Is Nuclear Fusion The Answer To Clean Energy?


Think of nuclear power, and
many imagine the worst. Atomic bombs, reactors melting
down, radioactive wastes. There’s no denying that the history
of nuclear is fraught, and the dramatic and disturbing moments
hard to forget. But for the most part, nuclear energy
operates out of sight and out of mind, generating about 10 percent
of the world’s total electricity. This represents 29 percent of all
the world’s low-carbon power and 55 percent of the United
States’ low-carbon power. Nuclear reactors generate energy day and
night, and produce no greenhouse gases. But overall, the growth of
nuclear is slowing in comparison to other low-carbon sources like
wind and solar. By 2050, all 420 nuclear plants
operating today must be replaced. We’re not on a path to get there. Nuclear power plants are expensive
to build, construction often takes longer than expected, and debates over
how to handle radioactive wastes rage on. What’s more, public opposition
to nuclear power is strong, especially in the U.S. But we’re in the midst of a
climate crisis, and many energy experts argue that despite a contentious history, nuclear has
a key role to play in our energy future as a stable,
always available source of power. As we replace coal, we really do
need another form of what we call spinning reserve. You know, large power
plants that when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t
shining, that power is available. And nuclear is going to be
the best solution for that. If you just believe in
arithmetic, you need nuclear. Some experts are working to
upgrade existing nuclear power technology. That means designing safer and more
efficient fission reactors, with the support of philanthropists
like Bill Gates. But government labs, private
investors and intergovernmental organizations are also devoting vast resources to what
many consider the holy grail of energy: nuclear fusion. Good grief, the energy potential
there is just enormous. The energy that we need is
going to be mastering this fusion. Nuclear fusion is the same process that
powers our sun and every other star in the universe. And if we can figure out how to
harness that power here on earth, it would be a huge game changer. Nuclear fission was discovered in late
1938 by a pair of German researchers. They found out that when
you bombard uranium with neutrons, the nucleus splits, forming two lighter
isotopes and releasing mass that gets converted into energy. The discovery paved the way for the
development of the atomic bomb in the United States. And after the infamous
bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, concerns over nuclear proliferation spiraled
as the global nuclear stockpile grew during the Cold War
between the United States and the Soviet Union. But in 1953, President
Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program attempted to shift the focus of
nuclear power toward peaceful energy generation, and much of the world
started building nuclear power plants for civilian use. Private industry quickly jumped on board,
especially in the United States, and by 1991, the U.S. had twice as many operating nuclear
power plants as any other country. If those all of a sudden went away
and you had to make that electricity with fossil fuel, it would be like
doubling the number of cars on the road. So our 100 nuclear
power plants in the U.S. are helping us avoid, and have been for
like 50 years, helping us avoid a significant amount of
carbon generation. As of 2019, about 450 reactors
worldwide operate in 31 countries. And some countries, such as France,
Hungary, Slovakia and Ukraine, get more than half of their
power from nuclear energy. But over the decades, a number
of high-profile disasters have stalled the industry’s momentum. In 1979, the
partial meltdown and ensuing radiation leak at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania
cost about 1 billion dollars to cleanup. The disaster stoked public
fears about nuclear power. Stricter safety standards
were imposed. Reactors became more expensive to
build and fewer were built. Fission is always also quite expensive, and
because of the large amount of radioactivity in those machines, people
are scared of it. So the social acceptance of
fission is not very good. The nuclear disasters at Chernobyl in
1986 and Fukushima Daiichi in 2011 led to further scrutiny of the industry,
as concerns mounted over the long term effects of
the radiation exposure. And then there’s the battle over
where to store nuclear waste. One proposed site, Yucca Mountain in
Nevada, has been hotly contested for over 30 years. Yucca Mountain is unfit as a repository
site for nuclear waste because of the impact it would
have on national transportation. The current state of
the industry remains mixed. Countries such as China, India and Russia
are building new reactors at a fairly fast clip. But in the United
States, more than one third remain unprofitable or face closure. Frankly, we’re rusty. If you look at countries like China
