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When will nuclear fusion produce more heat than hype?

Why a fusion power “breakthrough” is a true first, but won’t prevent climate breakdown.

By India Bourke

It is hard to be cynical on the first day of snow. Everyday scenes are made new and wondrous – at least till the cold creeps in through poorly insulated windows and pristine white streets turn to sludge. And so it is perhaps appropriate that, surrounded by London’s first winter snow earlier this week, the Financial Times gave an article about a development in nuclear fusion science the big glow-up (or “snow-up”).

“Fusion energy breakthrough”, read the headline on the 11 December story, which announced that for the first time ever a nuclear fusion reactor at the US National Ignition Facility had created more energy (2.5 megajoules) than was put into it (2.1MJ). The experimental results were described as a boost to the green transition, boosting “clean power hopes”.

Even in a crowded field of oft-announced “breakthroughs”, this news deserves some buzz. Instead of splitting uranium atoms apart using nuclear fission, as is done in existing nuclear power plants, fusion involves heating a plasma of hydrogen isotopes (deuterium and tritium) to such an extreme temperature that the atomic nuclei fuse, releasing helium and high-energy neutrons. The reaction replicates the centre of the sun itself and could, if developed into a sustained and controlled process, create clean energy without the long-lived radioactive waste.

The problem, however, is that the technology is still far from being either sustained or controlled. The reaction at the US facility lasted just a fraction of a second. Nor did it take into account the energy needed to run the lasers, or how the energy created in the fusion process will be converted into electricity.

To get net energy out of the process, the reaction would need to generate “at least five times the energy provided by the laser”, estimated Martin Freer, a professor in nuclear physics at Birmingham University. Fusion facilities, such as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in France, use a process with a much more promising energy efficiency ratio, added Wilson Ricks, a research fellow at Princeton University: “If you see a similar announcement from that team then it will arguably be a very big deal.”

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The deeper questions to ask therefore are: when will fusion be commercially viable, and will it be worth the hype?

“Fusion is already too late to deal with the climate crisis,” summed up Aneeqa Khan, a research fellow at the University of Manchester. “It has the potential to provide a stable base load of electricity to the grid, as well as potential for secondary applications such as hydrogen production or heating,” but cautioned that renewables and nuclear fission are the short-term answers to the crisis.

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Professor Howard Wilson at the University of York’s Plasma Institute believes fusion “offers one of the very few options for reliably meeting global energy demands beyond 2050”. He told Spotlight that he saw the world’s “ever-growing energy requirement” stemming from a growing population and the need to raise the global standard of living. Yet other nuclear advocates have cited additional possible energy needs, such as new energy-intensive mechanisms to “repair” the climate – like pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

This is where the nuclear fusion hype truly risks turning from snow to sludge: part of the rationale for financing this hugely expensive technology rests on an assumption that the world will fail to sufficiently stem its carbon emissions. Unchecked confidence around nuclear fusion could even damage the green transition, which needs to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 if permanent natural loss and immense global suffering is to be avoided. As the energy expert David Roberts tweeted in response to the fusion breakthrough, some in the US are “dismissive of sources [of energy] that have grown & fallen in cost for decades but endlessly, bottomlessly credulous toward sources that have remained expensive and/or speculative”. And Paul Dorfman, associate fellow of the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex and chair of the Nuclear Consulting Group, wrote for Spotlight this week that “limitless, cheap nuclear power is still a very long way away”.

Even as governments prepare for the grim prospect of overshooting the target of 2°C above pre-industrial temperature levels, they should demonstrate they have done all they can to support existing technologies that will help stave off such a disaster. (Not to mention reducing the need for energy in the first place.) If not, then preparing for the worst could risk making it inevitable.

[See also: How austerity devastated UK home insulation]

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