Nuclear Fusion: Don’t Believe the Hype!​

Lambert here: If I recall correctly, the breakthrough at the National Ignition Facility came just as Congress was gearing up to pass the latest spending bill. (For those who come in late, the allusion in the headline.)

By Brian Tokar, director of the Institute for Social Ecology, a lecturer in environmental studies at the University of Vermont, and a board member of 350 Vermont, an autonomous statewide organization. He is the author of “Toward Climate Justice: Perspectives on the Climate Crisis and Social Change (Revised edition 2014, New Compass Press) and “Agriculture and Food in Crisis: Conflict, Resistance, and Renewal.” Originally published at Common Dreams.

In a dramatic scientific and engineering breakthrough, researchers at the Bay Area's Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory recently achieved the long-sought goal of generating a nuclear fusion reaction that produced more energy than was directly injected into a tiny reactor vessel. By the very next day, pundits well across the political spectrum were touting that breakthrough as a harbinger of a new era in energy production, suggesting that a future of limitless, low-impact fusion energy was perhaps a few decades away. In reality, however, commercially viable nuclear fusion is only infinitesimally closer than it was back in the 1980s when a contained fusion reaction—i.e. not occurring in the sun or from a bomb—was first achieved.

While most honest writers have at least acknowledged the obstacles to commercially-scaled fusion, they typically still underestimate them—as much so today as back in the 1980s. We are told that a fusion reaction would have to occur "many times a second" to produce usable amounts of energy. But the blast of energy from the LBL fusion reactor actually only lasted one tenth of a nanosecond—that's a ten-billionth of a second. Apparently other fusion reactions (with a net energy loss) have operated for a few nanoseconds, but reproducing this reaction over a billion times every second is far beyond what researchers are even contemplating.

We are told that the reactor produced about 1.5 times the amount of energy that was input, but this only counts the laser energy that actually struck the reactor vessel. That energy, which is necessary to generate temperatures over a hundred million degrees, was the product of an array of 192 high-powered lasers, which required well over 100 times as much energy to operate. Third, we are told that nuclear fusion will someday free up vast areas of land that are currently needed to operate solar and wind power installations. But the entire facility needed to house the 192 lasers and all the other necessary control equipment was large enough to contain three football fields, even though the actual fusion reaction takes place in a gold or diamond vessel smaller than a pea. All this just to generate the equivalent of about 10-20 minutes of energy that is used by a typical small home. Clearly, even the most inexpensive rooftop solar systems can already do far more. And Prof. Mark Jacobson's group at Stanford University has calculated that a total conversion to wind, water and solar power might use about as much land as is currently occupied by the world's fossil fuel infrastructure.

Long-time nuclear critic Karl Grossman wrote on Counterpunch recently of the many likely obstacles to scaling up fusion reactors, even in principle, including high radioactivity, rapid corrosion of equipment, excessive water demands for cooling, and the likely breakdown of components that would need to operate at unfathomably high temperatures and pressures. His main source on these issues is Dr. Daniel Jassby, who headed Princeton's pioneering fusion research lab for 25 years. The Princeton lab, along with researchers in Europe, has led the development of a more common device for achieving nuclear fusion reactions, a doughnut-shaped or spherical vessel known as a tokamak. Tokamaks, which contain much larger volumes of highly ionized gas (actually a plasma, a fundamentally different state of matter), have achieved substantially more voluminous fusion reactions for several seconds at a time, but have never come close to producing more energy than is injected into the reactor.

The laser-mediated fusion reaction achieved at LBL occurred at a lab called the National Ignition Facility, which touts its work on fusion for energy, but is primarily dedicated to nuclear weapons research. Prof. M. V. Ramana of the University of British Columbia, whose recent article was posted on the newly revived ZNetwork, explains, "NIF was set up as part of the Science Based Stockpile Stewardship Program, which was the ransom paid to the US nuclear weapons laboratories for forgoing the right to test after the United States signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty" in 1963. It is "a way to continue investment into modernizing nuclear weapons, albeit without explosive tests, and dressing it up as a means to produce 'clean' energy." Ramana cites a 1998 article that explained how one aim of laser fusion experiments is to try to develop a hydrogen bomb that doesn't require a conventional fission bomb to ignite it, potentially eliminating the need for highly enriched uranium or plutonium in nuclear weapons.

While some writers predict a future of nuclear fusion reactors running on seawater, the actual fuel for both tokamaks and laser fusion experiments consists of two unique isotopes of hydrogen known as deuterium—which has an extra neutron in its nucleus—and tritium—with two extra neutrons. Deuterium is stable and somewhat common: approximately one out of every 5-6000 hydrogen atoms in seawater is actually deuterium, and it is a necessary ingredient (as a component of "heavy water") in conventional nuclear reactors. Tritium, however, is radioactive, with a half-life of twelve years, and is typically a costly byproduct ($30,000 per gram) of an unusual type of nuclear reactor known as CANDU, mainly found today in Canada and South Korea. With half the operating CANDU reactors scheduled for retirement this decade, available tritium supplies will likely peak before 2030 and a new experimental fusion facility under construction in France will nearly exhaust the available supply in the early 2050s. That is the conclusion of a highly revealing article that appeared in Science magazine last June, months before the latest fusion breakthrough. While the Princeton lab has made some progress toward potentially recycling tritium, fusion researchers remain highly dependent on rapidly diminishing supplies. Alternative fuels for fusion reactors are also under development, based on radioactive helium or boron, but these require temperatures up to a billion degrees to trigger a fusion reaction. The European lab plans to experiment with new ways of generating tritium, but these also significantly increase the radioactivity of the entire process and a tritium gain of only 5 to 15 percent is anticipated. The more downtime between experimental runs, the less tritium it will produce. The Science article quotes D. Jassby, formerly of the Princeton fusion lab, saying that the tritium supply issue essentially "makes deuterium-tritium fusion reactors impossible."

So why all this attention toward the imagined potential for fusion energy? It is yet another attempt by those who believe that only a mega-scaled, technology-intensive approach can be a viable alternative to our current fossil fuel-dependent energy infrastructure. Some of the same interests continue to promote the false claims that a "new generation" of nuclear fission reactors will solve the persistent problems with nuclear power, or that massive-scale capture and burial of carbon dioxide from fossil-fueled power plants will make it possible to perpetuate the fossil-based economy far into the future. It is beyond the scope of this article to systematically address those claims, but it is clear that today's promises for a new generation of "advanced" reactors is not much different from what we were hearing back in the 1980s, '90s or early 2000s.

Nuclear whistleblower Arnie Gundersen has systematically exposed the flaws in the 'new' reactor design currently favored by Bill Gates, explaining that the underlying sodium-cooled technology is the same as in the reactor that "almost lost Detroit" due to a partial meltdown back in 1966, and has repeatedly caused problems in Tennessee, France and Japan. France's nuclear energy infrastructure, which has long been touted as a model for the future, is increasingly plagued by equipment problems, massive cost overruns and some sources of cooling water no longer being cool enough, due to rising global temperatures. An attempt to export French nuclear technology to Finland took more than twenty years longer than anticipated, at many times the original estimated cost. As for carbon capture, we know that countless, highly subsidized carbon capture experiments have failed and that the vast majority of the CO2 currently captured from power plants is used for "enhanced oil recovery," i.e. increasing the efficiency of existing oil wells. The pipelines that would be needed to actually collect CO2 and bury it underground would be comparable to the entire current infrastructure for piping oil and gas, and the notion of permanent burial will likely prove to be a pipedream.