and Russia, we’re being outnumbered by 30 to 1 on new builds. Only one new nuclear reactor has
come online in the U.S. since 1996, as costs and construction
times in developed economies have spiraled. The typical nuclear plant today
in Europe costs well over 10 billion dollars and generally takes
10 years to build. The low cost of solar, wind and
in particular natural gas, has meant that nuclear not only comes in at a
very expensive proposition, but it also means that nuclear is not a
very friendly player in the market. Next generation fission technologies are much
safer than reactors of the past, and some proponents claim
they’ll be cheaper too. The general public may still need
convincing, but one idea has outlasted the controversy. The promise that someday,
nuclear fusion will provide a better alternative. Scientists have been researching nuclear
fusion since the 1920s, ever since they learned it’s
what powers the sun. In a fusion reaction, extreme
temperatures and intense pressure cause hydrogen atoms to fuse
together, forming helium atoms. In the process, the atoms lose some
mass which is converted into vast amounts of energy. The reaction could produce
four times as much energy as nuclear fission and nearly 4 million
times more energy than burning coal or gas. Or another way to think about it
is 2 pounds of fusion fuel is the same as about fifty five
thousand barrels of oil. It doesn’t contribute
to greenhouse gases. The fuel is plentiful and can
be found essentially everywhere in the world. The radioactivity
would be short-lived. There’s no possibility of a runaway
reaction, so it’s an inherently safe system. But after decades of research
and billions of dollars, scientists still have not found a way
to create a sustained fusion reaction. That’s created a not-so-inside joke among
scientists that fusion is the energy source of the future
and always will be. Every time physicists think that fusion
is around the corner, nature tricks them. That nature resists taking
this large cloud of gas and compressing it to the point where you
can get fusion out of it. When I talk to colleagues or like my
parents or family, they make fun of me and say, “Oh yeah, you guys said
fusion is going to be coming 50 years from now, and that was 50 years ago. Where are ya?” But some think these
questions and jokes overlook the real progress that’s been made. Although we don’t have fusion, over the
last 30, 40 years, the amount of fusion that the prototypes make have increased
by a factor of 10 to the four, 10,000 times. And this is actually a growth rate
similar to the amount of transistors on a chip. The challenges is, until you get
to the point where you build that first power plant, everybody thinks
you haven’t moved very far. Fusion has traditionally been the purview
of government labs like Lawrence Livermore and Oak Ridge. But more recently, a number of private
companies have thrown their hat in the ring. This includes General Fusion,
which aims to bring a commercial reactor to market in the 2030s. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is
among the company’s investors. And then there’s the large multinational
effort that’s underway in the south of France called
the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, the project aims to
create the world’s largest and most powerful fusion reactor. While all of these players are
competing for resources and funding, that could actually be a good thing
for the nuclear power industry overall. The success of one company or one
group or one organization actually grows the pie. It convinces more people out
in business and in the economy to look at fusion as
a viable alternative. And that attracts more
investment for everybody. General Fusion, founded in 2002, operates
out of a nondescript office park about 20 minutes
outside of Vancouver. Unlike most government labs or
academic institutions, General Fusion is focused on implementation
over research. The company’s goal is to build
an electricity-generating fusion reactor in the next decade or two. Jeff Bezos was an early investor and
the company has now raised over 120 million, with about 90 million coming
from private investment and 30 million from the Canadian government. General Fusion combines two common
approaches in the industry: Inertial confinement, which subjects the fusion fuel
to extremely high pressure for a brief amount of time, and
magnetic confinement, which uses modest pressure for a prolonged time. When heated to extreme temperatures, the
fusion fuel becomes a plasma, a state of matter similar to gas,
except that it contains charged particles that allow it to conduct electricity
and respond to magnetic fields. Our compressor is going to be a big
sphere about 4 meters across, 15 feet across on the inside. And into that big
sphere, we are going to put liquid metal. And that liquid metal, we’re going to
spin around in a circle so it opens a hole. And into that hole we’re
going to put our fuel, which is hydrogen gas. It’s preheated up to
