No. Fusion power is still 30 years away, just as it was 50 years ago. But this time it might be a real 30 years rather than an imaginary 30 years. Big, big, news, if true.
Well, not perzackly. If the NIF, which came in 12 years late and 300% over budget, magically gets itself on track, then, according to its manager, we might get “ignition” (engineering break-even: more energy out than in) in the next year or two, a demonstration project by 2020, and actual power plants sometime between 2030 and 2050.
When I was growing up, fusion energy was 30 years away. It’s comforting to find that some things don’t change. Fusion, it has been said, is the energy source of the future: and always will be.
Still, “eventually” sometimes arrives. And fusion, if it happens, would be a really big deal. Given the trillions of dollars potentially at stake, it would criminal not to “waste” a few billion trying to get there.
So the next time your wingnut friends tell you how much money we could save by abolishing the Department of Energy, think fusion, and think about how vastly implausible it is to imagine anyone but a government spending the money it takes to find out whether it can be made to work.
Author: Mark Kleiman
Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out.
Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken)
When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist
Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993)
Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989)
View all posts by Mark Kleiman
21 thoughts on ““Clean fusion power this decade”?”
Funding for fusion has been abysmal. I believe it was $250 million in 2002. (At one point, half the budget was for decommissioning a research facility.) That was an absolute disgrace, and nobody seemed to care, even progressives.
I take exception to Mark's current – and previously stated – view that fusion is an extreme long shot. The research should have been funded at a much greater level, especially now that we have much greater computing power to either analyze test results, or conversely, to control operations. Think of the advances in biology and medicine that the IT advances have facilitated. Decoding the human genome was for decades a similarly "far off" achievement.
Fusion doesn't get much respect. On the far left, it's demonized because it's a centralized energy resource, not the sort of thing you can do in your back yard, like wind or solar. On the right, they're happy with coal and whatever can be found in Canadian tar sands. The middle is probably spooked because it's "nuclear". So fusion gets no love.
I've been to presentations by fusion researchers and the message is clear: You absolutely have to keep funding this so that proto-reactors are built in order to learn more and then subsequently build better reactors. Rinse and repeat.
I saw the news report that Mark links to earlier today and was pleasantly surprised with what it had to say. I hope it changes some minds.
For tokamaks, not one but many governments. I suppose the USA can – must? – go it alone on the inertial confinement (laser) route because of the connection with Star Wars missile defense technology. Certainly both approaches should be supported at least at current levels, and Greenpeace should stop whining. Not the sort of thing where crash programmes make sense.
Tokamaks achieved engineering breakeven as early as 1995. But it's a long haul from that to reliable continuous production on a commercial scale.
Inertial confinement achieved better than engineering breakeven, (MUCH better!) back in 1952. It's just that the fuel pellets are a bit larger than people like… Seriously, I have seen at least one engineering study proving that it's feasible to build a power plant using small hydrogen bombs as 'fuel pellets', and it doesn't take any massive breakthroughs, it was doable with 1960's technology.
The basic problem for fusion is that we don't need it yet. (Even if it would be nice to have.) If you don't care where you get your energy, coal is cheap. If you're sanely pragmatic, you'd build fission plants, and put off fusion until you understand the physics of plasma better. We could get by perfectly fine if we didn't get fusion working on a scale we were comfortable with for a century or two. It's a solution to a problem which doesn't yet exist, and won't until fissile and fertile isotope reserves run out several thousand years from now.
The other basic problem for fusion is that 'we', (And by "we" I mean several of the world's governments.) picked a winner way too soon, and gutted research on other approaches. There's something of a renaissance going on in small scale fusion research, a half dozen promising approaches, and all together they're probably getting less than ITER's janitorial budget. And I'd guess one of them is going to deliver before that monster ITER is building even gets finished.
Getting continuous ignition on a large enough scale to seriously supply power would be a huge step forward for Fusion Power (which makes me happy to hear this news). It's also the type of thing that might draw some power company investors' eyes, particularly since you can sell Fusion as the clean* nuclear energy source.
* Nuclear fission is far better and more reliable than the public perception shows (and yes, we do have ways to deal with the waste), but perceptions matter.