Meanwhile, we know that new solar and wind power facilities are already cheaper to build than new fossil fueled power plants and in some locations are even less costly than continuing to operate existing power plants. Last May, California was briefly able to run its entire electricity grid on renewable energy, a milestone that had already been achieved in Denmark and in South Australia. And we know that a variety of energy storage methods, combined with sophisticated load management and upgrades to transmission infrastructure are already helping solve the problem of intermittency of solar and wind energy in Europe, California and other locations. At the same time, awareness is growing about the increasing reliance of renewable technology, including advanced batteries, on minerals extracted from Indigenous lands and the global South. Thus a meaningfully just energy transition needs to both be fully renewable, and also reject the myths of perpetual growth that emerged from the fossil fuel era. If the end of the fossil fuel era portends the end of capitalist growth in all its forms, it is clear that all of life on earth will ultimately be the beneficiary.

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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. KLG

    Thank you, Brian Tokar and Lambert!

    As expected, this is just another Jim Watson moment: “Judah (Folkman) is going to cure cancer in two years.”

    From the link: “A media feeding-frenzy erupted immediately thereafter and the stock price of Entremed, the company developing endostatin for clinical applications, rose approximately 400 percent in one day. Television and radio coverage of the story was ubiquitous and ecstatic for at least a week, despite the fact that endostatin does not yet exist in a clinically usable form and may not be effective in humans. In reaction, cancer patients deluged hospitals, physicians, and cancer-related organizations with requests for the drug.”

  2. Altandmain

    The most recent breakthrough was a minor step in the right direction. Fusion remains decades away.

    In my opinion, one of the biggest failures we have made as a species is under-investment in nuclear fusion research. This ranks as a failure as large as building an economic system on financial rent seeking.

    I’d go as far as to say we should be spending well over 25% of our entire GDP on scientific research as a species and nuclear fusion should be the biggest project. It will not be easy and will require many years of very hard research. Once addressed however, this is going to be a major transition for the human race.

    Most of what we do is constrained by energy. A successful development of nuclear fusion would mean we could transition to a Kardashev Type 1 civilization and begin a serious effort to expand into space.

    As far as renewable energy is concerned, I’m far from convinced that it will be the easy solution the author, Brian Tokar claims. For one, we still need a massive amount of storage. The renewable power sources tend to be intermittent and require a combination of storage along with other energy sources.

    Battery storage, which is field I’ve worked with, is problematic because batteries tend to lose their charge with time. There are certainly technological ways to mitigate this (thermal management for example), and even end user solutions, but they will lose their charge.

    There are also financial issues to consider. There may be shortages in batteries already with electric vehicles. Adding even more demand for grid storage would be even more.

    There are other solutions. By no means do I oppose the development of renewable energy. It’s just that I think that barring storage, it will be hard to completely rely on renewable energy. I could see the grid relying on 30% renewable energy. To give an example of an other solution, I’d say that electrolysis on a massive scale would be a far more viable solution, but it would have to be backed up by nuclear power when the intermittent sources are not available and srorage is depleted. There have been high efficiencies demonstrated, but of course, there is still much work to be done as far as large scale implementation.

    Actually, there’s a strong case to be made that the current situation in Germany is partly due to the focus on Green energy under the Energiewende, which was the German equal to a Green New Deal. The Germans still are highly reliant on natural gas, they were in the process of shutting down their nuclear, and they were never able to build themselves up to be the renewable energy export superpower that the advocates called for it to be. By no means is it a complete failure, but it fell short of the initial advertised claims. Right now Germany is in danger of deindustrialization.

    The real leader in renewable energy is China. A big part of the reason why the prices were falling was because of the economies of scale the Chinese were manufacturing components like polysilicon and the sheer amount of subsidies that the Chinese government has spent, which has been subject to a number of trade disputes.

    Going back to the topic of fusion, it remains decades away. That does not mean that we should halt research, if anything, our failure as a species to invest is a major failure. Finally, we cannot rely purely on renewable energy the way this author seems to imply. Being able to power an entire grid for brief periods with renewable energy is not the same as having 24-7 reliable power. That will require enormous energy storage and backup sources, which will mean either fossil fuels or nuclear.

    1. Ernie

      …yet another attempt by those who believe that only a mega-scaled, technology-intensive approach can be a viable alternative to our current fossil fuel-dependent energy infrastructure. (See the third from last paragraph, above.)

      As a young engineer working in the energy field in the 1970’s, I saw first hand the braggadocio of men who love the idea of handling monstrously dangerous things, like nuclear power plants, and showing what big macho men they were. Except they weren’t. They were just slimy little things compensating. That is, slimy little things with the backing of the military industrial complex which was determined to normalize dangerous technologies, and block renewable energies.

      1. Altandmain

        What other alternative do you suggest?

        Right now we do not have the capabilities to store a huge quantity of energy that would be adequate to power an entire civilization, which would be a requirement for the renewable industry to truly supplant the fossil fuel industry.

        If electrolysis is built on a larger scale, I could see that gradually allowing for renewable energy to take a larger slice of the pie, although with a backup of either nuclear or fossil fuels when both the renewable energy is offline and the storage is running low. That too requires a lot of work.

        It’s not about ego – it’s about having a viable energy system. From my perspective, there have already been cases where attempts to go more renewable before storage technology and other backups can take over have been tried.

        California is a good example and unfortunately, they are having to go back to natural gas backup.

        Germany too is learning the hard way and the most recent energy crisis, as a result of their decision to be an American puppet vassal and provoke Russia along with their own energy policies have caused a serious crisis.

    2. Mikel

      “I’d go as far as to say we should be spending well over 25% of our entire GDP on scientific research as a species and nuclear fusion should be the biggest project…”

      The desire for this amount of energy has zero to do with protecting any species.
      It’s about trying to maintain a partucular kind economic system.

      And the economic system exalted in the USA has a poor track record with infrastructure maintenance.

      1. Altandmain

        What other paths do we have? There’s no other plan for us to someday expand into space and move on, which will require an enormous amount of energy. No other means to harness that much energy exists.

        If we remain on earth, at some point, we go extinct. That’s inevitable because of the lifespan of the sun.

        1. c_heale

          Expand into space? Where are we going to live? The Moon? Mars? They are completely hostile to human life.

          We haven’t even landed more humans on the Moon since the 70’s. I doubt we can even do that anymore.

          We can’t live anywhere else but this planet. So we need to look after it. Which we are manifestly not doing.

          1. Altandmain

            Without more energy, we are constrained. The whole reason why space flight is so costly is because of energy consumption required to escape the planet’s gravity well.

            With nuclear fusion, that becomes far less of a constraint. We can look after the planet in such a scenario with both a carbon neutral source of energy and to look after our own needs by dramatically increasing the amount of energy at our disposal.

        2. Acacia

          If we remain on earth, at some point, we go extinct. That’s inevitable because of the lifespan of the sun.

          Er, did you forget the sarc tag? The sun is slowly getting brighter at a rate of about 1% every million years, and will begin to really cook the Earth in about a billion years. From there, it slowly exits the main sequence, turning into a red giant, in around 5 billion years.

