The claims for a breakthrough in fusion power are not only exaggerated but in reality concerned principally with military objectives.
This test, carried out by the National Ignition Facility at US Government’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), was mainly to facilitate the testing of nuclear weapons. This fact was missed in almost all the hyperbole surrounding the test.
Although it is correct that nuclear fusion was achieved, albeit for a trillionth of a second, it was not a first. Ignition has been achieved before in other countries including the UK using a different technology (magnetic confinement) for a few seconds. And the claim that more energy was produced than consumed in the process is specious, as the various reports put out by LLNL compared heat output with electricity input which is like comparing apples and oranges. A true comparison would have taken into account the vast amount of energy consumed to produce the electricity to drive the lasers. And the actual amount of excess heat energy produced (about 20 kettles of boiling water) was paltry.
As Tom Hartsfield, who has been following the progress of the tests by the National Ignition Facility (NIF), put it:
‘the input energy to the laser system is somewhere between 384 and 400 MJ. Consuming 400 MJ and producing 3.15 MJ is a net energy loss greater than 99%. For every single unit of fusion energy it produces, NIF burns at minimum 130 units of energy…….In terms of electrical power, 3.15 MJ would not quite power one 40-watt refrigerator light bulb for a day.’
As Amory Lovins has commented, even if fusion power was free, it would still be uncompetitive with other energy sources. That is because there would be very big capital costs involved, including paying for 19th century steam generator technology to use the fusion power to boil water to drive steam powered electricity generators.
In fact the main purpose of the NIF has not been about advancing civil fusion research, but in advancing the US nuclear weapons programme. A paper in the top science journal Nature published in 2021 discussed an earlier breakthrough, but the main breakthrough described was about nuclear weapons:
‘Housed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, the US$3.5-billion facility wasn’t designed to serve as a power-plant prototype, however, but rather to probe fusion reactions at the heart of thermonuclear weapons. After the United States banned underground nuclear testing at the end of the cold war in 1992, the energy department proposed the NIF as part of a larger science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program, designed to verify the reliability of the country’s nuclear weapons without detonating any of them……..With this month’s laser-fusion breakthrough, scientists are cautiously optimistic that the NIF might live up to its promise, helping physicists to better understand the initiation of nuclear fusion — and thus the detonation of nuclear weapons. “That’s really the scientific question for us at the moment,” says Mark Herrmann, Livermore’s deputy director for fundamental weapons physics. “Where can we go? How much further can we go?”
Looking on the bright side, could we say this was a technological breakthrough for mankind? Not really. It is better to examine what its real impact will be for our energy futures – and the answer is precious little. This one test cost around $1.5 billion according to the New York Times, and involved 192 of the world’s largest and most expensive lasers. The disparity in scale and the mismatch with what we really need (inexpensive, practical sources of heat and electricity) are massive.
Another useful yardstick would be how much it would contribute to dealing with climate change. Again nothing. Fusion is not mentioned once as a climate mitigation option in the last IPCC report.
By Ian Fairlie and David Toke