Research into Nuclear Fusion is a waste of money

I used to be a Technological Utopian, and there has been no greater vision for a Technical Utopia than the prospect of limitless energy at low cost promised by Nuclear Fusion researchers.

But glowing descriptions of the Utopia which awaits us all, and statements by fusion Utopians such as:

Once harnessed, fusion has the potential to be nearly unlimited, safe and CO2-free energy source.

are deceptive. And I no longer believe this is just the self-interested optimism characteristic of all institutions.

It is a damaging deception, because money spent on nuclear fusion research could be spent on actual solutions to the problem of climate change. Solutions which exist right now and which could be implemented inside in a decade in the UK.

Reader: Michael? Are you OK? You seem to have come over a little over-rhetorical?

Me: Thanks. Just let me catch my breath and I’ll be fine. Ahhhhhh. Breathe…..

What’s the problem?

Well let’s just suppose that the current generation of experiments at JET and ITER are ‘successful’. If so, then having started building in 2013:

  • By 2025 the plant should be ready for initial plasma experiments.
  • Unbelievably, full deuteriumtritium fusion experiments will not start until 2035!
    • I could not believe this so I checked. Here’s the link.
    • I can’t find a source for it, but I have been told that the running lifetime of ITER with deuterium and tritium is just 4000 hours.
  • The cost of this experiment is hard to find written down – ITER has its own system of accounting! – but will probably be around 20 billion dollars.

And at this point, without having ever generated a single kilowatt of electricity, ITER will be decommissioned and its intensely radioactive core will be allowed to cool down until it can be buried.

The ‘fusion community’ would then ask for another 20 billion dollars or so to fund a DEMO power station which might be operational around 2050. At which point after a few years of DEMO operation, commercial designs would become available.

So the overall proposal is to spend about 40 billion dollars over the next 30 years to find out if a ‘commercial’ fusion power station is viable.

This plan is the embodiment of madness that could only be advocated by Technological Utopians who have lost track of the reason that fusion might once have been a good idea.

Let’s look at the problems in the most general terms.

1. Cost

Fusion will not be cheap. If we look at the current generation of nuclear fission stations, such as Hinkley C, then these will cost around £20 billion each.

Despite the fact the technology for building nuclear fission reactors is now half a century old, previous versions of the Hinkley C reactor being built at Olkiluoto and Flamanville are many years late, massively over-budget and in fact may never be allowed to operate.

Assuming Hinkley C does eventually become operational, the cost of the electricity it produces will be barely affected by the fuel it uses. More than 90% of the cost of the electricity is paying back the debt used to finance the reactor. It will produce the most expensive electricity ever supplied in the UK.

Nuclear fusion reactors designed to produce a gigawatt of electricity would definitely be engineering behemoths in the same category of engineering challenge as Hinkley C, but with much greater complexity and many more unknown failure modes. 

ITER Project. Picture produced by Oak Ridge National Laboratory [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

The ITER Torus. The scale and complexity is hard to comprehend. Picture produced by Oak Ridge National Laboratory [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

Even in the most optimistic case – an optimism which we will see is not easy to justify – it is inconceivable that fusion technology could ever produce low cost electricity.

I don’t want to live in a world with
nuclear fusion reactors, because
I don’t want to live in a world
where electricity is that expensive.
Unknown author

2. Sustainable

One of the components of the fuel for a nuclear fusion reactor – deuterium – is readily available on Earth. It can be separated from sea water at modest cost.

The other componenttritium – is extraordinarily rare and expensive. It is radioactive with a half-life of about 10 years.

To  become <irony>sustainable<\irony>, a major task of a fusion reactor is to manufacture tritium.

The ‘plan’ is to do this by bombarding lithium-6 with neutrons causing a reaction yielding tritium and helium.

Ideally, every single neutron produced in the fusion reaction would be captured, but in fact most of them will not be lost. Instead, a ‘neutron multiplication’ process is conceived of, despite the intense radioactive waste this will produce.

3. Technical Practicality

I have written enough here and so I will just refer you to this article published on the web site of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

This article considers:

  • The embedded carbon and costs
  • Optimistic statements of energy balance that fail to recognise the difference between:
    • The thermal energy of particles in the plasma
    • The thermal energy extracted – or extractable.
    • The electrical energy supplied for operation
  • Other aspects of the tritium problem I mentioned above.
  • Radiation and radioactive waste
  • The materials problems caused by – putatively – decades of neutron irradiation.
  • The cooling water required.

I could add my own concerns about neutron damage to the immense superconducting magnets that are just a metre or so away from the hottest place in the solar system.

In short, there are really serious problems that have no obvious solution.

4. Alternatives

If there were no alternative, then I would think it worthwhile to face down all these challenges and struggle on.

But there are really good alternatives based on that fusion reactor in the sky – the Sun.

We can extract energy directly from sunlight, and from the winds that the Sun drives around the Earth.

We need to capture only 0.02% of the energy in the sunlight reaching Earth to power our entire civilisation!

The complexity and cost of fusion reactors even makes fission reactors look good!

And all the technology that we require to address what is acknowledged as a climate emergency exists here and now.

By 2050, when (optimistically?) the first generation of fusion reactors might be ready to be built – carbon-free electricity production could be a solved problem.

Nuclear fusion research is, at its best, a distraction from the problem at hand. At worst, it sucks money and energy away from genuinely renewable energy technologies which need it.

We should just stop it all right now.

4 Responses to “Research into Nuclear Fusion is a waste of money”

  1. paulmartin42 Says:

    Ahhh this takes me back to my undergrad days and the question I asked of some fusion lecturer: Is it still true that Fusion reactors will solve the radioactive waste issue of fission by blasting the stuff to kingdom come.

    Then more recently there was cold fusion. I still cannot get over how palladium/hydrogen catalysis (?) was mistaken for fusion by such eminent scientists

    But to some points in your thesis. First Climate change “here and now” needs solving: In the same way that we always have the poor, there is plenty of time (cf the days are long the years are short – it will soon be 2035)

    Second, there would appear to be plenty of money in the high tech build an accelerator or whatever world. Even the great Mrs Thatcher was convinced to support the Higgs Boson spotter – which once its job was done was promptly closed for refurb and thoughts about what to look for next. I always felt that they discovered it too quickly. I suspect that to stop the brain drain to the states Europe has to have its moonshot projects

    Finally, renewables solutions. I am not absolutely convinced that the environmental costs of silicon solar have been quantified. In the same way we have exported dirty (eg steel etc)|manufacture to SE Asia & CHina there is concern in my mind about HF and all the other byproducts of semiconductor processing. The continued decline of local jobs from the promised wind renaissance in Scotland is just political hogwash as BiFab lays off more engineering staff

    They did not say it would be easy but we have to keep the lights on somehow

  2. Research into Nuclear Fusion is REALLY a waste of money. | Protons for Breakfast Blog Says:

    […] Making sense of science « Research into Nuclear Fusion is a waste of money […]

  3. J Zurek Says:

    ITER? A work-therapy project for French scientists and French industry. Nothing else. Put all that money in the development of the MSR (Molten Salt reactor), then we have clean and sustainable energy within 10 years.

  4. Fusion Research is STILL a waste of money. | Protons for Breakfast Says:

    […] papers you sent addressed the fundamental and specific criticisms that I mentioned in my articles (1 & 2). I have summarised these as points A to C […]

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