I know the phrase gets over-used, but commercially useful and viable nuclear fusion power really would be the "holy grail" of clean energy. Little to no waste (you have to swap the concrete containment thing once in a while, but it's not dangerous and doesn't stay radioactive for long), no risk of meltdown, and a plentiful power source (you can get a lot of deuterium from seawater).
That's a good point, although it's not just in regards to ABM technology – getting portable, solid-state lasers as weapons would revolutionize modern warfare in general.
"particularly since you can sell Fusion as the clean* nuclear energy source."
So, fission is suppressed because of largely inaccurate fears, and fusion is popular because of the largely inaccurate perception that it's 'clean'? D-D or D-T fusion is scarcely clean, it creates a flood of neutrons. P-B fusion would be clean, but is much harder to achieve, while producing a lot less energy per fusion event.
Once you achieve ignition, the big problem that faces you is a flood of neutrons that makes fission look mild by comparison. (Most of the neutrons created by fission are consumed in keeping the reaction going, essentially all fusion neutrons escape the plasma.) And fission reactors don't have to maintain a laboratory grade vacuum in the face of that massive neutron flux.
I think fusion will ultimately prove feasible, and has some advantages in terms of the fuel supply compared to fission, but being "clean" is not among them.
I agree with both Mark and Brett. We should dump a lot more money into fusion research and we should also begin constructing lots of new design fission plants today. The money for this should come right out of the defense budget as a non-oil-based energy supply would likely do more for our security than almost anything that an extra carrier battle group or two is going to do for us.
The biggest thing holding back fission power at the moment is not a lack of government funded research. There has been amazing progress in nuclear reactor design over the last decade. The biggest thing holding back building fission power is simply the rational fear that you'll invest a fortune building a plant, and the regulations will change halfway through the build. The biggest thing holding back new reactor designs is the fact that the NRC seems to have no interest in approving new designs; They just sit on the applications.
Yes, switching over to a fission based energy economy would remarkably contribute to our national security, and doing so probably would be cheaper what we're spending to keep fuel imports from the middle east reliable.
The biggest thing holding fission back is that they are too expensive and unpopular and there is no viable way to dispose of the waste product which will remain radioactive for millions of years. Seriously, for someone to claim to be a libertarian and promote the government boondoggle of nuclear power is the most insane rant I've heard all day.
"The biggest thing holding fission back is that they are too expensive and unpopular and there is no viable way to dispose of the waste product which will remain radioactive for millions of years."
That might be the anti-nuke line of propaganda, but it's still total BS.
First of all, if nuclear power were inherently expensive, France would have gone broke, and China, which doesn't exactly have a first world economy, (Big, but poor on a per capita basis.) wouldn't be building them. Nukes are expensive to build, (But very economical to run!) in the US, because regulatory burdens stretch out building the plants, which means a lot more interest before you start earning money on them. If other countries can affordably build nuclear power plants, I think we can.
Second, nuclear power isn't unpopular. Except maybe, tautologically, among anti-nuke activists…
Third, nuclear waste does not remain dangerously radioactive for millions of years. Nuke waste, (Which is currently, in the US, being artificially inflated by a ban on reprocessing; Most of the 'waste' is actually fuel.) consists of two groups of isotopes: Those with relatively short half-lives, which are very dangerous, but only for hundreds of years, and those with very long half-lives, which are 'radioactive' for millions of years, but for that very reason are not particularly dangerous. (When you've got a half life of a million years, you're not going to release enough radiation at any given moment to be a danger to anybody.)
Non-radioactive toxins, such as arsenic, by contrast, remain dangerous FOREVER. It's actually a point in favor of nuclear power, that the wastes eventually go away, unlike coal ash…
As someone who took a bachelor's in nuclear engineering at one of the best fusion schools in the country (Wisconsin) and who then ran reactors for the Navy, I have no anti-nuke bias. What I learned is that, while nuclear power can be quite safe, whether that holds true in a for-profit utility setting is another matter entirely. I love it when people point to France and nuclear power without mentioning that France's electricity is 100% socialized.
I also have a friend who ran the advanced physics group for the Fast Flux Test Facility at Hanford.
And we've both concluded that nuclear is essentially irrelevant for our predicament.
As Nate Lewis of Cal Tech points out, decarbonizing our energy supply via nuclear would mean putting 2 1 GW nukes on line each week, every week, for the next fifty years.
