Europe’s Nuclear Fusion Race Is Going Private

Lambert here: Let me know how that works out.

By Haley Zaremba, a writer and journalist based in Mexico City with extensive experience writing and editing environmental features. Originally posted at

• Nuclear fusion has been posited as a kind of silver bullet solution to the growing climate crisis.

• So far, relatively few large-scale nuclear fusion initiatives have gotten off the ground, due to huge barriers to entry.

• The newfound interest in nuclear fusion in Europe coincides with a serious energy crunch which has shown the fallibility of the continent’s energy security in recent months.

The race is on to achieve commercial nuclear fusion. Believers in the “holy grail of clean energy” are hopeful that a breakthrough in nuclear fusion is imminent enough that the clean energy source could power a green energy transition sweeping and swift enough to help the world achieve the emissions targets set by the Paris climate accord.

In order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, leading climate scientists and policymakers from around the world agree that the global community needs to keep the planet from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celcius over pre-industrial averages in the best-case scenario, and 2 degrees Celsius at worst. This is a tall order to say the least, considering past trends and a business-as-usual scenario, and will require unprecedented global cooperation and collaboration. What’s more, the window for achieving this kind of economic and systems overhaul is closing quickly.

Nuclear fusion has been posited as a kind of silver bullet solution to a seemingly insurmountable and wicked problem. For the better part of the last century, fusion has been a thing of science fiction and thought experiments rather than lab experiments. But in recent years major breakthroughs have brought commercial nuclear fusion closer to reality than ever before. Fusion, which is the form of energy production that powers the sun, involves the fusing of atoms, which emits several times more energy than nuclear fission, the atom-splitting technology that currently takes place at nuclear power plants. And, unlike nuclear fission, fusion leaves behind no radioactive waste and carries no risk of nuclear meltdown, making it an ideal candidate for a virtually limitless clean energy future.

So far, relatively few large-scale nuclear fusion initiatives have gotten off the ground, due to huge barriers to entry. Because of the enormous expense associated with building a reactor capable of facilitating fusion, so far the field has been dominated by publicly funded projects such as Europe’s ITER and China’s EAST (Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak). As scientists have gotten closer and closer to achieving ‘ignition’ – which refers to a nuclear fusion reaction that emits more energy than it consumes – the private sector has become increasingly interested in getting into the industry on the bottom floor and positioning itself at the forefront of what could be a world-changing innovation. So far, while nuclear fusion has been successfully achieved in labs, ignition has remained elusive.

Now, however, the playing field is changing and competition is heating up as private enterprise gets involved. Last year, the nascent nuclear fusion sector was the recipient of more than 2.6 billion USD in venture capital, primarily in the United States. Now, however, fusion fever has hopped across the pond and is seriously gaining traction among private enterprises in Europe. Even in Germany, Europe’s preeminent anti-nuclear authority, nuclear fusion has gained significant ground. Marvel Fusion, a Munich-based company has raised 35 million Euros (about 40 million USD) for their nuclear fusion venture, and has recently solidified partnerships with Siemens Energy, France’s Thales, and the privately-owned German mechanical engineering group Trumpf.

Like some of its private counterparts in the United States, Marvel Fusion is not relying on the massive magnets and extreme heat which are the basis of mass-scale fusion experiments like ITER, but is instead employing targeted lasers to trigger nuclear fusion reactions. This model is in its infancy, but holds great promise and has clearly gained the confidence of investors with deep pockets. “It’s a theoretical model, which is essentially a very large computer simulation, and then step by step it is being validated in an experimental campaign that started last year,” Marvel Fusion chief executive Moritz von der Linden told the Financial Times for an article published last week.

The newfound interest in nuclear fusion in Europe coincides with a serious energy crunch which has shown the fallibility of the continent’s energy security in recent months. The shortage of energy has sent energy prices through the roof and revealed the extent of Europe’s dependence on Russia for natural gas. The ability to create virtually limitless clean energy at will is an undeniably attractive possibility. With enough money and support from the public and private sectors across the world, nuclear fusion could get the the final push it needs to break through to ignition in time to save the planet from climate catastrophe and geopolitical crisis.

