Nuclear Fusion: It’s really about nuclear weapons, not clean energy

Dec 22, 2022
Close-up of the interior of a tokamak nuclear fusion reactor, before starting the nuclear reaction.

The development of Nuclear Fusion is not, as the media claims, about clean energy. Instead, it is driven by the United States’ desire to continue wielding its terrifyingly destructive nuclear weapons arsenal.

In its announcement about the National Ignition Facility (NIF) achieving ignition, the U.S. Department of Energy foresaw two benefits: it would “provide unprecedented capability to support…[the] Stockpile Stewardship Program” and it “will provide invaluable insights into the prospects of clean fusion energy, which would be a game-changer for efforts to achieve…a net-zero carbon economy”. The media, mistakenly although perhaps expectedly, has largely focused on the latter. Let’s start with the first, noting at the outset that this benefit ought not be celebrated, for it allows the United States to continue wielding its terrifyingly destructive nuclear weapons arsenal.

Fusion and Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear fusion which involves two lighter nuclei coming together to form a heavier nucleus, was first carried out on the Earth in November 1952, when the United States exploded the world’s first thermonuclear weapon (hydrogen bomb). To understand NIF, we have to fast forward to 1994 and the setting up of the Science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program. That program, the ransom paid to the US nuclear weapons laboratories in order that President Bill Clinton could sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, integrated a “number of facilities and projects whose principal missions involve nuclear weapons experiments, component testing, or weapons-related nuclear physics”. NIF was an important component of these.

According to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, NIF’s role is to “increase our understanding of weapon physics, including the properties and survivability of weapons-relevant materials”. To be clear, our understanding does not mean “our” in the sense of the general public, but refers only to U.S. nuclear weapons designers. What they do does not benefit the vast majority of the world’s peoples, and it is not clear why the NIF experiment is to be celebrated.

The false promise of “clean fusion energy” and “net-zero carbon economy”

Although most of the media hype did add an obligatory disclaimer about energy from fusion not being around the corner, almost none explained that generating electrical power from nuclear fusion is unlikely to ever be economically viable. Three basic challenges confront the idea of using the same kind of process used in NIF to generate electricity.

First, there is the “physics challenge”: to produce more energy than is used by the facility as a whole. NIF is far from meeting this challenge. In the recent experiment, the lasers pumped in 2.05 megajoules of energy and about 3.15 megajoules came out.  But to generate that 2.05 megajoules, the 192 lasers at NIF consumed around 400 megajoules. Add to this, all the energy that goes into running the other equipment and the facility as a whole, and the energy used to construct the facility and the equipment, and it becomes obvious that the energy generated was a miniscule fraction of the energy input.

Then, there is the “engineering challenge” of converting this experimental set up that produces energy for a microscopic fraction of second into a continuous source of electricity that operates 24 hours/day and 365 days/year. That involves a complicated sequence of events—laser firing, clearing the large amount of debris from the explosion, and placing a new pellet with utmost precision at the very spot where the lasers can focus their beams—being carried out with a fraction of a second.

There are also challenges with the fuel used, a mixture of deuterium and tritium, two isotopes of hydrogen. Tritium, which decays radioactively with a half-life of only around 12 years, is very scarce, which is why each gram of tritium costs over $30,000. Further, generating tritium in situ is an exceedingly difficult task, which means that tritium would have to be constantly replaced.

The third is the economic challenge of having this incredibly complicated process compete with other simpler and far cheaper ways of generating electricity. Let me just give one example of the nature of the expense (in addition to the high costs of tritium): Because of the extreme precision needed, the pellet used in the NIF experiment reportedly cost over $100,000 to manufacture. Hundreds of thousands, all manufactured to the same precision, would be required each day to run a plant. With many such challenges, the odds of nuclear fusion generating electricity economically and reliably are miniscule.

The announcement about NIF is correct in one sense. Understanding what happened there does “provide invaluable insights into the prospects of clean fusion energy”, namely that these prospects are non-existent. As for “a net-zero carbon economy”, the only implication is a negative one, for money spent on nuclear fusion is money not spent on advancing sources of renewable and sustainable energy and associated technologies. Those will not only pay rewards faster, they will also not help with furthering the threat posed by the most destructive weapons known to humanity


Editor’s note:

This is a short version of a longer article on this topic by the author entitled ‘Clean Energy or Weapons? What the ‘Breakthrough’ in Nuclear Fusion Really Means’. It can be read in The Wire December 15, 2022.

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