There's also a firing rate issue. Even if the system produced net power, significant production would require many shots per second. Currently, the laser flash lamps are expendable and it takes on the order of a day (and lots of money) to prep for each shot.
Some of these drawbacks were addressed in the LIFE proposal, which would use fusion neutrons to burn fission fuel in a blanket around the fusion chamber. You could burn spent reactor fuel subcritically (no fission chain reaction), for example. But then it's a fission machine, and criticality excursions aren't much of an issue in conventional fission reactors. In the end, there are many drawbacks and little benefit with such a setup -- even if it worked.
I love lasers, and NIF is a marvel. But there really is no sensical story about power production in it. Even the machine's stated purpose -- stockpile maintenence -- is highly dubious. It is really an elaborate welfare machine, given to weapons scientists in exchange for their support of testing bans.
There is no reasonably foreseeable future with fusion as part of the electricity grid. Even if we got fantastically lucky and were able to build a practical (magnetic or inertial) reactor in 50 years, by that time improvements in energy storage and transmission technologies will have allowed renewable energy to dominate, and no government would be crazy enough to permit it to be built.
This should be highlighted.
Anecdotally, I have a friend who worked at Macdonald-Detweiller on algorithms for handling the controlled descent of autonomously-guided aircraft when lacking propulsion and relying solely on gliding. She was horrified when I told her she was working on smart bomb guidance systems.
The flight profiles of a guided bomb - and a glider aircraft - are very different. I appreciate there’s a lot of dual-use, but I’m skeptical someone could be working on something so central to the system and not know what it’s really for - all of the stories of internal-disinformation I’ve heard about from the defence sector were all to keep “peripheral” workers quiet.
In a sense, we programmers who work on ML are just as guilty. It seems to be used primarily for for surveillance and reliably scalable automation of centralised control of industry and society.
Intentionally giving a ton of details that will lead to dleslie figuring it out seems counter to her goal of not admitting what she's doing. Also her giving out this information sounds like it might actually be breaking confidentiality agreements.
If you're not familiar with different types of bombs and weapons then you might not have even heard of a glide bomb before. And someone else suggested engine-out situations on drones or de-orbiting satellites.
This sounds quite anti-progressive and anti-scientific, I have trouble understanding where this sentiment comes from. If Fusion reactors could be realized, this would solve all energy problems. As you mention, renewables done right doesn't stop at production but also includes global deployment of Smart Grids and Energy storage capabilities. It's nuclear energy done in a reasonable way. Apart from that, it's really not clear if production fusion reactors will ever be possible so it's clearly a research topic. Perhaps better availability of computing power (to engineer the confining magnetic fields) and better abilities to orchestrate such complex projects will also help if you look at the challenges of the ITER project.
It can’t be, it was first published in the Progressive.
It comes from my scientific knowledge of the field and is my factual description of what I personally observed, working on-and-off in both magnetic and inertial fusion for many years. My motivation is not anti-scientific but in defense of real science that is not getting done because of the billions wasted on fake energy projects.
You don't give a real foundation impetus to 'stop' fusion research other than the perception not making enough progress in general terms, and that the money could be used on renewables.
It's a problematic argument because 'a few billion' is a very, very small amount of investment for an energy potentially which could yield significant results, even decades away.
It maybe a 80 year-long project, even then, it would be worth it.
Renewables are not suffering from money otherwise allocated to Fusion.
I think if you gave some very specific arguments as to why some investment will not work - even as an experimental vehicle - that would lend more credibility to your argument, but then you'd also have to have that view corroborated in some way aka 'this experiment does not materially advance science, and they know it, here is the evidence or logic'.
He said so somewhere else. I would assume:
batterie, electrolyse, fuel cells, more flexible energy grid, solar panel as light weight foil ... all that works already today and can be greatly improved.
Fusion is awesome. And we can greatly benefit from it, someday. But to me it sounds like scam if it is advertised as the energy solution. Not when we are still at the stage of basic research (except for bombs).
Till then I would rely on the very big working fusion reactor we have: the sun.
If fusion reactors could be realized, they'd likely be so Rube Goldbergish and expensive that no one would want them.
