Over at the Gatestone Institute, a short article on the recent announcement of net-positive nuclear fusion power generation dissects the situation. Lawrence Kadish does it in a way that brings holiday cheer to the hearts of anarchists and even libertarians. “Clean Fusion Energy is America’s Best Defense against Tyranny.” Right on!
He is probably right in comparing it to the first manmade nuclear reactor in a Chicago basement back in the 1940s. (Sadly, he’s wrong about the first atomic bomb – it was only one step in a process. And as we Westerners know, Trinity Site is a long ways from Los Alamos.) Nuclear fusion releases nearly four million times more energy than coal or other chemical fuels, and four times the energy from fission technology.
But his language is carefully parsed. And we need to ask if this is really a historical turning point? Or just another false dawn?
“Clean” energy is the key here. As others have pointed out, this is done using tritium (hydrogen-3), the very rare heaviest isotope of hydrogen. Indeed, so rare that one producer of tritium handles 2,800 tons of heavy water (mix of deuterium (hydrogen-2) and tritium) a year and produces a mere 2.5 kg (5.5 pounds) of the tritium. Not only does it have a half-life of only 12.5 years, but its production is also complex. (1) God creates it by bombarding atmospheric and soil nitrogen-14 (blessedly 99.6% of all nitrogen and pretty stable) with cosmic rays. (2) Humans have learned to produce it but only in nuclear (fission) reactors and nuclear bombs: (a) by bombarding lithium with neutrons, (b) by bombarding boron with high-energy neutrons. (c) in nuclear reactors (fission of plutonium or uranium, or (d) in nuclear explosions.
Admittedly, producing tritium from lithium does produce energy (it is an exothermic reaction). But none of these options are very palatable to Greens or governments. Indeed, God producing tritium is definitely considered evil by those Luddites: the byproduct is Carbon-14. Which of course reacts with oxygen in the atmosphere to produce the dreaded greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. And not just any carbon dioxide, but radioactive carbon dioxide.
(To further panic the politically correct social-justice warriors and regressive government types, the “third strike and you’re out” for this is even worse. There is absolutely no evidence that any of the materials produced are transgender, aid in abortion, or benefit people of color more than pigmentally-challenged people.)
All of these things mean that the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) and the EPA will both have their claws out to control (or outlaw) these processes. To say nothing of the other alphabet agencies. And of course, their environist partners already are terrified of “radioactive water” and contamination by inhalation, ingestion (drinking and eating), and excretion.
Which brings up the next point. For more than three-quarters of a century, people have been propagandized into fearing radioactive/nuclear power production. And for 85 years, the dangers of hydrogen (think Hindenburg disaster) have also become part of the terror-regime of many groups. And fusion combines them! People fear any sort of nuclear power. And after all, the source of so-called global warming’s energy is that monstrous nuclear furnace, old Sol himself!
It makes matters worse that likely first-generation fusion power stations will be huge. Massive and complex, and therefore frightening in and of themselves. Unlike traditional coal-, oil-, and gas-fueled power generation systems, this is not (yet) a technology that can be produced in very-small scale systems. Back to the Future to the contrary, there is no first-gen “Mr. Fusion” we can mount on even a massive 18-wheeler, let along a substitute DeLorean! All of these, their fuel, and much else requires massive amounts of mining and processing: causing environmental damage and even more energy consumption. Just as is happening with solar, wind and biofuels energy.
Understanding this is long and complicated, the main point is this. Assuming Mr. Kadish is right – that more power is more valuable and promotes liberty? Government is naturally going to be opposed to it. Indeed, another reason that any kind of currently available nuclear power is rejected: government has the existing mechanisms to control (and ban) coal, oil and gas, hydro, the present massive nuclear power plants, and of course wind and solar. Or so they think.
So clean (and cheap) fusion systems will be – assuming government even lets them exist – under incredible regulatory control. Worse, it will be feared and government will promote that fear. And limit its use to centralized power stations that encourage still more concentration and centralization than we have today. Thus making our current grid even more of a nightmare.
Add to that the fact that it is almost entirely government money and political-scientists in government-run institutions that are doing this. First, consider the track record of such things: NASA and CDC being recent examples. But second, government is not trying to develop fusion power to free us from tyranny. Rather it sees the military and control benefits: unlimited power, in the “right hands” will allow for unlimited tyranny.
Can all these things be worked around? Can the vast energy available through fusion technology be used to protect us from tyranny? Absolutely! But first, we must free ourselves from the current tyranny.
So we may not be seeing a turning point in history at all. Not because it is not a great achievement and a technology with a wondrous potential. But because government and people may be able to prevent it from being used.
I hope to be pleasantly surprised, but I’m in the “false dawn” camp.
Yes, it appears to be exothermic, which would be expected. That was never in question, even during the days of “cold fusion” a couple decades ago. It was always whether a given means of reducing the “activation energy” would decrease the necessary input sufficiently and could be maintained, and at what scale. The followup was, as you point out, “Yes, but the fuel source?”
Back of the envelope says this is not Mr. Fusion. It looks to be only usable at massive scale, where some more conventional power plant supplies power to run the laser. One might be able to design a means of continuously adding tritium, but otherwise you will always need that conventional source available to restart the fusion after tritium drops below the minimum to sustain reaction.
If this one is real, I doubt my grandkids will be around to see the engineering necessary to develop it in anything smaller than major metropolitan level.