In a world of tight and ever-tightening energy, with skyrocketing energy costs (and declining energy profit), the only way we could invest in a nuclear buildout that would even keep us at status quo (replacing the existing plants) would be to mimic the Soviet Union, which was willing to destroy itself to maintain its military, even while energy volatility (falling costs, in that case) destroyed its ability to pay for anything.
We have neither the industrial base, the talent base, or the economic base needed to make nuclear a significant asset for the future. We have increasingly less ability to absorb the massive risk that nukes represent to for profit utilities. The only thing we can plausibly do is make the very best use possible out of the existing installed base and any new plants that actually do get built, but I would hazard that you're better off betting that none of the new license applications will bear fruit than that they all will.
As in so many other areas, the maximum conceivable politically falls well short of the minimum needed in the real world — the minimum carbon taxes needed to make a nuclear renaissance possible (much less probable) are well above the maximum pain threshold of a heterogenous democratic society.
"As Nate Lewis of Cal Tech points out, decarbonizing our energy supply via nuclear would mean putting 2 1 GW nukes on line each week, every week, for the next fifty years."
Whereas decarbonizing our energy supply via any other energy source would mean putting 2 1 GW something elses on line every week, every year, for the next fifty years. They'd just be something elses we don't already know how to build.
Exactly. That's probably one of the least-known aspects of nuclear waste.
To be blunt, even the "dangerous" stuff isn't that dangerous once you stick inside those gigantic concrete drums that they planned to bury it in in Yucca Mountain. You could load the stuff up in those drums, dump it in a Pacific ocean trench, and you'd never see or hear about them again.
So? The grid in the US is still largely socialized, and the private corporate power plant owners have been largely operating the existing nuclear power plants for decades with no problems.
Like the other Brett said, there is interest in building more nuke plants, but the NRC and possibility of regulatory change in the middle of the process is what's slowing them down.
Don't be ridiculous. If worse came to worst, we could use that five-hundred-years' worth of coal supply in the US to provide the energy to build that nuclear infrastructure. Not to mention other power sources in the interim, like oil and natural gas (both of which are still plentiful). That "energy shortage" stuff is nonsense.
Good point. I think we give the pro-"clean energy" people too much of a pass on specifics – how exactly do they plan to get to such a large fraction in terms of alternative energy on stuff that we have no idea as to whether or not it will scale, never mind be produced in enough quantities to be useful?
Nobody's saying that Nuclear Power is the only source of potential power in a post-Coal and -gas environment, but it will need to be the backbone of our power supply.
We have plenty of #1 and #3. #2 is much more tricky, but if necessary, we can import expertise from abroad (like what the UK is doing with their prospective plants in terms of French support) until we can start building up a better base of nuclear technology experts.
That's a societal problem, and it has lately been applying to all potential energy sources, not just nuclear. NIMBYism is just out of control in this country.
Look how long it took to get that Wind Farm approval off of the Massachusetts coast line. Nobody wants their power supply anywhere near where they live, and whenever they build the power supplies out in the middle of nowhere (where it is much less efficient, since you get issues with transmission costs), the environmentalists start bitching and filing lawsuits that tie everything down for years.
Unless that society happens to be France.
Other Brett, does it trouble you that you appear to have no idea what you're talking about?
Look up Davis-Besse and get back to me. Oh, and please tell me which parts of the grid are socialized. Last I looked — while working for a public utility commission — the government owns essentially none of it.
The NRC is the Minerals Management Service of the nuclear world, the regulator/ promoter. The NRC is at the forefront of trying to get utilities to submit plans and Congress has offered millions of subsidies for utilities to do so AND further millions of risk insurance for any regulatory delays. See EPACT 2005. You're going to have to come up with some more plausible pretend reasons to avoid facing the real one (that it's Wall St. that has killed the nuclear industry).
Nobody said there was an energy shortage — in fact, we're at the peak of oil abundance … though it's all downhill from here. Which means that prices are going to ramp nonlinear from here whenever demand would otherwise want to climb. As for your "500 years worth of coal" (1) it's not there; and (2) we can't afford to keep burning coal at all. If we could, we wouldn't need nukes at all outside of submarines.