There's this tendency to conflate "getting a fusion reactor" and "getting a fusion reactor that actually makes sense to use". The former, while difficult, is likely MUCH easier than the latter.
Projects like ITER and NIF are monstrously complex because they are science experiments where lots of things need to be varied and we don't even know what it is we need to do. An economical reactor designed by people who knew how to make such a reactor would look remarkably different.
With old and new computers, the physics are different - what makes the principles still work is that logics are the same, both have gates, memory etc.
With fusion you still have the same physical substrate you need to affect.
Also you have something backwards in your reasoning. Real production systems are usually much more complicated because they need to stay up all the time, witness real nuclear power plants with their little armies of engineers, operators etc. versus the simple research reactors of old times.
The laws of physics are unchanged, computers improved because of clever workarounds that allowed us to accomplish the same tasks in easier ways. Practical fusion reactors need to produce power via fusion, but beyond that the how is irrelevant. Swap out different lasers, different magnets, different power supplies, hell even the fuels might be different, it's frankly ignorant to claim that these changes are the same physics but "use a shorter wavelength in your fab" isn't.
A modern computer in terms of number of logic gates is astronomically more complex than ENIAC, however what matters for practicality is not complexity but cost. The cost of complexity decreases as you learn what you're doing. Chicago Pile 1 cost $17 million in today's dollars to produce about half a watt of thermal power, or $34,000,000/Wth. A modern nuclear plant costs about $2/Wth. ITER will cost $45 Billion to generate 500 MW. If fusion sees 0.001% of the economic improvement that fission experienced, that's $0.52/Wth.
> A modern nuclear plant costs about $2/Wth
This may have been the projection before the AP1000 and the EPR flamed out. In practice, the cost can escalate well above that. Their complexity made them difficult to build. And yet, these designs have reactor power densities orders of magnitude better than ITER, and are far simpler (and more fault tolerant) than a fusion reactor would be.
The most expensive nuclear plant projected to be constructed is the Hinkley Point C reactor. With all its overruns, it's projected that the cost will be £23 Billion, which works out to $3.37/Wth. $2/Wth is a $6 billion 1000 MWe plant, quite typical. Note that this is for reactors in the west, in China, where non-technical issues like NIMBYism aren't a concern, the cost is closer to $1/Wth.
Yes, and you failed to make the case that larger things aren't more expensive than smaller things (all else being equal, but note that fission reactors are made of steel, not the complex sophisticated equipment of fusion reactors). We can continue the argument here, if you can come up with any argument for your position that makes any sense.
Why wouldn't the natgas and upstream/downstream petroleum industry want to do the same thing with any potential competitors? There is already propaganda about windmills killing seagulls and windmills being ugly, so why not take it an extra step and flash pictures of thalidomide babies and then say "wow do you really want this?" with respect to nuclear? Seems totally within the realm of possibility.
EDIT: Correction - I think I actually meant the petroleum industry when I was referring to cotton in this post. What killed the hemp industry in the 50s (I said 30s earlier but I made a mistake) apparently was the availability of inexpensive, manufactured synthetic fibers.
But what about projects like Iter? There's a lot going on in fusion that has no alternative government justification. Surely those provide little to no value for weapons programs.
If fusion for grid-scale energy is really accepted to be non-viable (and if we're honest... it is) then that has some pretty far-reaching consequences.
I don't think that fusion is categorically non-viable, but the approaches of the currently funded megaprojects all seem to be. More creative and compact approaches could still have potential. Of course, there's always PACER, which illustrates our cognitive dissonance.
But consider this analogous situation. I was working in a government physics lab when Star Wars (excuse me—SDI) was still a program that you could get money from for all kinds of projects. Nobody—I mean nobody—actually doing research believed in the program. That we would actually build a Star Wars defense shield to make Ronald Reagan proud. But they happily sent off grant proposals and were glad to accept money to work on various things. You can spin lots of pet projects so it sounds like they are all about missile defense. But the algorithms I worked on, during my brief involvement, would have been more useful for game design.
…or any other juicy bits you got for us?
You've lost me :S
Fusion is likely the energy source of the future and that’s ok. It’s ok to dream of far future deep space colonization, and take just one tiny step closer to that dream.
