NY Times: Funding For Fusion ‘Better Spent On Renewable Sources Of Energy That Are Likely To Be Cheaper And Quicker’

I am a big proponent of harnessing the power of fusion — from 93 million miles away.

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 LidskyTechnology 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.

17 Responses to NY Times: Funding For Fusion ‘Better Spent On Renewable Sources Of Energy That Are Likely To Be Cheaper And Quicker’

  1. Chris says:

    I’ve always thought the NIF didn’t make much sense to reach breakeven for fusion power. I’ve worked with lasers and one thing you quickly realize is that lasers aren’t very efficient and losses from optics quickly add up. I’m sure they have everything optimized but reflection losses, conversion inefficiencies, absorptions quickly add up (or more correctly multiply). While I haven’t seen specifics, I doubt they are even getting 10% of the outside power into the actual laser. That means that pellet has to give off 10x more energy than is put in to break even. I don’t see it happening.

  2. Paul Klinkman says:

    Assuming that fusion is possible, achieving fusion without fission has a nasty side effect. It means that a small group of terrorists won’t have to mine millions of tons of uranium, killing many miners, and won’t require a huge factory complex to centrifuge great quantities of terribly volatile uranium hexafluoride gas to make a nuclear weapon. Instead, they can quietly extract deuterium and tritium from seawater by boiling away the somewhat lighter water molecules.

    Scientific bureaucrats should be more careful what they wish for.

  3. PeakVT says:

    That’s not something to be concerned about. The probability of someone developing a D/T fusion process that doesn’t need a billion dollar machine weighing thousand of tons is very, very low.

  4. Paul, we have just read an article saying how difficult fusion “without fission” is to achieve and how complex and expensive the apparatus is with which we try to achieve fusion. I think, logically and reviewing this experience, the absolute last thing a “small group of terrorists” are going to do is make a fusion bomb without a fission detonator. I think the material that fuses, with fission, has been widely know since the 1950s; that’s why it has been popular since then, to try to use these cheap and very abundant starting ingredients in proposed power reactors. Not that anyone has been successful.

    On the other hand, you probably posted a joke and I reacted to it! Well, if easily, done!

  5. Artful Dodger says:

    I support fusion. Jazz fusion on PBS.

  6. PeterW says:

    Alas there are many programs in the military that could be cut as well. The F35 mistake seems like a good place to start. But like fusion vested interests will prevent that from happening.

  7. Omega Centauri says:

    I’m sorry to say, I’m in complete agreement with Joe. Sorry because I got my professional start in the field, and have fond memories of the intellectual challenges overcome. I started a few years earlier than Lidsky’s article, which I was unaware of, but I remember being surprised when I started working, how many of my co-workers described Fusion as science fiction, and said things like “I’ll never see it during my lifetime” coming from a twenty something that pessimism. I remember one old guy about to retire, he’d been in on it from the beginning, when he started he considered the hiring to be a bait and switch project, “we’ll crack it in a year or two, then we’ll have to find something else to work on”.

  8. paul magnus says:

    Ahh, at last egos go and reality arrives. Bout time.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    At present.

  10. MarkfromLexington says:

    Romney’s campaign said at MIT last week that their position is that the government should continue funding this sort of R&D and stop providing support for the renewable industry.
    Romney and Obama campaigns debate energy and climate issues at MIT

  11. spacermase says:

    Eh, given that the destructiveness of a hydrogen bomb doesn’t really come from the fusion directly- what it does instead is provide a source of neutrons that “boosts” the fission reaction- it’d be really hard to weaponize a pure D/T reaction.

  12. spacermase says:

    If any type of fusion is going to be available in the timeframe needed, it’s probably going to be aneutronic fusion- which is less well studied (sadly, in part, because you can’t make a weapon out of it), and somewhat harder to do, but, paradoxically, is less complicated to experiment with (mostly because, according to theories, it scales down better than D/T fusion, and so the test reactors don’t have to be absolutely humongous). The other advantage is that aneutronic fusion- as the name suggests- is way cleaner than D/T fusion because it emits 99% of its energy directly as electromagnetic radiation, and not as neutrons (which produce radioactive waste, albeit stuff with fairly short half-lives); its major waste product is helium, which is not only about as chemically inert as you can get, but also something we’re actively running out of. Whether any of this pans out remains to be seen, but, on the plus side, given the progress of the few small teams working on it, we’ll probably know within a couple of years if it’s worth it or not.

    With all that said, from what I can tell, it’s a pretty open secret that the NIF is mostly a run-around prohibitions on nuclear weapons research, since I find it highly unlikely a design requiring ultra-high power lasers is ever going to be useful as an economic source of power.

  13. Dan Miller says:

    You should check out General Fusion. They are privately funded and are closer to a useful fusion reactor than most people realize. There approach is very innovative – doesn’t use lasers. It uses mechanical compression of a plasma to generate fusion. I toured their facilities. It looks quite wild — and it just might work!

  14. There is a tested, practical, fission ignited fusion technology devised by America’s most skillful and experienced nuclear designers at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Labs that produces net energy at Gigawatt levels and requires no technical breakthroughs to safely build. That technology is called PACER fusion, and in the Lawrence Livermore implementation, it is a molten salt U-233/Thorium assisted fusion technology that burns abundantly available nuclear fuels that can be extracted from sea water while producing only non-radioactive helium as nuclear waste. PACER is complementary technology to today’s fission reactor technology. PACER would help breed fission reactor fuels and transmute LWR SNF/waste at a more rapid rate and at lower cost than any proposed alternative.
    More info:

  15. Steve Bloom says:

    “a pretty open secret that the NIF is mostly a run-around prohibitions on nuclear weapons research”

    Just so, except I wouldn’t say that was ever any sort of secret. It’s all about the bombs.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Where there’s a will, and a lazy billion or a hundred, there’s a way. All they need is to re-animate Edward ‘Merkwurdigliebe’ Teller and we’d be off to the races. Probably we will need a good-sized X-ray laser, then…

  17. Ernst says:

    I wouldnt just write off fusion as some pie in the sky fantasy. They have solved some important issues relating to the ITER reactor being built in France. Problems that were once thought to be impossible to settle.