Calling nuclear fusion a future ‘climate solution’ ignores real fixes

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Calling nuclear fusion a potential ‘climate solution’ may undermine actual solutions

When scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced a “breakthrough” in nuclear fusion research this month, many eyes quickly turned to climate change. Stories from the BBC, CNN and other major outlets mentioned the potential for “limitless” clean energy and discussed fusion’s place as a global warming fix within their opening paragraphs. Even Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, in announcing the new result, touted its potential to provide “clean power to combat climate change.”

From a purely theoretical standpoint, this makes some sense. Fusion power, in an idealized, storybook form, turns the world’s energy system on its head, offering an emissions-free way to keep the lights on. And the latest advance sounds truly impressive: Using enormously powerful lasers, scientists at Livermore’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) managed to create a split-second fusion reaction — mimicking that which takes place on a massive scale inside the sun — that produced more energy than it consumed.

But the world doesn’t live in that storybook. On a practical, near-term level, nuclear fusion and climate change have almost nothing to do with each other. One remains in more-or-less scientific infancy, many years away from even a hint of usable form; the other gets more urgent by the day, requires immediate intervention and has some readily available tech being deployed as we speak.

“A lot of people are desperate for some sort of silver bullet climate solution that will help to bypass the hard work of actually getting political agreements and policymaking and sacrifice to eliminate fossil fuels,” said Edwin Lyman, a physicist and director of nuclear power safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It would just be easier if there were this panacea out there that would transform everything, but of course that’s totally unrealistic.”

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Celebrating scientific advances is important. But linking that science with an urgent global need that it cannot on relevant time scales address may offer false hope and potentially undermine the more banal climate progress — dramatic renewable energy expansion, efficiency improvements, vehicle electrification and so on — that is possible today.

Ignition achieved

The old joke about nuclear fusion is that it is always 20 — or 30 or 50 — years away. Taking hydrogen atoms and fusing them into helium, in the process releasing energy that theoretically can be used to power the electric grid, is so technically challenging that despite well over a half-century of advances, the joke still more or less holds true.

That said, there is no denying that what the NIF scientists achieved represents a milestone in that long timeline. Using a technique known as inertial confinement, they pulsed 192 powerful lasers at a capsule smaller than a Skittle, vaporizing it and sending X-rays inward toward an even smaller pellet made of two forms of hydrogen called deuterium and tritium. Those atoms fused, and for a mind-numbingly brief moment — less than 100 trillionths of a second — about 3 megajoules of energy flowed forth, enough to boil a few kettles of water. That eclipsed the 2.05 megajoules the lasers applied to the hydrogen, meaning the experiment achieved “ignition,” or a net energy gain — something that had never been done before. Well, outside of the sun and a septillion or so other stars across the universe, at least.

Granholm called it a “landmark achievement.” Arati Prabhakar, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and science adviser to the president, said that the “milestone shows what we can do with perseverance.” Jill Hruby, administrator of the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, said it was “a historic day in science.”

All of which are true — but then climate change reared its head. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the achievement puts the world “on the precipice of a future no longer reliant on fossil fuels,” raising the question of what “precipice” actually means. Another senator, Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), called it a “milestone for the future of clean energy.” Many news stories followed suit, continuing to link fusion with climate change in what is now a yearslong and somewhat deceptive dance.

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Climate timelines

In reality, turning NIF’s achievement of ignition into a usable power plant is not remotely on the radar. The facility isn’t even intended to test out power systems: It was created to help maintain the country’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, using the fusion reactions created by the lasers to study what happens when one of those weapons explodes. Other large-scale fusion projects — including the long-awaited ITER currently under construction in the south of France — also aren’t designed to turn the energy they theoretically will generate into grid-appropriate electricity. (ITER, which uses the more common magnetic confinement technique, has been repeatedly delayed, and the first “Deuterium-Tritium Operation” is now only slated to start in 2035.) And that’s leaving aside the for-profit private fusion industry, a venture capital-backed graveyard of moved goal posts and missed promises that still claims it will send power to the grid within a decade or two.

The scientists involved with the larger government-funded projects, including NIF, all agree that even in the most optimistic scenario, practical fusion power is still at least several decades away — and skeptics aren’t sure it will arrive at all. Meanwhile, the problem this far-off tech is theoretically going to solve is the stuff of urgent, pressing deadlines: rapidly depleting carbon budgets, ice sheets on the verge of collapse, temperature trajectories that likely see the world soaring past targets into dangerous “overshoot” territory.

According to the Global Carbon Project, the world can keep emitting greenhouse gases at 2022 levels for only another nine years before our chances of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), and heading off the most catastrophic climate impacts, drop below 50 percent. The United Nations said in October that the current emissions pledges from every country on Earth would actually cause emissions to rise by more than 10 percent between 2010 and 2030, leading to a catastrophic 2.5 degrees C (4.5 degrees F) of warming. Various analyses suggest the world needs to spend trillions every year on renewable energy this decade, a level of commitment that has yet to materialize.

How does fusion power fit into that grim scenario? The U.S. has brought only one nuclear fission reactor online in the past 26 years — and that’s a technology people have known how to build since the 1940s. The odds of fusion overcoming all its technical obstacles and actually playing a role in the near-term climate challenge seem impossibly slim. The net-energy gain that NIF achieved is truly impressive, until you realize that another 300 or so megajoules were used to actually power the lasers; a fusion power plant would need to scale up its output by a factor of 100 or more — and it would need to offer a bit more than a few trillionths of a second of energy.

While joining fusion and climate at the hip could seem like little more than a rhetorical flourish, a way for the media and politicians to make an incremental and complicated scientific achievement more tangible and exciting, experts say it could hurt the more urgent climate project at hand.

Limited dollars

“The history of earlier efforts at fusion underscore the dangers of this kind of wishful thinking,” said Stephen Mihm, a professor of history at the University of Georgia who has written about fusion’s past. “The politicians and policymakers that have funded fusion research in the past have often done so under the mistaken belief that money spent this way would yield immediate, transformative results. But this has never happened, even as incremental progress has continued to push the ball forward.”

Mihm told Grid that many politicians embraced fusion as an exit strategy from the energy crisis of the 1970s. “When research failed to deliver immediate results, they cut the funds,” he said. “Something similar may happen now.”

Lyman, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, agreed, saying that funding for climate solutions is not infinite — and that the promise of fusion could easily pull attention and money away from things that don’t qualify as “bright shiny toys.”

Meanwhile, there are obvious success stories, like the dramatic improvement in the efficiency of solar power — making use of the big fusion reactor in the sky — and a huge drop in costs over the past two decades, and those immediately available options still need all the monetary support they can get. This isn’t an abstract issue: ITER, the big project in France, will cost at least $22 billion, and likely much more. NIF cost $3.5 billion, while the private fusion industry has received around $5 billion in recent years from venture capitalists and rich investors.

“You can’t fund all of the above,” Lyman told Grid. When it comes to fusion, he said, “unrealistic expectations … will distort policy choices and funding decisions, possibly in a very destructive way.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Dave Levitan
    Dave Levitan

    Climate Reporter

    Dave Levitan is a climate reporter for Grid where he focuses on interconnected stories about climate and science, and politics shaping action around both.