Fusion is done by our sun really, really well and for free. Here on Earth in reactors … not so much. And so the famous saying, “fusion energy is fifty years away — and always will be.”
I have never been a big fan of earth-bound fusion, in part because I was an M.I.T. undergrad in October 1983 when Prof. Lawrence Lidsky published his famous critique, “The Trouble With Fusion,” in the MIT-edited magazine, Technology Review, with that unforgettable cover quoting his devastating conclusion.
What made the critique doubly devastating was that Lidsky was then associate director of the Plasma Fusion Center and editor of the Journal of Fusion Energy! More on Lidsky at the end.
Things haven’t changed much in three decades. Technology Review reported earlier this year, “researchers still say practical fusion power plants remain decades away.”
The New York Times editorialized Sunday on the latest fusion failure, “A Big Laser Runs Into Trouble“:
After spending more than $5 billion to build and operate a giant laser installation the size of a football stadium, the Energy Department has not achieved its goal of igniting a fusion reaction that could produce energy to generate power or simulate what happens in a nuclear weapon.
The latest deadline for achieving ignition was last Sunday, Sept. 30, the end of fiscal year 2012, but it passed amid mounting concerns that the technical challenges were too great to be mastered on a tight time schedule.
Congress will need to look hard at whether the project should be continued, or scrapped or slowed to help reduce federal spending.
We spend a lot of money on this effort — money that could almost certainly be better spent on forms of carbon-free energy we could actually have a chance of deploying in time to avert catastrophic, irreversible climate change.
As William Broad reported in The Times last Sunday, there is a sharp split among experts on whether the project — one of the most expensive federally financed projects ever — is worth the money. Just operating it costs roughly $290 million a year….
If the main goal is to achieve a power source that could replace fossil fuels, we suspect the money would be better spent on renewable sources of energy that are likely to be cheaper and quicker to put into wide use.
Even if ignition is achieved in the laboratory in the next several years, scaling up to a demonstration plant will cost billions and may ultimately show that fusion is not a practical source of power.
I was at the Department of Energy when the decision to approve the National Ignition Facility was being made. I can’t say any of the energy analysts thought it a particularly worthwhile investment. I can say non-energy considerations ended up playing a much bigger role in the decision than energy considerations.
Lidsky, who died in 2002, is worth remembering. In the tradition of the best scientists and engineers, he spoke truth to power — in this case what he saw as a largely fruitless, waste of money — at great risk to his career. But then I have never met a scientist who was “in it for the money.” When smart folks want to get rich, they pick a different profession.
In its obit for Lidsky, Technology Review explained what happened to him — and how his main conclusions stood the test of time. Indeed, the first line of the obit raised his famous critique of fusion:
Retired MIT professor Lawrence M. Lidsky of nuclear engineering, who went public with his reservations about the efficacy of fusion as an energy source after devoting his career to its development, died Friday at his home in Newton after a 17-year battle with cancer. He was 66 years old.
Lidsky, a Cornell University graduate whose MIT doctoral thesis in 1962 was titled “Plasma Generation and Acceleration,” was assistant director of the MIT Plasma Fusion Center when he published an article in 1983 titled “The Trouble With Fusion” in MIT’s Technology Review. He wrote the piece, Lidsky said at the time, because “I couldn’t get an internal discussion going. Some didn’t care and some didn’t want to know.” A short time after the article appeared, Lidsky resigned his position at the Plasma Fusion Center. Congress reduced funding for the fusion program by 5 percent the next year. It was renamed the Plasma Science and Fusion Center in December 1997.
“Larry Lidsky was one of the smartest people I ever met,” said Professor Jeffrey P. Freidberg, head of the MIT Department of Nuclear Engineering. “He was often way ahead of his time in delivering insightful and crucial analysis of the prospects of both fusion and fission power. In the fusion area, Professor Lidsky was one of the earliest engineers to point out some of the very, very difficult engineering challenges facing the program and how these challenges would affect the ultimate desirability of fusion energy. As one might imagine, his messages were not always warmly received initially, but they have nevertheless stood the test of time.”
Lidsky later became a passionate advocate of the development of meltdown-proof Modular High Temperature Gas Cooled Reactors, which depend upon nuclear fission rather than fusion for their energy.
It’s time to scale back the fusion effort toward very long-term research and use most of the money for emerging carbon-free technologies that hold the prospect of significant contribution to preserving a livable climate while there is still time to do so — energy efficiency and renewable energy (see “The full global warming solution: How the world can stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm“). Unlike fusion in the past three decades, renewables, especially solar and wind, have seen major technological advances, a steady drop in cost, and major innovations in manufacturing leading to commercial products.