          Agree with @c_heale, above. We’re not going anywhere. Even Mars looks like a pipe dream.

    3. IEL

      IF fusion is (after countless years and untold sums, per your suggestion) achieved, then yes, it would be a game changer. The problem is that after decades of research and vast sums already spent, it still looks unlikely ever to pan out. At what point would you agree we should cut our losses and focus on more achievable solutions (renewables+storage, plus reducing our energy consumption, plus rail, etc)?

      1. Altandmain

        Here is how much the US has spent.

        As a percent of our total GDP or any other metric, we really haven’t spent that much on fusion research. In 2015, it was a mere 30 billion or according to the article, 500 million per year. Divide that by the number of years and we are looking at way under 1 percent.

        In that regard, I would disagree with you on the vast sums of money being spent. It’s literally a rounding error on the US government budget and as a total percentage of GDP.

        It should easily be 3 orders of magnitude more than that (ex: 500 billion dollars per year for the US and globally, I’d argue well into the trillions).

        To be honest, I don’t think that we should give up. We literally can’t because our civilization is energy constrained.

        I think that we should continue to gradually deploy renewable energy, especially if effective storage is affordable, alongside fission, but always with the goal of replacing it someday with fusion.

    4. Michael.j

      IMHO both paths, 1) harnessing existing solar radiation, ( ie PVC and wind), along with tidal and geo thermal) and 2) long term fusion will be necessary if we want to continue this Anthropocene civilization. Unless we want to allow or force a population crash, we will will need an excess of energy to get the CO2 out of the oceans to avoid those tipping points to which we are currently bound.

      I know this group is against geo-engineering, but IMO we crossed that bridge more than 20 years ago. There are “safer” mechanisms, such as marine cloud brightening, for temporary Arctic relief, but those still do not reduce the overall cataclysmic situation in the oceans, that is currently driving this mess, along with added CO2 and methane production. Unless we jump off the cheap, but very dangerous bridge of iron oxide precipitation, there currently is no cheap way to remove CO2 from the ocean.

      Given the historical short sightedness of humans I expect we will take the cheap route to whatever dismal end that leads.

      1. Altandmain

        The way things are going, we’re not going to have a choice but to engage in geoengineering. There isn’t the political will to cut carbon emissions and the public would never accept the loss in living standards.

    5. Henry Moon Pie

      When thinking about time frames, here’s the one to remember:

      To keep temperatures within Holocene levels–the Holocene being that geological era during which humans have thrived numerically and built their civilization–we had to reduce carbon emissions by 7.6% per year for 10 years beginning in 2020. Thanks to Covid, we made it that year, but since? Back to Business As Usual. Fail to meet that goal, and temperatures are heading to a temperature rise of 3.6 degrees C according to the ENROADS simulator if we continue with Business As Usual. Temperature increases of this level threaten to bring human civilization to an end.

      There’s no time to develop fusion. There’s no time to build the kind of infrastructure necessary to support EVs. If we had responsible elites, they would have instituted radical conservation measures long ago. Heck, they could have at least lowered the speed limit again. But as we learned from Covid, nothing, absolutely nothing, is so important as to interfere with Business As Usual and our beloved billionaires continuing to amass obscene amounts of wealth. And don’t underestimate the power of the billionaires in a world where 8 billionaires have as much wealth as the poorest 4 billion.

      So our elites have taken another route. The system they defend is already good at killing people for profit (note the tens of thousands of deaths each year cause by our greedy medical industry), but they appear to be taking things to a new level with a “let ‘er rip” Covid policy. One problem is that the people they’re killing off were not big carbon emitters anyway. Old ladies in nursing homes, undocumented workers slaughtering and butchering beef, cashiers in convenience stores and nurses in ERs aren’t the ones flying around on private jets, owning, heating and cooling multiple unoccupied houses for their convenience, and taking flying vacations several times a year.

      It’s the elites who are an unaffordable luxury. Reducing the outrageous consumption levels of the billionaires and the PMC who implement their domination is the first and quickest step toward avoiding catastrophe.

      1. kam

        First step. Ban Private Jets. Let the first Billionaire Gandhi shut off the worst polluting Vanity Symbol of all.

    6. Jeremy Grimm

      I believe this post is correct in suggesting “…the end of the fossil fuel era portends the end of capitalist growth in all its forms.” However, I also believe the end of the fossil fuel era will mean the end of means for supporting Humankind’s present growth and will mean the end of growth in any future I can foresee past much more constrained bounds of growth.
      While I agree with you that:
      “The most recent breakthrough was a minor step in the right direction.”
      — we have been teased with reports of similar “breakthroughs” every so often for many decades.

      I strongly agree with your notion of pursuing Scientific Research on a much larger scale, although 25% of GDP would exceed our capacities for providing that research. Scientists, mathematicians and technicians are not that common among our populations. Besides, without major changes in policy and a dismantling of the prevailing Neoliberal Political-Economy, the u.s. stopped doing Scientific Research some time late in the last century. I doubt that such radical changes as are necessary to again perform Scientific Research in the u.s. might occur. However, if Scientific Research might flourish once more, now is past the time when Humankind should be expending the greatest amount of resources possible toward Scientific Research and means for preserving all that can be learned for the future in all areas of Science, especially Basic Science.

      1. wilroncanada

        To add to the “Grimm” news, the West’s scientific research is now and for the near future researching gun-running in the best ‘scientific’ way possible, and it’s reciprocal, an underground railway running munitions into Ukraine, and an underground railway running nazis and neo-nazis out of Ukraine into the rest of Europe, and especially into North America.

    7. XXYY

      Fusion remains decades away.

      Every announcement about fusion power I have heard since the 1970s has always noted “fusion power is at least 20 years off.” Now, 50 years later, it’s apparently still at least 20 years off.

      My theory is that commercial viability of fusion will forever be just beyond the time that the current generation of fusion workers plans to retire.

      Nice work if you can get it!

      1. Tim

        Yup! Always a couple decades away. Many prospective nuclear engineers see through this and choose a different career path though. So only the foolish participate?

  3. John R Moffett

    A lot of the nuclear hype comes from the weapons industry, where nuclear is the essence of their livelihood. Considering how much radioactive waste now exists on the surface of the earth because of this industry, it will be a very long time indeed before it is dealt with properly, and at great expense to taxpayers.

    1. Samuel Conner

      > at great expense to taxpayers

      The more fundamental problem is the amount of real resources such equipment, infrastructure (and all the real resources required to create and maintain those) and people that will be required to manage or remediate the nuclear waste problems. “Expense to taxpayers” is a political decision of how to generate the funds the government uses to purchase the real resources (if there were political will, these purchases could be funded through direct Treasury money creation rather than taxation or bond issuance) that are needed to manage the real-world problems.

      This is also the case with every other large-scale problem, such as health care provision to the population, long-term care in a greying population, etc., etc. “Shortage of government funds” is not the true constraint; the real constraint is “availability of concrete resources”.

      Sadly, our public health policy appears to be oriented towards “reduction of economic capacity”, which will make all these problems even more difficult to address.