Places with existing gas and oil, and maybe even coal, power stations aren’t going to tear them down when fusion becomes do-able or even economically viable. Not just due to the sunk-cost fallacy but because they don’t want 10,000+ newly unemployed workers who honestly probably won’t retrain for fusion. And more reasons like that.
I personally doubt Fusion will be significantly cheaper than Fission let alone coal any time soon. But, if it happens their not going to care about their workforce. That said, fission > fusion isn’t going to require more training for most of the workers. In many locations they would both have identical cooling towers for example.
If we had cheap Fusion tomorrow we could replace much of fossil fuels with synth fuels with neutral CO2 cycle. We get to reuse existing infrastructure but without massive co2.
D-T requires extracting tritium from a breeder blanket which will likely be very expensive. But the ratio of T:D can be lowered the more efficient the design, with pure D-D designs avoiding that issue entirely.
- neutron bombardment, the unavoidable consequence of the only realistic fusion reaction, deuterium + tritium, turns every known material brittle and radioactive; and can be trivially used for uranium enrichment
- tritium is almost impossible to contain, and requires fission plants to create - the fusion plants could theoretically create a surplus, but they would have to recapture essentially 100% of a very hard to capture gas (today they normally leak about 10% of the injected tritium)
- fusion plants need to be massive to be even close to break-even - the energy drain of the facility consumes a sizeable portion of the generated energy; most of this power drain is still required while the facility is not operating the reactor, increasing projected costs of running a facility
- ICF tech is very close to fusion weapon tech, so there is a massive risk for proliferation from there as well; MCF tech is not, thankfully
All this volume will have to be hermetically sealed from the outside world, since it will become permeated with tritium. Keeping that tritium from escaping the building will be a major headache (polymer seals cannot be used on penetrations, as tritium permeates through polymers). This will be true in any fuel cycle using deuterium, not just DT, since D+D -> T+p reactions will be occurring.
JET already had robust procedures for handling Tritium. It wasn’t that difficult because we are talking about such small amounts and the T is lighter than air so minute releases aren’t a major public hazard. Don’t forget Fission reactors actually produce Tritium.
As to the Mississippi River flow estimate that’s something like 6 orders of magnitude larger than what I am referring to. Still, the other way of looking at that statistic is if half of the Tritium used per day was dumped into the Missisippi every day it would be considered safe to drink when well mixed.
Realize also that what has to be constrained is the cumulative leakage from all fusion power plants, not just a single one. The world would need on the order of 10,000 1GW power plants, to displace fossil fuels.
Globally, I do think fission or potentially fusion has a minor role because it could be important for a few countries locally even if it’s not cost effective in most areas. But realistically their only really competing with each other.
Nuclear fission looks unable to compete with renewables at current prices in almost all the world. There's a zone around Poland where it does the best. But even those zones go away as renewables and storage proceed down their experience curves. If there are very minor niche uses, fission would work just fine vs. fusion, particularly in high latitude countries that are already members of the nuclear club.
Circling back to my original post, it’s clearly not needed any time soon. I think it’s worth doing in much the same way building the ISS was worth doing. That said, I was trying to avoid being dismissive of possible upsides which seem unlikely but still possible.
Whatever the opposite of devils advocate is.
The tragedy of engineering is that in any market niche, generally only one technology can win. The others are driven to extinction. It's like ecology's "one niche, one species" rule. As Freeman Dyson pointed out, this is not like science, where multiple complementary theories may coexist. We build chips from silicon, not GaAs or superconducting niobium or any of the other possible technologies that were considered over the decades.
An engineer, if he's old enough, will have seen many technologies come up then fail and die. There are more ways to solve problems than there are sufficiently distinct problems, so this is inevitable. When fusion competes with fission, and wind, and solar, and geothermal, and..., it's a fight to the death. The notion that fusion is inevitable is a stacking of the mental deck to just assume fusion will win this competition.
A price competitive 10 MW generator probably meets that standard though (Islands, small towns, isolated mills, etc).
Edit: Would be nice to have a link to refer back to the discussion that led to the bet. To my knowledge, most bets do not provide such a citation.
