Fusion is a failure.

Friends, I listened with astonishment this morning to a Radio 4 science-tainment program called The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry: The Puzzle of the Plasma Doughnut.

  • I think it may have been the worst science radio program I have ever heard.

Despite fusion’s seventy years of continuous world-wide failure, the program repeatedly claimed that fusion ‘could supply limitless clean electricity‘. This was mentioned in hallowed terms as though there were no other technologies which can already do that – such as solar power or wind turbines.

The program somehow contrived to assume that ‘success’ in this noble struggle was certain – and that after success was achieved it would then ADDITIONALLY provide the power source of our next generation of interstellar rockets, and be available in miniature versions.

Anyone listening without specialist knowledge would have no idea that this entire endeavour is a colossal waste of time of money which will, in all likelihood, never result in a single electron being put onto the grid.

Astonishingly for a program nominally celebrating ‘curiosity’, the hosts Rutherford and Fry (R&F) failed to ask a single challenging question in the 30 minutes allotted to this issue. They just swallowed PR tidbits.

Here are three questions they might have asked:

Q#1: How much will fusion electricity cost?

Since they are looking to supply ‘limitless’ energy, R&F might have asked how much the electricity supplied by these fusion reactors would cost compared to the cost of renewable technologies such as solar or wind?

Of course, nobody knows the price of a product which won’t exist for decades and indeed may never exist. But it is inconceivable that it will cheaper than solar or wind.

A ball park guess would be that it might be around the same price as conventional nuclear power. Or more.

A fusion power station would use technology which was dramatically more complex and expensive than a conventional nuclear power station, and would likely to struggle in early generations to maintain 95% up-time.

And amazingly after all the hard work, since it’s fundamental output is heat – it would still throw away roughly 67% of the energy generated! Why? Because even nuclear fusion cannot beat the second law of thermodynamics that governs the extraction of electricity from hot gases.

In other words: the electricity produced will be very expensive.

Q#2: Tritium: Where will you get it from?

All fusion reactors face myriad technical challenges – I won’t go into them all here – and it would have been nice if perhaps R&F had mentioned one or two of these difficulties.

For example all fusion reactors planned aim to fuse two isotopes of hydrogen called deuterium (D) and tritium (T). Deuterium is available in vast quantities in seawater, but Tritium is amongst the rarest and most expensive radioactive substances on Earth. And fusion reactors require a lot of it. A 100 MWe fusion electricity power plant – a very small generator equivalent to say 10 modern wind turbines – would require roughly 5 kg of tritium per month. A year’s supply for a single reactor is likely more than all the tritium which currently exists on Earth.

Fusion engineers do have plans to use the fusion reactor to create tritium as part of routine reactor operation. But it is not at all obvious to me that a practical solution even exists.

Some mention of the ‘Tritium Problem’ or similar technical problems would have been nice.

Q#3: Timing: Can this help with the climate emergency?

The fusion-industry PR representative on the program said it was very important that they were ready to deploy reactors in 2050 to ‘contribute to Net Zero‘.

This is a misunderstanding. If by 2050 we have reached ‘Net Zero’, then we won’t need fusion! We will – by definition – be operating our economy without emitting CO2 and another source of expensive electricity will likely not find any market at all. Unless it’s really cheap – but electricity generated from a fusion reactor is unlikely to be ‘cheap’.

In fact, the climate emergency is right now and fusion has nothing to offer. Spending resources on fusion research now is channelling money away from things which could actually be helping humanity in the grim decades between now and 2050.

How does trash like this get on the air?

I honestly don’t know, but perhaps R&F left a clue in the additional ‘bonus’ material at the end of on-line version of the program.

After recounting an anecdote, R chuckled and said his mate Steve Cowley was someone important at a UK research lab investigating fusion and had got him a tour of the facility.

His ‘mate’ Steve would actually be Sir Steven Charles Cowley Kt FRS FREng FInstP, the CEO of the UK Atomic Energy Authority.

And it just felt like I was listening to members of a chumocracy discussing how clever they were and what whizz friends they had.

Curiously, you can actually hear R‘s mate Steve on another Radio 4 program, In our Time which discussed fusion in 2014 (link). Sadly, even this program provides only the weakest of sceptical voices.

Why am I writing this?

Normally, if I can’t find something good to write about something, I try to write nothing.

But fusion populists just take such silence as carte-blanche to propagate their delusional propaganda about ‘endless cheap renewable electricity’ and suggest that they are climate-change friendly.

In these coming decades, it is really important that we keep our eyes on ‘the prize’, and ‘the prize’ is not nuclear fusion.

In these decades we will face summers and winters of climatic extremes which will involve multiple humanitarian catastrophes.

‘The prize’ is avoiding even worse disasters in the future, and we will win ‘the prize’ by reducing carbon dioxide emissions now, as rapidly as we possibly can. By now, I mean today, and tomorrow, not next week or next year. Now.

Betting on fusion technology which has failed for decade after decade is nothing but a distraction.

So don’t be distracted: fusion is a serial failure.

Previous articles I have written about Fusion

Below is a selection of articles I written about this topic previously. Of these articles, the July 2020 article is the most-nuanced, trying to emphasise why fusion scientists are still clinging on.