  4. DorothyT

    In the late 1960s I was shown the nuclear fusion reactor-in-progress at the University of Wisconsin. My tour guide, a graduate student, rather sheepishly related that it was being assembled with parts obtained from an army-navy retail supply outlet.

    They well understood the need for it at that time. The recent news, limited as it is, reflects the work of dedicated scientists over the decades. Beats majoring in ‘communications.’

    1. RA


      The link you provided seems to be about a small fission reactor they have.

      I think you are describing seeing the beginnings of what became the University of Wisconsin Inertial Electrostatic Confinement Fusion Laboratory under the the UW Fusion Technology Institute.

      They did lots of good fusion research and allowed great hands-on learning for a number of new scientists and engineers.

      Unfortunately, I think it was shutdown at the end of 2020 and the apparatus has been scrapped, due to lack of funding.

  5. kemerd

    l really would like to hear more about alleged problems of new generations of fission reactors. No western country nor Japan had any commercial scale experience with sodium cooled fission reactors while Russia have already one such facility in service. It is indeed revolutionary which burns waste from nuclear fuel cycle while producing more fuel than it consumes

      1. digi_owl

        As i understand it, molten sodium is a royal pain to contain as it will eat through just about anything given time.

        And it is the “gremlin” of substances, as getting it wet is a very bad idea.

        curiously though wikipedia classify a molten sodium reactor as a molten metal reactor distinct from a molten salt reactor, yet sodium is likely to be THE element people think about when reading the world salt.

          1. jobs

            And chemically speaking, a salt is a compound combining a metal and a nonmetal. At least that’s what my chemistry teacher told me over 40 years ago. ☺

        1. John k

          I worked on a sodium intermediate heat exchanger (sodium from reactor to sodium out of reactor) long ago. Sodium is a metal that in molten form is a great heat conductor while also having acceptably low neutron absorption, so ok as a reactor coolant. However, it explosively reacts with water, and when trying to do something useful with the reactor heat you eventually need a sodium/water heat exchanger, which is problematic.
          Molten salt reactors have similar advantages and problems, far more corrosion issues but avoiding the potential explosion when transferring heat to water.
          I also worked on the ITER tokamak, an international effort to develop fusion power. I’ve been hearing that ‘fusion is 30 years away’ for over half a century. All of these projects are gov funded boondoggles for engineers/scientists, granted it was useful to me. I don’t think fusion will ever be practical, and certainly won’t compete with renewables’ low costs… and imo it’s far more likely that low cost storage comes along than that fusion becomes practical.
          Imo fission is a decent alternative to fossil fuels but can’t compete with wind solar, granted it remains a far better base load supplier. Personally imo there are several nuclear waste storage solutions that have lower risk than climate change, but fear of nuclear exceeds fear of CC. Certainly there have been major issues with fission – three mile island forced my company from building reactors to gov research – but fossil has already killed far more, from black lung to other lung issues and climate change, but I doubt the us will ever build another nuke.

      1. Michaelmas

        And it is the “gremlin” of substances, as getting it wet is a very bad idea.

        Amazingly, the USS Seawolf, the second nuclear sub after the Nautilus, went to sea in 1957 with a a liquid metal cooled sodium nuclear reactor known as the Submarine Intermediate Reactor (SIR) or Liquid Metal Fast Reactor (LMFR).

        Alvin Weinberg — who, with Eugene Wigner, shared most of the patents on the design of the standard pressurized water reactor — was a big fan of molten-salt reactors, and so for instance he had run the R&D to develop a thorium reactor for Curtis LeMay’s nuclear-powered bomber. When it came for the second nuclear sub, he talked Rickover into putting in a liquid sodium reactor.

        Since Weinberg was the guy, with Wigner, who’d come up with the PWR reactor design, you can see why Rickover would listen to him. But it was a crazy idea and after the problems during the first Sea Wolf‘s maiden voyage, Rickover had that sodium coolant reactor torn out and a regular reactor put in.

        1. digi_owl

          Well those early nuclear days were heady indeed.

          didn’t Teller keep pushing for the use of nukes to create harbors in Alaska or something?

          1. upstater

            See The Firecracker Boys: H-Bombs, Inupiat Eskimos, and the Roots of the Environmental Movement by Dan O’Neil

            Those were crazy days. I think it details the scheme for using nukes for a sea-level canal through Nicaragua.

      2. Michaelmas

        digi-owl: “while producing more fuel than it consumes”

        Sure. Nuclear reactors are basically a technology for doing nuclear transmutation. Though we have other such technologies now, like laser isotope separation.

        So, forex, the thorium molten salt reactor is a breeder reactor and, depending on how you set the fuel cycle, you can get far more uranium out than you put in. The thorium in the reactor — atomic number 90, isotope 232 — is fertile, not fissile, and requires a seed of uranium — atomic number 92 — to get the reaction going. Once it’s going, the thorium is transmuted into fissile artificial uranium isotope 233.

        This parallels the process in uranium breeder reactors whereby fertile uranium 238 absorbs neutrons to form fissile plutonium.

        As that wiki ‘Breeder Reactor’ link that Grebo out in notes, this has led to calculations like there being enough fissile fuel on Earth for breeder reactors to satisfy human energy needs for 5 billion years at 1983’s total energy consumption rate.

        Alvin Weinberg, who was more conservative, reckoned on a mere 20 thousand years.

        1. Spider Monkey

          Wish I knew of a more recent update to the below. But the 100billion spent to not yield a positive result for breeder reactors never sounded promising for that field either. Maybe if they just had a little bit more research $$$…

          For either fusion or breeder reactors, I think it would make more sense to watch what China does over the next decade as they are really the ones with a big capital investment right now with 17 nuclear plants on the books while the US cant seem to even finish one anymore.

      3. kemerd

        Yes sounds like snake oil, right? This type of reactors produce plutonium from depleted uranium that are laced around the fuel assembly

        1. digi_owl

          More like violating the second law of thermodynamics, the one that nix every patent for a perpetual motion device ever tried.

          1. Michaelmas

            The second law of thermodynamics and perpetual motion don’t come into it. The energy comes from the nuclear binding energy that’s already there.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      The Russian BN-600 and 800 plants (sodium cooled fission) were never commercial plants. They were experimental prototypes which were far more expensive to run than existing Russian light water plants. The planned BN1200, which was intended to match the costs of light water plants has been indefinitely postponed for years – the latest date for construction is 2035.

  6. John Steinbach

    Tokar’s analysis of the fantasy of fusion power is correct. He alludes to techno fantasies of energy future like carbon capture. He then jumps wholesale into his own version of techno fantasy- the ability of “renewables” to meet future electricity/energy needs.

    The era of cheap, concentrated energy from fossil fuels is over! The easily accessible sources are gone. The best that so called renewables can do is marginally extend the life of the fossil fueled economy. There is no future except one of radical conservation and profound social adjustment. This will happen either through communal social planning or dictated by nature. This reality has been crystal clear for the past 50 plus years.

    1. digi_owl

      yeah, i am more and more convinced that humanity will have to revert to something more akin to the 1800s at least.

      There are some things we can continue doing without fossil fuels, like producing fertilizer, though in a less “efficient” (most of the efficiency comes from the stored energy of NG) manner than with Haber-Bosch.

      But one of the biggest things we will have to forgo are leisure travel, be it locally or globally, as that is a pure energy waste. Most likely any such travel will be as a byproduct of goods transport, by hitching a ride on a freight train or ship.