The 5th fleet is in the Gulf to protect the flow of Oil.
The USD is backed to some extent by petrodollar, and that is a geopolitical hammer the Americans like to use at least to some extent.
So what does 'profitable' mean?
If Climate Change gets really problematic quickly, then guess what, all Nuclear Plants become considerably more profitable because the government will socialize the losses in case of catastrophic failure meaning owners don't pay for massive insurance costs which are a problem for profitability today give the possibility of $100B payouts in the case of failure.
I'm wary of the commentator's cynicism. If we can make demo plants operating at some scale, close to break even in 25 years ... then that's a strong hint there's material progress, and that those plants could be breaking even another 25 years later.
It also easily justifies a number of scientists working on it now even if only pans out in 50 years. The long term surpluses are potentially ginormous, like, to the point where they existentially shape the future, much like carbon fuels triggered the industrial revolution.
(I do think it's entirely possible that fusion will be solidly profitable, especially with carbon pricing.)
General Fusion abandoned their first scheme because of at least three showstoppers (vaporization of the liquid metal wall, Richtmyer-Meshkov instability turning the implosion into jets of metal, and stochastic magnetic field lines in the spheromak causing unacceptable loss of energy via electrons to the metal). The new scheme has extremely serious engineering problems (the central pillar will be in a radiation/thermal environment orders of magnitude worse than the walls of ITER, and subject to extreme JxB forces). And they've never produced a neutron, as far as I know.
Rostoker et al. were told 20+ years ago that their p-11B concept couldn't work, for at least eight different reasons.
If I had to bet on any current private fusion effort I'd choose either Zap Energy or Helion.
The other problem is that size is also related to reliability. A fusion reactor will have many more parts than a fission reactor. It will also be much more complex, and operate at higher radiation and thermal stresses. This is particularly important because it is very difficult to repair something that is so radioactive that hands-on access is not possible.
Why? Nuclear fusion doesn't have the meltdown risk or waste problems of fission.
60T/y for 1200 MWe = 50g / kWe·y = 1.6 mg/MJ
Coal energy density:
24 MJ/kg = 0.024 MJ/g -> 42 g/MJ
Not perfect, but depending on what the waste is, doesn't seem too bad.
Note that the "Candidate fuels" section is not part of "Technical Challenges", but it might as well be. Helium-3, by far the easiest, is vanishingly rare. Deuterium would not really be aneutronic. Then further down is a list of worse and worse headaches.
The leading scenario for acquiring the most convenient fuel candidate is "mining it on the moon". (The alternative scenario being to scale up production of tritium by existing heavy-water reactors from the nuclear weapons program, which decays into helium-3... and defeats the point of researching extremely complex, clean, aneutronic fusion reactors)
I want to like aneutronic fusion, but it takes an objective that is several breakthroughs away and plays the game on nightmare mode.
If you follow the links my Op-Ed, you’ll find articles describing the radioactive waste and proliferation risks that will accompany any fusion reactor. Not as great as fission, but far from zero. And there is the problem of production and transportation of tritium, a very nasty substance.
A commercial fusion reactor would be fantastically expensive and complex, and require a huge infrastructure to support it.
Nuclear fission power plants have the disadvantage of generating unstable nuclei; some of these are radioactive for millions of years. Fusion on the other hand does not create any long-lived radioactive nuclear waste.
Can fusion reactors be used to produce weapons?
That is a deeply misleading answer. While this would likely be easy to detect by international observers, it is not hard to enrich uranium in a fusion plant . So fusion reactors, like fission reactors (though with less chance of clandestine operation) are still a nuclear weapon proliferation risk.
A dirty bomb is a weapon. They are talking about “atom bombs”.
This is another variant of “think of the children”. How many terrorists have built these dirty bombs?
They haven’t been able to yet, because we don’t have any fusion reactors out there.
Tritium’s low molecular weight means that a bomb can disperse it over a large area. It has a half-life of 12.5 years and its beta radiation is known to be carcinogenic from animal studies. An inhaled, microscopic bit of tritium will be irradiating your lung tissue for many years, although the actual effects of this are not known. However, it is very strictly controlled, and you need all kinds of special licences and certifications to use it in your laboratory, for these reasons.