<del datetime="2010-06-21T20:15:30+00:00">JMG</del> Other Brett (sorry for the misattribution): "stuff that we have no idea as to whether or not it will scale".
What are the specific problems in ramping up US wind power installation from 9.9 GW to 99 GW a year? The ingredients look bog-standard technology to me: steel towers, fibre-reinforced blades, generators, gearboxes. And where is the sand shortage for solar PV?
Neither technology needs to scale in the sense of bigger units. They do need costs to come down more, which is happening by the entirely predictable market-driven processes of incremental innovation and mass production.
US factories built 96,000 military airplanes in 1944.
"What are the specific problems in ramping up US wind power installation from 9.9 GW to 99 GW a year? "
1. Good locations to place the windmills.
2. Large scale wind power actually changing weather patterns. Among other environmental impacts such as diced up birds…
3. The power grid being destabilized by such a large input of fundamentally unreliable power.
@ James Wemberly: I didn't write what you ask me about, so I'll leave that to whomever wrote it.
1. Anywhere in the Great Plains outside bird migration corridors.
2. Weather patterns: huh?
For the birds, it's orders of magnitude fewer deaths than from house cats. Blade speeds have slowed as rotors got bigger. I think Treehugger has it right: the meme is a an extrapolation from the obsolete Altamont Pass site in Caiifornia, which tells you nothing about the effect of a state-of-the art and properly sited wind farm in the Great Plains or the North Sea.
3. L'intendance suivra, as General de Gaulle said. I don't get your destabilising. Surely the sort of instability that led to the East Coast blackout requires large components to fail suddenly. Because wind turbines are many and dispersed, they actually protect you against this. The output of a large number of them must vary quite smoothly and predictably from the weather forecast. If the output is falling, there's time for a grid manager to call on reserve sources like gas or pumped storage or (in Europe) imports, and/or to shed load by triggering cuts for users who have signed up to interruptible supplies (see: smart grid, smart metering, domotics.) Two-tier domestic tariffs, with a guaranteed continuous base for lighting, TV, and fridge and an interruptible margin for air-conditioning, water heating,and car battery recharging will become the norm. Clearly the end of civilisation as we know it.
Wow, you found a whole bunch of safety incidents that amounted to . . . what, exactly? None of them ended up being serious disasters, and I'd like to see how that stacks up in comparison to safety issues at, say, coal-fired plants before I pass judgment.
As for the "grid being socialized", fine, some of the public utilities are privately owned.
Yet they won't remove some of the regulatory barriers that truly impede the construction of new plants. Some "help".
Proof? Ever since Hubbert predicted the peak of conventional oil production in the US, advocates have been claiming that a world peak is coming for decades – and keep scaling it back, whenever new ways of extracting oil from the sea bed, from the tar sands, from shale, come around. Or they play semantics games, arguing that it really refers to the peak of "cheap oil", as if the more expensive variety won't have a role in buffering a transition to a non-oil-based economy.
In the middle of war mobilization, when price was no object, and before advanced electronics became part and parcel of modern military aircraft.
Nice and far away from the major urban centers of the US, meaning that there are massive transmission losses unless you plunk down a gigantic amount of money to build nitrogen-cooled superconducting lines.
"Nobody said there was an energy shortage — in fact, we’re at the peak of oil abundance … though it’s all downhill from here. Which means that prices are going to ramp nonlinear from here whenever demand would otherwise want to climb.
Proof: The price of oil quadrupled and supply increased not one bit.
"Look up Davis-Besse and get back to me. Oh, and please tell me which parts of the grid are socialized. Last I looked — while working for a public utility commission — the government owns essentially none of it.
Wow, you found a whole bunch of safety incidents that amounted to . . . what, exactly? None of them ended up being serious disasters"
Oh, OK, the standard for caring about reactor safety in your view is that, as long as a there's a thin uncorroded bit between a voided reactor vessel and total meltdown and business as usual, all is well. With friends like you, nuclear power does not need enemies. You understand that your attitude — until you have a problem, there's no problem — is on display in the Gulf of Mexico right now, right?
Please note that only the top of the graph is shown, most of the fuel is U238 even at the end of the 4 years, and 96% of the supposed 'waste' consists of isotopes which can be used as fuel, either directly, or in breeder reactors. The rest consists of short lived isotopes which are inert after a few hundred years.
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