What the ‘breakthrough’ in nuclear fusion really means
By M.V. Ramana
On December 13, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) had reached a “milestone:” the achievement of “ignition” in nuclear fusion earlier in the month. That announcement was hailed by many as a step into a fossil fuel-free energy future.
But in truth, generating electrical power from fusion commercially or at an industrial scale is likely unattainable in any realistic sense, at least within the lifetimes of most readers of this article. At the same time, this experiment will contribute far more to U.S. efforts to further develop its terrifyingly destructive nuclear weapons arsenal.
Challenges for Nuclear Fusion
The first challenge is to produce more energy than is put into the target. The National Ignition Facility (NIF) reports 3.15 megajoules came out [over the 2.05 MJ lasers shot at the target] … which would produce perhaps 0.3 kilowatt-hours of electricity if it was used to boil water and drive a turbine. For comparison, a rooftop solar panel could generate around 5,000 times more electrical energy in a year.
NIF admitted that just the 192 lasers consumed around 400 MJ in the process of ignition. To this, we have to add all the energy that goes into running the other equipment and the facility as a whole. As Daniel Jassby, a retired physicist from the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, put it, all this “must appear on the negative side of the energy accounting ledger.”
How do you convert this experimental setup that produces energy for a microscopic fraction of a second into a continuous source of electricity that operates 24 hours a day and 365 days per year? To do that, these fusion reactions should occur several times each second, each second of the day, each day of the year. As of now, the lasers can fire only once a day, at a single target.
NIF and Nuclear Weapons
NIF’s chief purpose is not generating electricity or even finding a way to do so. NIF was set up as part of the Science Based Stockpile Stewardship Program, which was the ransom paid to the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories for forgoing the right to test after the United States signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This is a purpose NIF can start fulfilling without ever generating any electricity, as the LLNL webpage proudly proclaims.
Back in 1998, Arjun Makhijani, who has a PhD in nuclear fusion, and Hisham Zeriffi, a physicist and co-author of the report, suggested that NIF could help with the development of pure fusion weapons, i.e., thermonuclear weapons that do not need a nuclear fission primary, which would obviate the need for highly enriched uranium or plutonium. NIF, then, is a way to continue investment into modernising nuclear weapons, albeit without explosive tests, and dressing it up as a means to produce “clean” energy. When anthropologist Hugh Gusterson asked a senior official about the purpose of the laser program, the official replied, “It depends who I’m talking to … One moment it’s an energy program, the next it’s a weapons program. It just depends on the audience.”
The tremendous media attention paid to NIF and ignition amounts to a distraction – and a dangerous one at that. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that to stop irreversible damage from climate change, the world will have to achieve zero net emissions by 2050. Given this short timeline to turn around our economies and ways of living, spending billions of dollars on fusion power only amounts to diverting money and resources away from proven and safer renewable energy sources. Meanwhile, nuclear fusion experiments will further the risk posed by the nuclear arsenal. We need nuclear weapons abolition, but programs like NIF offer nuclear weapons modernisation, which is just a means to assure destruction forever.
— Reprinted and edited for space from Beyond Nuclear, Dec. 16, 2022.
— M.V. Ramana is the Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global, and Human Security and Professor at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.