    2. Scylla

      This is my take too, and given that we, as a species, are doing absolutely nothing to prepare for this reality it just means that we are going to hit the wall of reality and crash into it. We will see war, famine, disease, population and ecosystem collapse on a planetary scale due to our elites’ denial of reality and obsession with continuing the party. When the collapse really gets going, we will burn everything that can be burned, and eventually eat everything in our environment like locusts once agriculture collapses. It’s going to be very bad.

      1. eg

        Unfortunately, this is the outcome I anticipate, though perhaps resource wars and wars of extermination will accelerate the process of depopulation sufficiently to limit the broader ecological damage somewhat.

    3. Ian

      Well, yes and no. There’s about 47 years of conventional oil left and about 52 years of natural gas left at current US rates. There’s more than 150 years of coal left.

      The issue isn’t how much hydrocarbon energy is left, but how much net energy what’s left provides and at what cost.

      Over time, net energy decreases and costs increase since we go for the easy cheap hydrocarbons first.

      So we’re climbing the hydrocarbon hill, hoping to find something better. There’s not much though. Renewables have intermittentcy problems and their own ecological costs. Our battery technology is still inadequate to run a civilization at the current scale. Without the energy base that we’re used to, global civilization will eventually degrade and decay.

      I’d expect billions to die of starvation by 2100. Without adequate energy. We can’t feed 7 billion+ people. Not even close.

      1. XXYY

        There’s about 47 years of conventional oil left and about 52 years of natural gas left at current US rates. There’s more than 150 years of coal left.

        Of course the issue is not about how much carbon-based fuel is “left” in the Earth (something that’s always pure guesswork anyway since it depends on the prices the fuel can command versus the cost of extracting it). The issue is how much more carbon dioxide and methane we can emit into the Earth’s atmosphere before the planet becomes incompatible with human civilization.

        I would argue there’s a good chance we are already way past that point, especially given the fact that there’s evidently a 40-year time lag between the emission of greenhouse gases and their effect on the climate. So the problem is not that we are going to somehow “run out” of fuels. The problem is that we are going to foul our nest to the point where we can no longer live in it.

        And likely already have.

        1. deplorado

          A contrarian point:
          I read that 97% of the heat trapped by the Earth’s atmosphere is due to water vapor. Not CO2. Variation in volume and direction of water vapor therefore account for 97% of the climate we are experiencing.

          The same source is saying above a certain concentration (if I remember right, pretty low, like 10000ppm which is still livable for humans and even good for plants), CO2’s greenhouse effect marginally disappears.

          If the above is true, why are we so focused on CO2?

          This is a serious question. Are we a) all being scammed, b) the 97% number is not correct or c) despite its miniscule role in atmospheric heat retention, CO2 has some kind of massive effect multiplier?

          Would really appreciate someone competent shedding light on this.

          1. St Jacques

            There is a connection between the increase in the greenhouse effect through “greenhouse” gases like carbon dioxide and methan and the water vapour increases which amplify the greenhouse effect and it all works on perfectly well understood scientific principals, no mystery here. This NASA exposition does a very nice job of explaining it:


          2. Spider Monkey

            Maybe your point could be related to what the James Anderson ozone guy has been saying about cirrus clouds contribution to global warming (created by airliners) but I’ve read that it is the opposite of what your are saying, only a couple percent contribution to the overall warming going on not 97%


            Either way there is a little bit of truth to the Alex Jones types of contrails effecting the weather, haha…

    4. John Curry

      Just ridiculed Malthusian nonsense. Right in front of your nose, we have fission nuclear power that could avoid such dire path. But of course, there are two main antinuclear lobbies, both from big wealthy western elite (and those buying their fear of anti-scientific propaganda against nuclear). The first one is the Malthusian crowd, originating in British colonial elite with Malthus (Malthus taught at the Haylebury school of the nefarious British East India Company), which used ‘scarcity’ to explain poverty rather change the unequal economic structure, to justify the unnecessary extend of Ireland and India’s famines rather than there terrible underdevelopment colonial policies of ‘British free trade’ and recently to deny any development in the Global South to keep the resources for the ‘Golden Billion’; Malthus as plenty of modern followers such as Harrison Brown.

      The second one is the fossil lobby (and lately, the big money of unreliable renewable energy, that lived on huge public subvention) that since the 1960s financed the ‘green’ movement against nuclear energy (don’t you remember that Nader ran against nuclear energy back then in favor of… coal!).
      The Malthusian hate nuclear because it could uplift poor nations from energy poverty (remember the racist view of India by Paul Ehrlich: so many of those poor brown people down there… without mentioning that he was not experimenting surplus population, but underdevelopment) and used circular reasoning: there ain’t enough energy… damn nuclear is there; well banned it with scaremongering; see, there is not enough energy I told you so…
      As for the fossil lobby financing the green movement against nuclear, you can check the public financing record of many of those groups which received millions of dollars. Thus, Sierra Club received money from the fossil lobby and renewable lobby, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) too, Environmental Defense too, Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC); Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth refused to disclose the origin of all their funding; all those groups are way more powerful and wealthy than any ‘bad’ nuclear lobby.
      Politico too has an interest in this policy. Jerry Brown, in California, is very antinuclear; now guess who profits by closing or preventing new nuclear power? well, of course, fossil energy in which he had great interest (and actually it is not for nothing big company such as Shell go in renewable: they not only make money on public subventions in the otherwise very expensive renewable, but they know you always need back up in gas, it is a win-win for them; but as Germany showed up, with all the money they put, they didn’t reduce CO2!! Actually, before the OTAN-Russian conflict, via Ukraine, France produced 10 times less CO2 than Germany for half the price! Thanks to nuclear and hydro; same for Sweden. Had Germany invests all the money (that will reach 540 billion) in 49 reactors, they wouldn’t need any more gas and could power all their car; instead, they just put as much CO2 as before, and soon more for they go back to coal, cause renewable are intermittent (don’t people think?) Thank to Brown, California energy price went up 7 times higher than other places in the US… As for time, the delay in Western countries for new central is more about a decline in industrial capacity, the green activists that put more hurdles than any other industries; in France, back then, they were getting out 6 news nuclear central per year, when the public sector was in the lead. Now, they try to subcontract it with bad results. Anyway, South Korea is able to build in 5 or 6 years; that when you got a experiencing staff and no legal battle at every corner.

      To make a long story short, nuclear fission is among, if not the safest energy, per terawatt produced (nobody die of radiation in Fukushima, but thousands of ‘mother nature’ by the tsunami) and Chernobyl was of the worst design ever in the world (I will be against the construction of such a reactor, which did not even have a concrete wall surrounding the reactor as any western one back them like Three Miles Island that just contain everything when the reactor melt, except the angst of the people exploited after by the antinuclear lobby, the neutron absorber accelerated initially the reaction and the Soviet knew it was unstable in certain condition, they nonetheless order to work it at unstable level…); but in any case, overall is by two orders of magnitude less death (less than 2000 overall, including radioactivity in the long term) that when the Banqiao dam broke in China killing more than 100 000 people in 1975; you never see Greenpeace going against hydroelectricity… How many miners die each year in coal mines? Actually, nuclear energy saved millions by having cleaner air than coal. The deadliest energy is to not have energy at all; all energy has risk, but good news, nuclear is among the safest.
      As for waste, first they are very few, for the beauty of nuclear is E=MC2, a very short amount is needed to produce a lot (thus you need from 375 to 420 less space than renewable, from 5 to 10 times less concrete to build it, 50 less steal than for solar; and nuclear could go till 60 years whereas solar and wind goes 25 years.) . And contrary to the legend, in millions of years, the radiation will be less than the general background of radiation (yes, don’t be scare and don’t stop eating bananas, you lived in a soup of radiation; the question is not if there is radiation, it is the amount you are in contact with or ingest.); they are treated in such a way that nobody got in contact with it in thousands of years and if the leak, it would be really few in amount. This, contrary to so many eternal toxic waste such as cadmium and lead that are industrially produced, which are as much toxic, and are regularly dump in common waste. By the way, do you know that solar panel just produced those highly toxic waste, in a higher amount than nuclear waste, and many other carcinogenic molecules? I guess the renewable lobby didn’t tell you.

  7. Paul Art

    We could have a couple hundred Fukushimas and Chernobyls but the nuclear power industry will still have its completely asinine shills who keep yammering about “sodium-cooled” and “Thorium based” reactor nonsense. There seems to be a particular species of know-it-all in this nuclear power area who thinks it has plumbed and fathomed nuclear power in all directions and the only problem is the lack of investment to achieve that most brilliant solution for “safe” nuclear power that is just on the tip of everyone’s nose. I just finished watching Chernobyl on HBO and I felt strongly motivated to send a copy of the DVD to all those “experts” still hawking nuclear power. The worst part of this renewable energy debate is how we could easily put solar panels on most roofs and yet neither the Feds nor the States will do anything to seize power generation from the hands of the greedy private utility industry. The Utility I personally hate where I live basically just doubles the metered charge under “transmission charges” or some such nonsense. To add insult to injury they have a new scheme where you could buy ‘green power’ – basically power they assure you has been generated from Solar but unfortunately they charge almost 60% or something more than the normal rate. It is kind of a family blog to those who like and want their power to be produced from renewables. Nothing is going to change until and unless the Feds ink a well thought out policy to move away from fossil fuels towards renewables and seize all energy industries by eminent domain to implement said policy. Yes, its a nice dream. Renewables are not very much liked by Wall Street – not much money in them it seems. If there were gobs of money to be made then perhaps Blackstone might be in there in a flash.

    1. digi_owl

      The basic problem is that the politicians are legalized inside traders.

      Thus they will never legislate against their own investments.

    2. Oh

      Good comment. Utilities are not regulated well anymore. The bigger companies have bought up others and dictate prices and services. IMNSHO, these monopolies need to be nationalized.

    3. Marvin

      Mr. Art, stop dissin’ the Thoriumfoil hat wearers!

      Never mentioned anywhere is are the words “liability insurance”…….

      Who pays into the escrow accounts sufficient to pay for nuclear decontamination, toxified environments, decomissioning and guaranteed removal and safe storage of waste?

      Say, what about Fission power plants? Why are we taxpayers supporting the only Soviet Style financial operation in the U.S., the Price Anderson Act?

      The best way to generate power, is on your own roof. Also, people seem to have forgotten about solar hot water which would obviate large amounts of natural gas usage and especially save money and resources for those hoodwinked into all electric households, which is the rule for new construction in much of, and soon all, California.

      Then there’s Newsom’s chimera of all electric cars:

    4. Michaelmas

      Paul Art: There seems to be a particular species of know-it-all in this nuclear power area who thinks it has plumbed and fathomed nuclear power in all directions and the only problem is the lack of investment

      They’re right, essentially. You’re wrong.

      There are a large number of possible reactor technologies that have never been developed. Alvin Weinberg, responsible for the main reactor type, the PWR, and there at the creation, had this to say: –

      ‘In these early days we explored all sorts of power reactors, comparing the advantages and disadvantages of each type. The number of possibilities was enormous, since there are many possibilities for each component of a reactor—fuel, coolant, moderator. The fissile material may be 233U, 235U, or 239Pu; the coolant may be: water, heavy water, gas, or liquid metal; the moderator may be: water, heavy water, beryllium, graphite—or, in a fast-neutron reactor, no moderator.

      I have calculated that, if one counted all the combinations of fuel, coolant, and moderator, one could identify about a thousand distinct reactors. Thus, at the very beginning of nuclear power, we had to choose which possibilities to pursue, which to ignore.’

      Basically, Weinberg said, we got the pressurized water reactor not because it was a particularly superior design, but simply because it was a design already in hand at Oak Ridge and they had the job of putting a reactor in Rickover’s nuclear submarine.

      Why would and does any of this this matter? Because nuclear reactors — nuclear transmutation technology — done right would give humanity between 20 thousand to 5 billion years of energy.

      1. John R Moffett

        Fix the waste problem before you do anything else. We don’t need nuclear engineers anymore, we need nuclear remediation engineers.

        1. Michaelmas

          John R Moffett: Fix the waste problem before you do anything else.

          The ‘waste problem’ is a problem the US created by pursuing its crappy ‘once-through’ fuel cycle-based nuclear industry for short-sighted reasons of its own; ‘nuclear waste’ is not implicit in nuclear power, only in the crappy model of nuclear power that the US has promoted.

          If you go look at the history, in the 1950s and ’60s people like Weinberg weren’t worried about nuclear waste.That’s because what Americans have now been taught to call ‘nuclear waste’ is actually partially-spent fuel, with at least 93 percent of the energy content still locked in it. Back in the 1950s, people like Weinberg expected to reprocess that partially-spent fuel, to make use of that energy.

          In the 1960s, however, it was discovered that there was a lot more uranium on Earth than they’d thought. This allowed the US government (and industry) to maintain the ‘once-through’ fuel cycle, which in turn meant:

          [1] US energy corporations could make greater profits because they didn’t have to reprocess, and the US government is always about enriching US corporate capitalists;

          [2] The US government could try to block the spread of nuclear reprocessing capability internationally — since reprocessing capability is inseparable from enriching capability — and the US government was (and is) about preserving its nuclear weapons hegemony/dominance.

          Thus, the Carter administration’s anti-proliferation policy —
          Statement by the President on His Decisions Following a Review of U.S. Policy. April 7, 1977

          You’ll notice that right around then is when the concept of ‘nuclear waste’ appeared and started getting promoted by the US.

          You’ll also notice that, simultaneously, the US has never done anything serious about its ‘nuclear waste’ and built underground repositories or anything like that. That’s because everybody in the industry knows that in reality ‘nuclear waste’ is partially-spent fuel, and they think it’ll be reprocessed and used at some point.

          We don’t need nuclear engineers anymore, we need nuclear remediation engineers.

          They’re the same thing. To do nuclear properly — to get all that 20 thousand or 3 billion years or whatever of energy — you’ve got to do reprocessing, close the fuel cycle, and use the ‘nuclear waste’.

          China, Russia, India, and other countries — even the UK — are going ahead with nuclear build-outs with reprocessing capability integrated into their nuclear industries. China in particular plans to build one-hundred and fifty new reactors by 2035 to add on to its currently existing fifty-three, and also to build another thirty reactors in countries involved in its Belt and Road Initiative by 2030. By 2050, it plans to have the majority of its reactors be fast-neutron reactors.

          So in a way, it really doesn’t matter much what happens in the US anymore. John k posted above that in the US “fear of nuclear exceeds fear of climate change” and that another nuclear reactor will never be built in the US. He’s probably right about the first part and possibly about the second. But the US is an increasingly backwards place and Americans, with their decreasing life expectancies and their scientific illiteracy, are just going to be left to watch as development proceeds elsewhere.

          1. deplorado

            Thank you very much for this comment.

            In a way, this is reassuring. Humanity will figure it out and eventually will transition to abundant nuclear energy instead of back to the 19th century (renewables will never be enough and sustainable for steel, plastics, cement, fertilizer). What has not been mentioned is how synthetic fuels and steel making can be integrated with abundant electrical supply from nuclear.

            This, and the doubts that have been raised about CO2 impacting climate “so much” give me hope.

            Now, if humanity could solve the problem of greediness and imperialism in all their forms, that would really be heartening for the future.

    1. Lee

      Quite interesting. I’d not heard of this project before. Is it unique or are there other such projects? I’ve been trying to find the consumer cost, as yet without result.

      1. IEL

        In New England, we have two (Bear Swamp and Northfield Mountain), both of similar vintage to Ludington, both built to store nuclear-generated power (nukes generate at a constant level day and night, but demand is low at night and high in the day, so storing power generated at night for use in the day makes some sense).

        Pumped storage requires a good site, and what I have been told is that the good sites have largely been developed already.

        1. XXYY

          Actually, I remember reading that someone did a satellite terrain survey of the Earth’s surface looking for good places to do pumped storage (I will never find the link).

          Basically, the criteria were an undeveloped high altitude spot reasonably close to an undeveloped low altitude spot. The upshot of their study was that there were about a thousand times as many such sites as we could ever possibly use on Earth. The study produced a web map you could look at to see where these places were near you!

          Quite interesting.

          1. deplorado

            Fascinating! Love whoever commissioned such pioneering survey. It should be shared with the public.

      2. PlutoniumKun

        There are lots of them around the world, many operating very effectively for half a century or so. The Ludington plant is predated by the similar sized Turlough Hill plant in Ireland, which I was hiking around this weekend – its still operating very efficiently after many decades with just one overhaul of the turbines in that time so far as I know. Simpler older forms, usually consisting of a secondary containment reservoir below a hydroelectric plant have been around for even longer. I know of one that dates to the 1930’s that is still operating.

        They were commercially viable in the 1960’s and 70’s, but fell out of favour as more efficient grid management, larger grids and gas CCGT plans (for providing dispatchable power) proved more cost effective. They are likely to come back into favour now as they are a reasonably efficient means of providing longer term storage than batteries in many grids, although it isn’t clear yet whether other forms of storage such as thermal or liquid air will prove cheaper and with fewer environmental and regulatory barriers.

  8. tevhatch

    Sabine Hossenfelder has a youtube channel where she discussed why fusion isn’t going to happen anytime soon (without some really unexpected breakthrough) and then again this latest news. She’s humorous and rigorous in her analysis. I see this as copium, sold so consumers will keep on consuming.

    1. semper loquitur


      I had a conversation recently with some techie types about nuclear power. I noted that it wasn’t even remotely ready for prime-time and that was just the technology. There were all other kinds of problems facing it. I dressed my statements with the fact that we are in deep trouble in regards to energy.

      They were all convinced safe, cheap nuclear is just around the corner. They couldn’t respond to my points, they just kept shaking their heads. One guy acknowledged all the problems but countered that the technology keeps advancing…

      1. Marvin

        Whenever you encounter a “just around the corner” expert, ask them why they have not mortgaged their house and emptied their bank account to invest in nuclear power stocks?

    2. Tom Bradford

      The counterpart of Planck’s Principle is that science indeed advances via some really unexpected breakthrough at a time. We know fusion works – just look at the sky at midday – but because ‘we’ can’t make it work on a small scale after a few decades of trying some throw their hands in the air and declare “It will never work.”

      Even failures in scientific experiment are important – working out why something didn’t work as expected can tell you much. Building on those and small, hard-won successes can lead to that ‘breakthrough’ moment in the bath when that hardest of all things to replicate, the human mind, can make that scientifically inexplicable leap of imagination and the ‘a-hah’ moment occurs.

      1. XXYY

        One of the “a-ha” discoveries of the last 50 years is that we are emitting so many greenhouse gases into the planet’s atmosphere that we will soon render the surface of the Earth uninhabitable, or at least incompatible with human civilization as we have known it. I don’t know how unexpected it was, but it certainly was something that has been shouted down ever since by powerful interests who either couldn’t believe it, or didn’t care about the long-term future of the species.

        At this point, we are out of time for more “a-ha” discoveries to emerge. Commercializing a new discovery takes 10 or 20 years or more, and it’s going to be all over on Earth 20 years from now if we don’t abandon our head in the sand attitude right now.

  9. Henry Moon Pie

    At least the Energy Return on Investment is more than 1, but it’s a very long ways from oil or even solar.

  10. Bill4246

    If you want your take on this story to be taken seriously, get your facts correct. NIF is at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), not Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory LBNL. The National part of the title was DOE’s way of keeping Lawrence’s name on these laboratories, against the wishes of the Lawrence family.

    LLNL achieved a very notable and hard to beat record with an earlier fusion experiment, the Mirror Fusion Test Facility -B (MFTF-B) in 1986 when it held both the dedication ceremony on the same day it was mothballed!

    1. B24S

      A friend of mine, gone thirty years now, was a machinist at the cyclotron in Berkeley. I have a car of his that he’d bought new in 1956, and it still has parking stickers for the “UC LRL”, Lawrence Radiation Laboratory.

      The word “Radiation” in the name was too scary, and was changed to “Berkeley”.

    2. Glen

      The NIF is a follow on to the Janus, Cyclops, Argus, Shiva and Nova programs at the lab. Research into inertial confinement laser fusion have been going on more or less continually at the lab since 1962.

      National Ignition Facility

      Shiva laser

      Nova (laser)

      You might have seen Shiva if you took a good look at some of the scenes in the film Tron, and parts of the NIF were used as props in Star Trek Into Darkness:

      Scout > Location Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory – National Ignition Facility

  11. Jeremy Grimm

    This post briefly reviews fusion energy fairy tales and mentions in passing the fairy tales of “a ‘new generation’ of nuclear fission reactors that will solve the persistent problems with nuclear power, or that massive-scale capture and burial of carbon dioxide from fossil-fueled power plants will make it possible to perpetuate the fossil-based economy far into the future.” It concludes with expressed belief in the fairy tale of a meaningfully just energy transition, fully renewable, that rejects the myths of perpetual capitalist growth based on and that promoted the fossil fuel era.

    On first reflection, this seems an age well past the times for telling fairy tales. On further reflection, as Humankind stumbles ever closer to Collapse, I suppose now is the time for telling fairy tales. There will be plenty of time in the future for laments and singing dirges.

  12. JoeC100

    As I have commented before, I am tracking development of an innovative gaseous fuel nuclear fission reactor concept. The developer has extensive fusion-related experience (Fusion PhD from MIT, etc.) and relatively unique and powerful “predictive” nuclear engineering capabilities needed in his 12 years of work at NNSA.

    He is drafting a paper that should show that the processes of producing useful energy with his technology and fusion are quite similar releasing nuclear energy from a molecule that shoots out very high speed particles through a gas or plasma that greatly heats up the gas/plasma allowing this heat to be extracted to produce useful energy (electricity, process heat, etc.). His view is that fusion would only be deployed if it had lower cost than his very low cost, very safe and essentially zero fuel cost technology – which is hard to imagine.

    Since my last post an interesting investment consortium has reached out to the developer. Of note, this consortium includes a major (non-US) nuclear power company, a major supply chain company and a (non-US) national nuclear energy lab.

    Note that this consortium (customers/suppliers) contrasts with the typical “VC/Bill Gates billionaire types” supporting development of most fusion and innovative nuclear fission technologies.

    1. c_heale

      “Concept” and “Drafting a paper that should show…” make this innovative gaseous fuel nuclear fission reactor sound less than convincing, even at this early stage.

      Why on earth would anyone choose to use a gaseous nuclear fuel over a solid or liquid one. It’s much more difficult to contain gaseous fuels than solids or liquids.

      Where does the energy come from to create these very high speed particles?

      This sounds like it is not even at a very early experimental stage yet. Just because somebody has formed a consortium means nothing. This could well be a scam.

      1. JoeC100

        Far from a scam.

        Plug “gaseous nuclear fuel ” into Google Scholar and you will find is has a long (if largely forgotten) history. The Soviet Union built a gaseous nuclear fuel power reactor in 1953 that operated safely for 30 years. And when the DOE was established in 1980 it produced a report evaluating several alternative nuclear power systems. This report rated gaseous fuel reactors as the safest and most proliferation resistant.

        As I think I noted, this technology went through the “conceptual design” stage in a commercial partnership with NNSA at Lawrence Livermore National lab. It is currently moving through the “preliminary design stage” that develops fabrication blueprints, costs, etc.

        My point about the “consortium” is that the partners are uniquely qualified to “vet” this technology would like to invest in it’s development as they believe it is their best commercial option – not to reduce carbon emissions…

        One challenge to date is that from about 1980 on, US nuclear engineering education shifted to being “traditional solid fuel nuclear power “trade school”. One example is a quite capable nuclear engineer who obtained his PhD at then University of Florida – that had done extensive gaseous nuclear fuel work for NASA. I recently asked him if he had ever heard of “gaseous nuclear fuel”? His answer was no. I then sent him Dugin’s 1976 UFl nuclear PhD thesis that addressed using gaseous fuel in an internal combustion engine concept. He was surprised as Dugin had been his master’s thesis advisor!

  13. J

    Yeah, fact checking would be seriously appreciated.

    I flinched a bit at the first two paragraphs, controlled
    fusion was done with IEC fusors in at least the mid-sixties.
    not first in the 1980’s as stated.

    The second paragraph rhetorically insists upon billions
    of cycles per second with pulsed power production,
    which is just entirely ludicrous on the face of it.
    (Go watch an old single cylinder engine run at low RPM
    for the appropriate analogy here. Pop. Uh, did that
    engine die? Pop. … OK, it really quit now, … right? Pop.)

    The whole thing seems written more for the purpose
    of throwing out arguments that the author thinks might
    be convincing, rather than the relevant or even correct.
    It reminds me in some ways of the style used by deniers
    of global warming, with a lot of talking points, and no real
    effort on truth. There’s a whole paragraph near the end
    that is entirely unrelated to fusion, and instead throws
    shade on sodium-cooled fission reactors and CO2

    Given that, I actually agree with the main thrust of the
    article. The recent National Ignition Facility experiment
    improved their state of the art by what, something like
    50%? They probably only need something like another
    10x improvement before that method could generate
    enough electricity to power itself. That may only be
    another 20 or 30 years or so of iteration to reach.
    That’s neglecting entirely the expendable cage/fuel
    pellet entirely, which I personally expect to make
    something like NIF or Sandia’s Z-Pinch inferior to
    all-plasma schemes for commercial power generation.
    More traditional fusion concepts are probably also
    another 20-30 years (“No, I really mean it this time!”)
    from any possible commercial use. The best place to
    push for immediate energy policy is renewables and
    demand side management, in my judgment.

    I guess that’s my long winded way of agreeing with
    Bill4246 that this article would be easier to take
    seriously with more attention to accuracy of the details,
    and without exaggerated or irrelevant arguments.


  14. Phenix

    There are multiple commercial entities that are performing fusion experiments today….

    Helion fusion has plans to net electricity in 2024 with their new power plant design. Will it work? I have no idea but they seemed convinced that they are onto a new and useful path. They argue that fusion is an understood process but the engineering is now catching up to theory.

    This article is a hit piece. Other posters have already pointed out factual errors. I am pointing out errors of omission.

    1. c_heale

      “Helion fusion seem convinced they are on a new a useful path.”

      Seeming convinced is not the same as experimental evidence.

  15. RA

    Lambert, in his first few words of introduction, mentioned the latest spending bill.

    I thought I’d share something I noticed.

    The main public announcement speech was given by…
    Jennifer Granholm
    Secretary of Energy since 2021
    former governor of Michigan from 2003 to 2011

    From a UC Berkeley professor,
    “She will be “phenomenal for DOE” because “she understands the technology, she understands deployment and she knows how to run a big agency.”

    So I guess with the many scientific and military projects for the DOE it makes sense to put a professional politician in charge.

    Now to the “Breakthrough” announcement speech she made…
    In the first sentence of actual content,
    “Today we’re here to talk about fusion. Combining two particles into one.”

    [Uhm, aren’t those particles usually referred to as atoms?]

    Second paragraph:
    “So what does this accomplishment do? Two things. First, it strengthens our national security because it opens a new realm for maintaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent in an age where we do not have nuclear testing. […]”

    So the second thing is the theoretical step that could (perhaps, maybe) bring us closer to usable power from fusion.

    What was that first thing again? In 1996, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, prohibiting “any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion.”

    So the main function of the big NIF facility is to allow MIC scientists to make experiments that could give us moar, bigger, better bombs, without actually setting one off.

    It needs — money money money. USA USA USA.

  16. Gus 2021

    Rather than building reactors etc “which by the way good luck with permits” the traffic could be fixed with street cars and buses or work from home , and solar hot water heaters could be put on every building ,this would drastically reduce fuel consumption ,this is cheap fast and reliable.
    People are idiots

  17. Spider Monkey

    In probably 2011 I had a professor show me a more updated version of the below chart, where the Y-axis was EROI instead which was the most compelling case of fusion reactor progress. Wish I could find that but I don’t even remember his name.

    If I remember his updated chart presented it as more possibly leveling off… the question being would it level off before or after a positive EROI? The suspense!

  18. Johnonymous

    Not to pick nits, but…I believe the discovery was made at the Lawrence Livermore Lab out in Livermore. Not the Lawrence Berkeley Lab run by U.C. Berkeley for the DOE. I could be wrong. The difference? Well the national lab in Livermore designs nuclear weapons, and that was an important reason this project was being worked on. The project leader said as much in his announcement. The Berkeley lab has one helluva view of the Bay and San Francisco.

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