Lockheed Martin announced Wednesday that it thinks it will have an ultra-compact fusion reactor operating in ten years — though it’s an open question whether this will be in time to matter in the fight against climate change.
A global aerospace company that’s long operated as a defense contractor for the U.S. government, Lockheed Martin began moving into alternative energy projects in the last few years. This new project — which was incubated in the company’s secretive and experimental Skunk Works division — aims to build a working 100 megawatt fusion reactor that could fit on the back of a semi-trailer flatbed. Called the compact fusion reactor (CFR), it would ostensibly be far safer and cleaner than traditional fission-based systems, while also able to generate ten times the energy and thus be built one-tenth as big.
“That’s the size we are thinking of now,” Thomas McGuire, the engineer leading the project, told Aviation Week. “You could put it on a semi-trailer, similar to a small gas turbine, put it on a pad, hook it up and can be running in a few weeks.” And while Lockheed Martin has traditionally provided technology for national defense, which would suggest using the reactors to power warships and the like, they could just as easily be hooked up to the civilian electrical grid — with each individual CFR providing enough electricity to power 80,000 homes.
According to Aviation Week, Skunk Works’ design avoided the traditional approach to fusion, which fuses hydrogen isotopes into a plasma that’s suspended by magnetic fields inside a donut-shaped tube. Instead, Skunk Works built an alternative setup for the magnetic fields to suspend the plasma within a roughly cylindrical reaction chamber. The result is a system where the magnetic fields actually increase in strength as the plasma grows, which allows the CFR to be built at a much smaller scale — and to overcome the traditional problem for fusion power, wherein producing the reaction requires about as much power as it generates. Heat from the reactor would then drive a steam turbine, and at the end of its life the reactor would leave behind far less radioactive waste than standard fission plants.
Private firms and government projects have played with the idea of small modular fission reactors. But fusion power has never been demonstrated at a workable and cost-effective scale. McGuire said the project hopes to build and test their first reactor within a year, and build their first prototype — which would be able to run for ten seconds at a time and serve as a proof of concept — within five years. They intend to build their first fully operational CFR within ten years.
A small but incredibly powerful fusion reactor that’s zero-carbon and leaves behind minimal radioactive waste would seem, at first blush, like a godsend for the fight against climate change. But it’s not clear technology like this can really help humanity cut its carbon emissions. That’s because the problem for fusion and other forms of nuclear power is not actually the technological hurdles. It’s just time and efficacy.
At this point, keeping the world under 2°C of global warming will require global greenhouse gas emissions to peak in 2020 and fall rapidly after that. Developed countries may very well need to peak by 2015 and then start dropping by 10 percent a year. So by Lockheed Martin’s own timeline, their first operational CFR won’t come online until after the peak deadline. To play any meaningful role in decarbonization — either here in America or abroad — they’d have to go from one operational CFR to mass production on a gargantuan scale, effectively overnight. More traditional forms of nuclear power face versions of the same problem.
A WW2-style government mobilization might be able to pull off such a feat in the United States. But if the political will was there for such a move, the practical question is why wait for nuclear? Wind and solar are mature technologies in the here and now — as is energy efficiency, which could supply up to 40 percent of the emission reductions needed to stay below 2°C all by itself. Demonstration projects, particularly in Europe, are already showing how proper coordination on the grid can stitch a renewable portfolio together in ways that smooth out the inherent intermittency of when solar and wind arrays actually produce power. That greatly reduces the need for a low-carbon form of baseload power — the role nuclear would generally be expected to fill.
There are no real technological hurdles remaining for this approach. What we lack are the policies and the market incentives to deploy wind, solar, energy efficiency, and grid technology at the necessary speed and scale.
In short, the advance of renewable technology, combined with the fact that we’ve essentially run out of time on climate change, have likely rendered nuclear power irrelevant, or at least of indeterminate usefulness.