FUSION BREAKTHROUGH IS A NUCLEAR NOTHING BURGER

The U.S. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory kicked off  its year-end Go-Fund-Me drive last week announcing a nuclear fusion breakthrough.

“The fusion energy breakthrough by US scientists boosts clean power hopes. Net energy gain indicates technology could provide an abundant zero-carbon alternative to fossil fuels.”
–Financial Times, December 11, 2022

These claims are nonsense. The Wall Street Journal called the fusion announcement nuclear fusion hype noting that nuclear power stations are at best decades away. 

The experiment used lasers to put 1.8 megajoules (MJ) of energy in and got 2.5 MJ out – proving that energy can be successfully released and gained by a Deuterium-Tritium fusion reaction. Unfortunately, they had to use 500 MJ of energy into the lasers so the EROI was 0.005. That’s the worst net energy ratio ever.

No electricity was produced in the experiment. The energy released was mostly waste heat.

But the announcement was timed to support a huge funding measure by the U.S. Congress:

“I’m…proud to announce…the highest-ever authorization of over $624 million this year in the National Defense Authorization Act for the ICF [Inertial Confinement Fusion] program to build on this amazing breakthrough.”
–U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer

Let’s suppose for a moment that this experiment proves that fusion is now a commercially viable new source of energy.

Building fusion nuclear power stations for the country is a big project and big projects take time. If, for example, there were full funding and permits to build a major new airport, it would take about nine years to complete.

“Building a major nuclear site with the handling of radioactive waste would make things many times harder. For an experimental and totally unproven nuclear technology like fusion, the problems are nearly insurmountable and would require decades at a minimum.”
–Thomas Overton, nuclear scientist and publisher of PowerMag

Overton went on to say that

“The announced breakthroughs are a “nothing burger” designed to attract investment. There is no substance there. Demonstrating a small amount of fusion reaction is in no way a guarantee that the method could even theoretically be scaled up to produce electricity.”

The more important problem is that nuclear energy can only be used for electric power generation and that is a relatively minor part of world energy use. Electricity was only 17% of total U.S. energy consumption in 2022 and is not expected to increase to more than about 19% by 2050 (Figure 1). Wind, solar hydro-electricity and nuclear all face the same problem.

Figure 1. Electric power generation is a relatively minor part of world energy use. Wind, solar, hydro & nuclear are only used for electric power generation. Delivered electric power is only expected to be 19% of U.S. energy consumption by 2050. Source: EIA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Since transportation is the largest part of oil consumption, many believe that electric cars will solve the world’s carbon emissions problems. Sadly, those assumptions are built into EIA’s forecast.

In fact, electric cars & trucks are expected to increase from 0.5% today to only 6.5% of the total U.S. light-duty vehicle fleet by 2050 (Figure 2). Including hybrids, hydrogen and other alternative vehicles, unconventional transport may account for almost 25% of the U.S. fleet by 2050.

Figure 2. Conventional cars & trucks to decrease from 86% to 76% of U.S. light-duty fleet by 2050 Electric cars & trucks to increase from 0.5% to 6.5%. Electric + other alternative vehicles will account for almost 25% of total fleet by 2050. Source: EIA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Many will not accept this forecast and it may turn out to be too pessimistic. Nevertheless, double or triple the growth of electric vehicles and it still will not be enough to get carbon emissions under control or come close to ending the use of fossil fuels.

Most experts acknowledge that nuclear fusion will take decades to become a feasible technology. The same is true for renewable energy.

People would rather believe that there is some quick fix to our energy and climate predicament. So would I.

Unfortunately, we are in that predicament today because people preferred to believe in the magic of technology rather than to accept the constraints of physical reality.

Nuclear energy is a solution in search of a problem. The most pressing environmental need is to phase out coal consumption for electric power generation. This can be done fairly quickly using renewable energy plus natural gas. The problems of methane leakage and fracking are trivial compared to the obstacles of time, cost and safety faced by nuclear alternatives.

This assumes that it’s okay to continue using energy at or near present levels but it’s not.

Climate change is not the biggest problem facing the world. It is a symptom of the much larger problem of overshoot. Overshoot means that humans are using natural resources and polluting at rates beyond the planet’s capacity to recover.

The main cause of overshoot is the extraordinary growth of human population made possible by fossil energy.

“We cannot solve climate change or other major symptoms of overshoot – biodiversity loss, tropical deforestation, overfishing, land and soil degradation, pollution of everything, the possibility of pandemics, etc., in isolation from the others.
–Bill Rees

Substituting one energy source for another—renewables or nuclear fusion—does not address the problem of overshoot. If we continue to degrade the biosphere, the risks of economic decline and even the collapse of civilization increase.

“Without a biosphere in a good shape, there is no life on the planet. It’s very simple. That’s all you need to know.”
Vaclav Smil

All forms of renewable energy production including nuclear energy require materials that use substantial amounts of fossil fuels for their mining, transport, processing, manufacture and distribution. Moreover, we know of no way to produce the four pillars of modern civilization—steel, cement, plastic and fertilizer—without fossil fuels.

Magical thinking about the possibility of nuclear fusion in the future does nothing to address our bad energy behavior today.



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