven Ignition. (Photo: US DOE)

It was heralded as a major breakthrough. The tantalizing challenge of fusion had been cracked! Yes, the elusive moment when the fusing of atoms would release more energy than had been put in, had finally happened. The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California had won the fusion race against hot competition both in the US and overseas.

This “landmark achievement,” as U.S. energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm, described it, now means that what had been forever decades away — the delivery of electricity powered by fusion — was now……still decades away.

The Washington Post aptly summed up all the hype in a single sentence: “This was a science experiment more than a demonstration of a practical technology.” The New Statesman echoed the hype angle.

And how big a breakthrough really was it? While the experiment delivered 3.15 megajoules of energy output to the 2.05 megajoules it put in, the 192 lasers that produced it required 300 megajoules of energy.

We have been here before, as described in Stephane Lhomme’s accompanying article (in English and French.) For example, back in 1991, the collaborative Joint European Torus (JET) project in the UK achieved a temperature of about 200 million degrees Celsius (about 10 times the temperature in the centre of the sun) for a period of two seconds. Thermonuclear energy from a deuterium-tritium plasma (86% deuterium and 14% tritium) was released during this time at the rate of 2 million watts.

This, too, was heralded as “a significant milestone”, by JET’s director at the time, Dr Paul-Henri Rebut. Since then, there have been a series of other so-called breakthroughs, none of which have brought us any closer to the practical application of fusion as a provider of commercial electricity.

Fusion does not have now, never had, and never will have, any practicable applicability to electricity generation. As my father, Mike Pentz, who began his physics career working on controlled fusion in the late 1940s, wrote in the mid-1990s:

“By the time, if ever, a practicable commercial fusion power station was actually built and became operational, likely some time well into the 21st century, thermonuclear power will be irrelevant to the world’s energy needs, because by then about 90% of the world’s energy will be needed by the people living in the countries now somewhat euphemistically called ‘developing’, and extremely advanced, high-technology and high cost energy sources like controlled fusion will be entirely inappropriate for meeting their needs.”

At such a time, he predicted, almost 30 years ago, our focus would need to be elsewhere, and especially on solar energy. He wrote:“we are also going to have to move away from very large, centralized sources of energy, like most of today’s electrical power stations, whether they use coal, oil, gas or uranium, towards much smaller, decentralized sources, and that will make controlled fusion reactors as impracticable and inappropriate as nuclear reactors based upon fission.”

How ironic, then, that we continue to ignore the most obvious opportunity presented by fusion — to harvest the power of the sun itself. Even as renewable energy is soaring in application while dropping in price, absurd amounts of money continue to be squandered on the elusive pursuit of fusion.

As John Hall sang, all the fusion we need is the warm power of the sun. (Performance with Pete Seeger filmed by the author at a John Hall political fundraiser during his Congressional career.)

And yet, utility-scale solar PV [photovoltaics] is already “the least costly option for new electricity generation in a significant majority of countries worldwide”, according to a 2022 study published by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The IEA further reports that “Solar PV’s installed power capacity is poised to surpass that of coal by 2027, becoming the largest in the world.”

With the August 2022 passage of President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, the US now has in place an unprecedented long-term policy for federal tax credits supporting the expansion of solar PV projects out to 2032.

Fusion, on the other hand, is not about electricity production at all. The crowing about harnassing fusion as a safe, clean form of nuclear energy — already misleading as Daniel Jassby pointed out on these pages — is just a conveniently benign-sounding cover story.

The real agenda — which shouldn’t be hard to guess given the fusion “breakthrough” was achieved at Lawrence Livermore — is nuclear weapons.

As my Beyond Nuclear colleague, Cindy Folkers, wrote:

“The NIF experiment far more closely resembles the process of a (very tiny) thermonuclear warhead. Since the U.S. has not tested nuclear weapons since 1992, the data from experiments like these can be used in computer simulations to make sure that atomic weapons will remain reliable, despite decades mercifully idle. The radiation from these experiments can also be used to test components to make sure they perform as anticipated. While not testing atomic bombs in the open environment is good, abolishing them altogether would be far better.”

Added the Washington Post: “The nation’s fusion program was initially created with the goal of more efficient management of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. Fusion reactions could be used to assess those arms without the need for explosions, which create radioactive fallout. Biden administration officials hailed the developments at the Lawrence Livermore lab as a major boost for their efforts to keep the stockpile safe and reassure allies that the United States is capably managing it.”

The next day the Post appraised the fusion “breakthrough” with a critical eye in an editorial headlined “Fusion power is tantalizing, but it won’t save the planet.” It went on: “history suggests that fusion power is unlikely to play a major role in the energy grid for years or decades — time that the planet does not have in the climate change fight.”

And, as high-energy physicist, Dr. Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, tweeted after the NIF announcement: “There seems to be a disconnect between what @NNSANews said today at the NIF briefing and what many people wanted to hear. This achievement will be far more useful for US nuclear weapon maintenance and “modernization” than for generating clean energy in the foreseeable future.”

What NNSA tweeted was: “For years, #NIF has helped ensure the #nuclear stockpile is safe, secure, reliable, and effective. #NNSA is proud of the many men and women who have helped achieve this historic breakthrough.”

Granholm, however, returned to the cover story playbook when she said, tellingly: “This is our planet’s first step towards the ultimate clean energy, and THIS is why investing in America’s National Labs matters.”

The first part of her sentence is irrelevant nonsense of course, but the second part is the giveaway. It’s all about the money, and who gets it (again, see the Lhomme article.) Why is that funding needed? To turn our lights on? Absolutely not.

As my father noted in his memoirs, in rather more colorful language, so gentle edits have been made, “obviously, if you are the director of a project that has been the recipient of billions of dollars of taxpayer funding over decades, you have to make optimistic noises and get as much mileage as you can out of any signs of progress.”

That’s pretty much what we heard from NIF and the US government this week: noise. Joyful noise for the white coats, white noise for the rest of us, who instead urge the rapid implementation of real and affordable energy solutions that will serve us now, not wildly expensive ones that remain perpetually decades away.

Cindy Folkers and Paul Gunter contributed to this article.

This first appeared on Beyond Nuclear.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the editor and curator of BeyondNuclearInternational.org and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.