Nuclear Fusion is Irrelevant (February 2022)

Are fusion scientists crazy? (July 2020)

Fusion Research is STILL a waste of money(June 2020)

Research into Nuclear Fusion is REALLY a waste of money. (December 2019)

Research into Nuclear Fusion is a waste of money (November 2019)

Controlled Nuclear Fusion: Forget about it (October 2013)

15 Responses to “Fusion is a failure.”

  1. Bruce MacNeil Says:

    Thanks for the insight.

    My understanding is that we already have nuclear fusion and unlimited electricity. Our fusion reactor is conveniently located a nominal 93 million miles from earth and the fusion energy is delivered via electromagnetic radiation.

    We convert the radiation to electricity.

  2. Gavin Says:

    Hi there,

    I enjoyed that message.

    Have you contacted the BBC to express the concerns outlined in the email? It seems like the case against fusion technology (as it pertains to the generation of electricity) is a political issue, and should perhaps be treated as such.

    Keep up the excellent work!

    Cheers,
    Gavin

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Gavin

      Hi. No I haven’t contacted the BBC. Why? Because I simply don’t believe that anyone there cares. They will tell me the programme is very popular with a some listener group or other. And popularity – bizarrely the thing which the BBC definitively does not need to chase – is king.

      Best wishes

      Michael.

  3. David Edwards Says:

    Good article!
    It was said, slightly before my time in the 1950s, that nuclear-powered electricity would be so cheap that it wouldn’t be worth posting the bills.

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      David

      Thank you. That is not a quote which has aged well.

      Michael

    • Marcin Says:

      Hi David. The quote is silly indeed. Even sillier is for example Energiewende in Germany. Some 520GigaEuro spent(from fast “googling”), one of the most expensive electricity and still on average 4-5ish times more CO2/kWh than Finland and France. If leaks of NatGas would have been easy to take into account(in place of digging it and all distribution) then very easily Germany greenhouse gas emissions can outpace Coal powered Poland (per capita). I choose to neglect silly “ancient” quote and truly low carbon power sources every day of the weak:)

  4. Fusion is the Future | EssaysConcerning Says:

    […] A much loved Radio 4 science programme ‘The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry’ has done some great episodes. I particularly liked one on the properties of water and its role in biological processes. However, it has made a big flop on fusion energy, channelling the same old hype that is reported in hushed and unquestioning tones by journalists.  Dr Michael de Podesta has written a strong critique of this episode his blog Protons 4 Breakfast : ‘Fusion is a failure’, 21st September 2022, See https://protonsforbreakfast.wordpress.com/2022/09/21/fusion-is-a-failure/ […]

  5. Marcin Says:

    Good article(and others on topic)! Fusion is distraction and media reporting like the one you describe is truly awful and so so common. Well deployed wind and solar and Fission(with all its flavors, like LWR, HWR, HTGR,Breeding,Molten Salt etc.) may get us to “net 0”, and with cheap power(cheap is a must requirement IMHO, otherwise coal is here to stay globally). It is so much lost in media that it took ~10years from discovery of neutron to first working, self sustaining and producing net power nuclear reactors, and in 70ish years of trying there in no even slightly practical Fussion plant.

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      You said:

      “it took ~10years from discovery of neutron to first working, self sustaining and producing net power nuclear reactors, and in 70ish years of trying there in no even slightly practical Fusion plant.”

      Exactly.

  6. mentor2you Says:

    Hello
    And firstly, thank you for informative posts.
    Reading your one about Fusion, reminded me of the story from 1989:
    https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01673-x
    I was working in London at the time and a lot of people believed that this new source of energy would save us.
    I agree with you that the energy crisis is now and that renewables (plus nuclear) are the only way out.

    • Marcin Says:

      Hi,
      Interestingly there has been a post in https://atomicinsights.com/how-hot-is-cold-fusion/ recently and I was fascinated enough that this thing in some way is still going on. Couldn’t resist to ask for details seeing that serious institutions are behind continuing research. In the end I didn’t learn to much. Fascinating phenomenon, if not scientific, then sociological(sunken cost fallacy perhaps, very similar to pushing “hot fusion” as future saver). I have no problem with proper research into hot fusion (these are “small money” in the grand scheme of things). I’m triggered when there are claims that it will be “the only way” and clearly superior “infinite source of power” (suggesting affordability).

      • protonsforbreakfast Says:

        Marcin,

        Thanks for that update. Fascinating that this research still continues.

        In fact, I was heavily involved in LENR research for many years – acting as consultant to companies investing in the field. My job was to explain to them how the ‘anomalies’ they observed were actually perfectly explicable using conventional physics.

        When I get around to writing them down – I have so many great stories to tell!

        All the best

        M

      • Marcin Says:

        Dear Michael, You have made me very interested in reading these LENR stories! Especially what were the anomalies and explanations(Your perspective will be interesting).

      • protonsforbreakfast Says:

        Marcin,

        I won’t tell you now but I will tease you: they involve very famous people and companies, super secretive international organisations and Top Secret UK government research establishments.

        I will write about it sometime, but first I need to stop global warming….

        M

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