By Haley Zaremba for

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. oliverks

    To quote from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

    Now, an energy source consisting of 80 percent energetic neutron streams may be the perfect neutron source, but it’s truly bizarre that it would ever be hailed as the ideal electrical energy source. In fact, these neutron streams lead directly to four regrettable problems with nuclear energy: radiation damage to structures; radioactive waste; the need for biological shielding; and the potential for the production of weapons-grade plutonium 239—thus adding to the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation, not lessening it, as fusion proponents would have it.

    So perhaps not quite so radioactive waste free as this article would imply.

    1. Frithiof Andreas Jensen

      Such a source would be perfectly fine for controlling nuclear fission.

      The fundamental design flaw with current reactors is that one needs to stuff an enormous amount of fuel into the reactor just to create enough neutron flux for the fission process to run. At only about 5% impurities it’s all over and the fuel must be replaced, creating hundreds of tonnes of toxic rubbish that must somehow be managed for generations. It is genuinely a stupid and wasteful technology.

      By having a controlled neutron source, the neutron absorption by impurities can be compensated by increasing the neutron flux. The size of the minimum fuel load becomes tiny, it only needs to absorb most of the neutrons and have enough area for cooling, which ends up at about 10 tonnes. The purity and isotope composition of the fuel becomes much less stringent. By controlling the energy of the neutrons, different isotopes can be burned up or produced, like the PU-239, that many nuclear stakeholder secretly like to have more of.

      I think that because of the weapons possibility, there was not much research into Accelerator Driven Systems, because the current producers of nuclear weapons prefer a huge and enormously wasteful process, because only they can afford it, whereas an Accelerator Driven System will fit quite nicely under the sports complex at a university and of course be officially used for published particle research, with the night shift changing the target and cooking PU-239 on the side.

      Now, we are in the shit, and perhaps using a fusion source as the neutron generator is the “compromise” in having a process that is still complex and expensive but still quite achievable for “the usual suspects”, while the TLA’s can keep a beady eye on other people building particle accelerators.

      They are prototyping it here:

    2. Douglas

      Oh, there’s probably a Russian-sourced reactor design that “Mr. GRU” has been tasked to front, so here.

      The nukies, to-date still have not a single material or meta-material that stops neutrons, excursional or not.

      So go figure. Those high neutron fluxes are what render materials to super-lethal Sievert levels, the type “ok’d” by poseur “Zion Light” in Fukushima.

      “Private” investors in fusion?: “ok”.
      An Elon Musk “GoFundMe” or Trucker Jihad platform. IMO.

  2. Gumnut

    Main challenge in getting fusion to electricity (beside the minor detail of getting net-producing fusion in the first place) is extracting the energy out of the hot plasma. That basically means capturing the fast neutrons exiting and turning their energy into heat to drive a steam turbine system.

    Challenge 1: the temperature of the wall. ITER has to keep the reactor walls (the cooling water to remove the heat) under 100C to stop them from melting. That temperature will need to be more like 500C to drive a turbine system like in current coal or nuclear plants.
    = find a 500C ‘cooling’ water thermally stable material. That captures & survives a heavy neutron flux. No biggie.

    Much much harder challenge 2: bombardment with high neutron flux causes both nuclear reactions (wall atoms turning into different likely radioactive elements = changing chemical/physical properties of the wall) and simply degradation (e.g. producing helium bubbles inside it, blistering the wall material). Not sure how often ITER turns on the fusion plasma, but I would guess it’s minutes/month, not like 0.5-0.8min/minute (a reasonably to be expecting capacity factor of a power plant). Saw somewhere on ITER, that at full research level (!!) pelt, each atom in the reactor wall will be bumped out of its stable position 20x per year. I.e. if you think the Navy had a problem with F35 radar-absorbing materials rusting in the sea air, then this is the mother of all metallurgy (or insert any other material science subbranch) challenges to make that look trivial. Saw proposals like having a molten lead vortex as a reactor wall, but minor detail with a liquid lead twister the size of a house is ‘where is the hole through which we shoot in the laser to initiate the fusion reaction?’

    Ain’t gonna happen in time to save us.

    1. Trainer

      As a note on just how radioactive the plasma facing components inside a fusion reactor can get:

      “Assystem aims to build robotic equipment that can safely remove irradiated components and impurities such as dust from inside a tokamak, the chamber in which fusion reactions take place and an environment of intense levels of heat and radiation.”

