Fusion Breakthrough is a Nuclear Nothing Burger

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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.

Art Berman is anything but your run-of-the-mill energy consultant. With a résumé boasting over 40 years as a petroleum geologist, he’s here to annihilate your preconceived notions and rearm you with unfiltered, data-backed takes on energy and its colossal role in the world's economic pulse. Learn more about Art here.

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  1. Geoff on December 25, 2022 at 10:39 pm

    Art, you state:

    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.

    I’d suggest humanity needs to find effective ways real quick to address our historical and ongoing bad energy behaviour!

    Well before fusion is workable, oil and gas will be driven out of business by solar and wind (or else humanity will be driven out of business by global heating).


    Art, ICYMI, see the latest communication from James Hansen, Makiko Sato, Norman Loeb, Leon Simons, & Karina von Schuckmann titled Earth’s Energy Imbalance and Climate Response Time, dated 22 Dec 2022, including Figure 4 at:

    • Art Berman on February 7, 2023 at 5:32 pm


      That’s a great sentiment but you know it is not going to happen so let’s move on to the next subject.



  2. Steve Bull on December 15, 2022 at 7:05 pm

    Excellent perspective.

    As I responded to someone yesterday who painted the ‘breakthrough’ announcement as an attempt to help support the ‘hope’ narrative so often bandied about with respect to ‘green/clean’ energy:

    “The ‘hope’ narrative is one aspect of such ‘breakthroughs’. Others include the fact that most science ‘news/articles’ are written by those with not only little to no real background in science (that then lack the skepticism and knowledge to be more critical of what they are writing about) and end up simply parroting what they are told by so-called ‘experts’. These ‘experts’ have a significant vested interest in a particular view of their research being propagated–their motivation is to garner interest (and lots of capital) in their projects so they leverage the most ‘beneficial’ aspects of their work and highlight them while downplaying or ignoring the negative ones. And for some, the REAL benefits are just a few years away as long as the research can continue to be funded…”

  3. TomC on December 15, 2022 at 5:16 pm

    On the other hand, Jazz Fusion, I can get behind doing more of that.

  4. Gerrit Wind on December 15, 2022 at 4:12 pm

    Thanks Art. Nice job. Refreshing train of thought.

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