NIRS Statement on 12/13/22 DOE Nuclear Fusion Announcement
Today, the US Department of Energy announced what scientists consider a major breakthrough in nuclear fusion research. In the DOE’s press release, they celebrate “a major scientific breakthrough decades in the making that will pave the way for advancements in national defense and the future of clean power.” They go on to explain that “On December 5, a team at LLNL’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) conducted the first controlled fusion experiment in history to reach this milestone, also known as scientific energy breakeven, meaning it produced more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it.”
However exciting these laboratory experiments might be to nuclear scientists, nuclear fusion remains a long way from becoming a part of the world’s clean energy portfolio.
For many decades, nuclear fusion has been a holy grail energy concept, promising affordable and clean power that doesn’t produce the same intensely radioactive and long-lived nuclear waste that nuclear fission generates. Nuclear fusion experiments have also been of great interest to weapons developers and the military. Driven by defense and energy goals, the US has spent over 70 years and tens of billions of dollars funding research and development into nuclear fusion. Despite this immense research effort, the concept has never reached beyond the theoretical.
Perhaps this is why today’s news is being heralded as a tremendous achievement in nuclear fusion despite the reality that they remain very far from making fusion a viable endeavor. The DOE hopes it will make big news because it is the first breakthrough in the basic science after 70 years.
Essentially, the achievement being touted by the DOE is the first time that a fusion reaction has generated “net energy.” But the energy gain generated by the fusion experiment is not even enough to generate a net gain in electricity — not counting the massive energy that went into powering the lasers. Heat converts steam to turn a turbine at a rate of about 33%-50%, so you need to create 2-3 times as much heat energy energy as you put in, just to get the same amount of electrical energy out. The DOE experiment reportedly generated about 1.5 times the amount of energy the laser put in. Not counted is the fact that it took up to 250 times as much electricity to power the lasers than the energy delivered to the target. Currently, the DOE’s experimental reactor can do this once per day. A fusion reactor would need to do it 864,000 times per day (10 times per second), day-in and day-out. While it is true that engineering can lead to great advances in technology over that used in basic scientific experiments, it remains unclear whether an operable fusion reactor would truly be possible.
So, it would take many more massive engineering breakthroughs to reach the capability where an actual fusion power plant might be designed. After 70 years and tens of billions of dollars spent, today’s reported achievement is a miniscule step towards viable fusion technology. Nuclear fusion remains a futuristic fantasy that has no role in the urgent, immediate need for climate solutions that are affordable, just, scalable, and most importantly, readily available.
So, should we keep investing in nuclear fusion research?
If solving climate change is the most urgent priority of US energy policy, nuclear fusion research is a waste of time and resources. In addition to being nowhere near feasibility, nuclear fusion is not the clean, just energy technology it has been made out to be. Nuclear fusion is much more complicated in terms of its impacts on the environment and on nonproliferation than its proponents would have you believe.
Fusion is the mashing of hydrogen atoms together until the nuclei fuse into helium. The energy released in the fusing of the nuclei is immense. But that includes emissions of neutrons, which are very difficult to shield.
The notion that nuclear fusion would not produce any waste is simply misleading. It is true that nuclear fusion does not require uranium and would not produce the same kind of radioactive waste as nuclear fission. However, that does not mean that nuclear fusion’s byproducts would be benign. The neutron emissions from nuclear fusion reactions would irradiate everything in and around the reactor, turning it all radioactive. Again, fusion does not produce the irradiated fuel waste and fission products (Cesium-137, strontium-90, etc) that fission reactors produce. But fusion would produce different forms of radioactive wastes that pose significant hazards to workers and result in large volumes of radioactive concrete and steel that would contaminate the environment.
Furthermore, the buzz about nuclear fusion isn’t entirely in the realm of “atoms for peace.” In the DOE’s statement on the December 2022 breakthrough, officials state that the fusion experiments “pave the way for advancements in national defense.” The facility in which the breakthrough took place, the National Ignition Facility at LLNL, has long been scrutinized by experts and activists concerned about the proliferation risks associated with the facility’s research. A coalition letter signed by over 100 organizations, including NIRS, raised concerns about thermonuclear explosions, fusion weapons testing and development. The letter states that the National Ignition Facility “is designed to conduct contained thermonuclear explosions, experiments which may be considered illegal under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).” The letter goes on to warn:
“If the scientific and engineering barriers to pure fusion weapons are overcome, a new class of weapons could emerge that would radically increase the nuclear threat. Pure fusion weapons would not require plutonium or highly enriched uranium, the acquisition of which is one of the main obstacles to nuclear proliferation. These weapons could also be made in various sizes, from very small to very large, and would not produce the highly radioactive fallout of current nuclear weapons. At the same time, the release of large numbers of neutrons would make them very effective at killing people while minimizing blast effects.”
The news of the recent nuclear fusion breakthrough at the National Ignition Facility is a cause for renewed concern over proliferation risks associated with nuclear fusion weaponry. As the DOE generates major media buzz, don’t be fooled by the clean energy rhetoric. Nuclear fusion is a research concept driven by atomic militarism. Its theoretical place in a “clean energy future” may just be a convenient reason to keep the dollars flowing to dual-use weapons R&D.