      It’s so radioactive, they will need robots to replace and fix internal components. Which means all the parts they regularly remove from this reactor must be stored as radioactive waste.

    2. Douglas

      I’ll add astonishment in brackets, then a “fix” in brackets @ end of quote:

      ” .. each atom in the reactor wall will be bumped out of its stable position 20x per year. [ each! Read: 100% destabilized material integrity]
      I.e. if you think the Navy had a problem [.. convincing us their “UFO” videos weren’t mere evidence of networking programmer artifacts, rather than “fake” UFO encounters, then the Navy now will have no greater success with driving of ‘private fusion investors’ than with those UFO narratives … ]

      There, “fixed” that.

  3. Joe Well

    I wonder when there will be some kind of rebranding of fusion. A bunch of times here in the comments people have assumed it had to do with nuclear fission, or that it was part of that industry, when in practice they are worlds apart.

    Certainly, the fusion dream would mean the death of fission, which is perhaps why there has been so little military funding for it (nuclear arsenal even harder to justify, the final end of “atoms for peace”).

    I have started to see the term “fusion energy” so maybe that is the rebranding.

  4. sfp

    Maybe nuclear fusion will be useful by helping nuclear fission to be rebranded positively. Governments first try and inevitably fail to do anything useful with fusion because of the insurmountable technical hurdles. Then in a face-saving maneuver they whip out nuclear fission as Nuclear Classic. Same great taste, orders of magnitude more straightforward to engineer.

    1. Joe Well

      >>This is more than double what was achieved in similar tests back in 1997.

      Wow, the speed of progress in the field of nuclear fusion is not quite what it is elsewhere.

      Moore’s Law for fusion: doubling every quarter century.

  5. TomDority

    I thought the amount of research and funding going into fusion development by university, governments.. the public make the private investments look like grains of sand.
    Are these private “investments” being set up in the hope that they can twist whatever gains made into fusion by Public advancement, investment and research into private profit or the old public-private partnership. Just follow the pharma model.
    I do really hope that Fusion makes it on board but I feel the time line is a decade or more away.
    Fission is still an option but we humans love to war and destroy and have not learned to clean up after our selves. Go down to the Zoo for a demo with the monkeys throwing crap at each other.

    1. Boshko

      I’m skeptical of the 2.6B private capital figure cited in the article as that would actually be significant.

      Currently US federal spending on fusion research is a few hundred million, tops. In terms of expected future returns on a planet changing technology this is crumbs. We’re throwing orders of magnitude more public money at absurd fantasies for reducing emissions like a fleet of private EVs (which still rely on natural gas and coal!).

      This recent piece highlights recent gains at LLNL at using laser pulses to ignite the fusion reaction and inertia to contain the plasma (inertial fusion), which is different than the tokamak approach at ITER:

  6. Louis Fyne

    at this stage, private capital on fusion is retarded (apologies for the French) as the fusion tech, and ancillary tech (superconductors), is nowhere near commercialization.

    we are still in basic research stage and anyone raising private capital is ignorant of the tech and/or a fraudster….and anyone/firm who invests deserves to lose their money.

    The US spends more on potato chips than basic fusion research.

  7. Mikerw0

    Here we go again. Science by press release. Yesterday there was an announcement that was widely picked up and touted by many major news organization about the “test” run at the Jet Lab in the UK. It was slanted as we are getting there and this is a major step towards the holy grail. These need to be read with a highly critical eye. While they provide a Q value in the article of 0.33, which is a massive distance from a Q of 1, they don’t say if that is Q-plasma or Q-total.

    Typically those promoting fusion are quoting Q-plasma. If so, Q-total, the number that matters, is less than 0.1.

    The famous quote that fusion is ‘always 35 years away’ still holds.

  8. voislav

    I’ll be on the optimistic side of things. Big breakthrough for fusion development has been wide availability of computational resources. The main issue with fusion reactors has been efficient plasma confinement and ability to achieve high energy density, which is the key to achieving net energy production. Higher energy density needs more efficient confinement to prevent energy losses. In the past the only way to test a reactor design has been to build one, which prevented development of innovative reactor designs.

