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: