By James Pethokoukis and Arthur Turrell
Fusion energy has been the promise of physicists for decades, but is it finally arriving? As we face a warming climate and increasing energy needs, fusion power may hold the potential to deliver an abundant, clean energy future. On a recent episode of “Political Economy,” Arthur Turrell discussed whether nuclear fusion will be powering our homes any time soon, what government can do to push this technology forward, and if renewables are making fusion obsolete before it can get off the ground.
Arthur is Deputy Director at the Data Science Campus of the Office for National Statistics in the UK and the author of The Star Builders: Nuclear Fusion and the Race to Power the Planet.
Pethokoukis: A skeptic might say that nuclear fusion is the future of energy . . . and always will be. Yet over the past year, it seems to me that there’s been a lot of activity. So what’s going on?
Turrell: The investment and the human ingenuity that’s been put into fusion is starting to demonstrate some really interesting breakthroughs recently. The biggest of those has been the emergence of a private sector in fusion, which suggests that there’s some market confidence. Investors must think that they’re able to get some return, whether from fusion energy or from technologies related to fusion.
The other thing is there have been a number of technological breakthroughs, things like superconductors, which allow for new types of experimental fusion reactor design. For instance, there’s been an enormous result at the National Ignition Facility — which is trying to do a type of fusion called laser fusion — recently, where they’ve demonstrated a world-record beating net energy gain from fusion. So the breakthroughs have really given the whole field a sense of optimism.
Physicists can produce fusion reactions, but they aren’t generating electricity yet. What are the upcoming milestones for fusion energy?
We have to be really careful about what we mean by nuclear fusion, and the first thing that sometimes people mean is just doing some fusion reactions. But that’s easy and experiments can do it all the time. The next phase is to demonstrate scientific net energy gain. And that’s about creating an experiment where you put in a certain amount of energy and you get at least as much energy back out. The reason why that’s such an important benchmark or milestone is because an energy source that you can’t get more energy out of than you put in is no good, obviously.
There are milestones beyond that, and the next one beyond that is wall-plug energy gain. It’s the energy to charge up the capacitor banks. It’s the energy to keep the diagnostics running. It’s the energy to keep the lights on. It’s all of that peripheral machinery that you need to do a fusion experiment, and that requires a gain, not of 100 percent — so one unit of energy out for energy in — but a gain that’s appreciably more than that. It depends on the reactor, but I think what people would really like to achieve is at least 30 times energy out for energy in.
Why do we need star machines? If it’s for climate change, aren’t renewables the road forward? If it’s not for that, then do we really need them at all for any other reason?
All of the star builders I spoke to are absolutely convinced that renewables are going to be a key part of our energy supply. But I think in almost anything that you do in life, it’s useful to have a portfolio of things with different strengths and weaknesses that you can draw upon. If I think about the advantages of renewables, they work right now and they’re very cheap, but on the disadvantages side, the energy that they tap into is very diffuse. It’s spread out over large areas, and that means that they need vast areas to work. And sometimes you want types of power that aren’t so reliant on the weather to provide that baseload energy.
Some of the star builders I spoke to were skeptical about batteries ever scaling up to cover the whole year, but I think the other point here is that fusion could potentially provide energy at very large scales, too, and without using up lots of area. Another reason in the long run why we might want fusion energy — and excuse me if this sounds rather futuristic — is that we are not going to explore the solar system as a species using a coal-fired spaceship.
Fission power has always been surrounded by a lot of worries about radiation and environmental impact. Do those same concerns apply to fusion?
My sense is that the mood is changing a little bit on fission because there’s a trade off there. Is the biggest problem long-lived radioactive waste, of which there isn’t very much generated, or is it climate change? And right now climate change to me certainly seems like the bigger challenge that we face on planet Earth. The radioactive waste that we think will be produced by fusion is what’s at the end of a plant’s life, when you need to decommission the reactor chamber. And the best guesses suggest that that will be dangerous for a much shorter period of time compared to the waste that’s produced as a part of ongoing processes in fission.
There’s another concern as well, which is about nuclear proliferation. If you are worried about rogue states using the materials involved in fission to construct nuclear weapons, those materials can be generated in relatively short time, or a peaceful fission program can be used as a cover for the production of the materials you need for nuclear weapons. The great thing about nuclear fusion in this respect is that there’s no reason for it to involve any fissile material whatsoever. You only need the ingredients for fusion, which are kind of useless on their own for nuclear weapons.
Is fusion technology at a state that there is a clean handoff to the private sector or are there still more basic research kinds of things that government needs to do?
I think that the quickest path to fusion is going to be a partnership between the public and private players. The public sector does some things really well and some things not so well, and the private sector does some things really well and some things not well. Part of fusion is this big laboratory scientific exploration, understanding the physics behind plasma and really breaking through the frontier scientifically, and some of it is about: How do we do this on a scale that’s relevant for power generation repeatably, reliably, resiliently? How do we make it modular so that we can improve the learning rate with construction? How do we bring down the capital costs? And that’s the thing where the private sector can really contribute. I think the Department of Energy has recognized this with their milestone-based programs, where they’re making some of the public money available to private firms who can reach certain goals that are going to need to be reached to get to a future where fusion can actually deliver energy.
James Pethokoukis is the Dewitt Wallace Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he writes and edits the AEIdeas blog and hosts a weekly podcast, “Political Economy with James Pethokoukis.” Arthur Turrell is Deputy Director at the Data Science Campus of the Office for National Statistics in the UK and the author of The Star Builders: Nuclear Fusion and the Race to Power the Planet.