    This is why tokamak design has been so popular, even though it’s an evolutionary dead end. Torroidal field provides efficient confinement but it requires a lot of energy to maintain because plasma density is very low. So you need to build a very large system like ITER just to get to the breakeven point, let alone net positive energy. A tokamak reactor would have to be built on a massive scale to be commercially viable, 10-20,000 MW power for a single reactor.

    Over the past decade or so computational tools have improved tremendously thanks to faster processors, to a point where it is now possible to conduct a full reactor simulation in a few weeks of computational time on a $100K server. So you can effectively test different reactor designs without building them, which is a much lower entry barrier, this is why we see a lot of small private companies jumping into the fray.

    1. sfp

      These are good points.

      It seems unlikely that any of these computational experiments will discover just the right set of design parameters which will take fusion reactor design into the realm of feasibility, but who knows.

      A more immediate benefit is that these private companies will provide jobs and valuable on-the-job training for computational scientists, who might otherwise end up driving click-through rate at a big tech company.

  9. gc54

    In addition to the issues with neutron damage of vacuum vessel wall and components mentioned above, tritium to power early fusion reactors (because deuterium-tritium is the lowest kinetic temperature reaction) must be bred in other reactors. A very limited amount to support ITER experiments can come from fission reactors, but viable fusion power will grow glacially because that tritium will need to be bred from lithium blankets around the fusion reactor. Fingers crossed that that will be sustainable. Other fusion cycles are being explored with advantages over deuterium-tritium, but are more challenging. ITER may explore some of those but not before 2040, so there is time for private capital combustion in the interim.

  10. lyman alpha blob

    While I’m not opposed to fusion power if it can really be done right, I am highly skeptical in general of technical solutions to problems caused by the technology we’ve already created. And now on top of that, this glowing review says it’s the private sector that will save us with the implication that they’ll be able to solve problems that government can’t, because, well, they’re private!

    Something tells me that allowing private companies to control this industry will NOT lead to the promise that we’ve heard for years that fusion will produce power that’s too cheap to bother metering.

    How about just having fewer people?

    And I’ll save those who would comment that fewer people implies genocide the trouble – no it doesn’t. I know plenty of couples who have had two or fewer children (less than the replacement rate) with no genocide involved!

  11. JoeC100

    Fusion waste will nearly entirely be classified as Low Level and Medium Level waste (this latter category does not yet exist in the US). The only potential high level waste could come from activation of structural materials that need to be disposed when fusion reactors are decommissioned. While much work has been done internationally by government labs exploring opportunities to practically and economically mange these potential waste streams significant systems for “clearing”, recycling and repurposing these wastes are not yet in place and moving to put such systems in place is not yet underway. I also don’t think there are any good cost estimates for managing these waste streams, which adds to the significant uncertainties about costs of a potentially diverse energy source that does not yet exist. Tritium will be an issue for DT fueled fusion but can be adequately managed once the waste management streams above are in place. To date I have not seen any fusion startups addressing these waste management issues, except possibly Tokamak Energy in the UK.

  12. Xiaolei Mu

    The science behind nuclear fusion is far less straightforward than it seems. While the fusion reaction in our sun’s core involves pure hydrogen resulting in benign helium isotopes, we can’t simply recreate the favorable conditions of the sun on earth – hence using the hydrogen-isotopes deuterium and tritium as fusion materials with all their associated problems.

    While part of it has already been quoted, these two articles written by Daniel Jassby from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (the same ones publishing the Doomsday Clock) are worth a read to both get a grounding on the topic and to dispel some of the magical hype around fusion technology.

    Personally, I’d rather bet on thorium fission reactors.

  13. Tom Collins' Moscow Mule

    It is the very definition of the modern capitalist corporate state; where, the state or government provides funding for the development of potentially market viable, or economically viable proof of concept technologies. The costs and failures of technological development are subsidized and socialized; while, the profit, when it occurs, continues to remain individual and private.

    “For decades, governments and science institutions led the charge on fusion energy research. No more than two private fusion companies existed throughout the 1990s, according to an Oct. 25 report by the UK Atomic Energy Authority.”

  14. Parker Dooley

    Imminent (adj): Happening with any non-zero probability between now and the heat death of the Universe.

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