So the lure for the terrorist is just that: it’s good for terror, because of the psychological effect.
“What about when compared to the general damage caused by mining and burning coal?”
If the choice were between coal and fusion, for me there would be no contest. We would have to put everything into developing fusion power. Fortunately, there are alternatives that are better than either and are already working.
Agreed, I would love to see more spending for things like, CSP molten salt research and storage systems in the public domain. That way, even if countries like the US are still captive by certain industries to not adapt it at scale, countries like Chile with +100MW systems with 17h of molten salt storage that are grid connected now, can benefit.
Also tritium is essentially harmless. It is an incredibly weak beta emitter - the electrons it emits won't make it through the upper layers of dead skin if it's outside of your body. It has an extremely short residency period in the body if it is ingested (a benefit of being chemically identical to hydrogen). It also will dissipate in an area rapidly - it rises quickly and even if it is in an enclosed space it will pass straight through the walls. Also it's worth noting that a fusion plant like ITER has less than a gram of tritium inside of it at any given time.
I worked with Stephen Bodner on the fusion program mentioned in the fine article. We did our experiments with deuterium. The reason we did not use DT, which would have been better for the experiments, is because nobody wanted to (1) go through the hassle of getting the lab certified to handle tritium' (2) get anywhere near the stuff. It is considered very hazardous.
Mercury vapor is very hazardous, that doesn't mean a mercury bomb is an effective weapon.
Not so sure about that. Vast solar and wind farms are eyesores and are not environmentally benign.
I can imagine China building one simply for the national prestige. "China built the world's first commercial nuclear fusion power station". The Chinese government wants to prove itself the equal of other major world powers (especially the US) and being the first country to have commercial nuclear fusion would be a good way of sending that message. Even if it is more expensive and less safe than renewable energy.
And then the US government would build one to "counter the nuclear fusion gap with China" and "ensure American supremacy in nuclear fusion technology".
That said, this isn't going to be technically feasible for a few more decades (at least), and we don't know what the geopolitical situation will be like by then. Maybe China-US competition will still be as strong, even stronger, then as now. Maybe it will be in the past and the world will have moved on to something else. Who knows.
Here is the head of the NNSA, the funding agency for the NIF, quoted in the fine article:
“It also offers potential new avenues of research into alternative energy sources that could aid economic development and help fight climate change”
That’s some finely tuned BS right there.
pure propaganda. Otherwise why all the panic about global warming. If true we'll have no problem hitting all the targets to avoid the a global warming catastrophe.
Because it doesn't just need to be feasible, it also has to be actually implemented. That costs a lot, and comes with a shit ton of friction. The fossil economy is a massive beast to try to turn around, and it would be so even if aliens landed and gave us the schematics to a perfectly working dream fusion reactor right now. That's why there is a "panic".
The whole NIF building has the ability to switch modes between classified and unclassified. They wouldn't have gone through the trouble of making this a toggleable feature on the building if they weren't actively using it for both.
Interesting, can you explain this more? What gets hidden?
All I know for sure is on the tour they mention they can switch the whole building to be unclassified or classified and during the tour it is in unclassified mode.
Oh, but then there's this part:
>> Further experiments will require the manufacture of additional fuel capsules and hohlraums. These may not be ready until at least October, Herrmann says. The nanocrystalline diamond-coated capsule that was imploded in this month’s event took six months to grow at General Atomics, which has long worked with LLNL on fabricating capsules. The spheres have to be polished and the core’s interior etched with tools inserted through a 2-micron-diameter hole drilled into it. The tritium–deuterium mixture is injected through a tiny fill tube just prior to the shot.
The NIF goal was ignition, not continuous power production. The original spec was one shot every four hours. Achieving one shot per day is close.
EDIT: on funding, this image shows what is neccessary and the level we actually funded. It's been around for a while but it may prove informative for the uninitiated.
In other words, I’d love to see a 2021 recreation of that graph.
This is crazy. If you are going to have fission and fission products, you might as well just build a fission reactor. It would be vastly simpler, smaller, and cheaper.