a few million degrees. And then all around the outside of this
sphere is a big array of pistons driven by compressed gas. So they push on the liquid metal and
they collapse the hole with this fuel trapped inside. And that collapse happens
very quickly and compresses the fuel up to fusion conditions. The peak of the compression, the fuel
ignites and gives a fusion reaction. That energy goes into
this liquid metal. So the liquid metal heats up, you take
this hot liquid metal out, you run it through a heat exchanger and
you boil water and make steam. And then the steam drives a turbine to
make electricity and puts it out on the grid. And we just keep pulsing
and do that over and over again. Right now, General Fusion’s main
components, like its plasma injector, piston array and fuel
chamber, all exist separately. Delage wants to integrate them into
one large demonstration reactor, a process he estimates will
take about five years. A space roughly this size would fit a
power plant that would be enough for a hundred thousand homes. And when
the reactor goes online, Laberge says it will bring General Fusion’s cost
of power into competition with coal and renewables like wind and solar. At 5 cents per kilowatt
hour, it’s quite competitive, actually. Like it is cheaper
than many other things. But it’s not cheaper
than natural gas. Laberge hopes it will eventually become
cheaper though, a likelihood if the U.S. decides to
implement a carbon tax. The energy market on the planet
is a trillion a year. And so if we take a sizable chunk of
that, we get a sizable fraction of a trillion dollars a year. But some
industry experts believe that private companies like General Fusion are
being overly optimistic with their timelines. In the past 10 years, there’s
been a lot of small industries coming in to say we can achieve
fusion in five years, ten years. I don’t believe it. I think they’ve underestimated and not looked
at the full challenge of a fusion reactor. Nuclear
fusion is hard. No research group or company has ever
been able to reach the so-called breakeven point, at which the energy
released from a fusion reaction is greater than the energy required to heat
the plasma used in the reaction. This is not really
an energy technology. It is basic research. Basic research has value. But to sell this as a technology that
will solve our energy needs in the next 20 to 30 years is deceptive. We are just not that close. But basic research is the bread
and butter of Lawrence Livermore National Lab. It’s been researching fusion since
its establishment in the 1950s. In 2009, the lab opened the National
Ignition Facility with the goal of achieving breakeven and ultimately
igniting a fusion reaction. And by ignited we mean
that it can be self-sustaining. It can propagate throughout all the
fuel that’s present in the implosion. Lawrence Livermore is pursuing
inertial confinement fusion. That is, confining plasma at extremely
high pressure for a very short amount of time, using high
energy lasers to do so. We’re standing in what we call our
Target Bay, looking at our target chamber. The target chamber is a big ball
about 30 feet across, and at the very center of that ball, we put a
very tiny target about the size of the tip of my finger, and we irradiate
that target with one hundred and ninety two of the world’s
most energetic lasers. Researchers at the National Ignition Facility
and other national labs have access to enormous computing power,
allowing them to run complex simulations that help them understand
the exact conditions necessary to reach ignition. And so based on our
best simulations, they say that a facility of this scale is big enough
to create this runaway reactions, if everything works nearly ideally. But clearly, getting everything to work
perfectly in the real world is much harder than it
looks on a screen. The National Ignition Facility was based
upon the promise of just that, ignition. After 10 years of trying,
they haven’t gotten anywhere close. And when they fail, they say, “All we
need is a little bit more money and time!” And the critics are saying,
“No, there’s some fundamental problems here.” So it could very well
be that neither the well-funded, research-oriented national labs nor
the scrappy, goal-oriented startups are going to solve the fusion puzzle. It might just take
an international effort. The ITER project, originally known
as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, originated nearly 35
years ago at the Geneva Superpower Summit. Now China, the
European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States are all
working together to build what would be the world’s largest tokamak reactor,
the donut shaped device used for magnetic confinement fusion. Currently under construction, ITER’s tokamak
reactor will be twice the size of the current largest machine and
aims to produce 500 megawatts of fusion power from 50
megawatts of heating power. I do believe that this is more
challenging than decoding DNA or putting a man on the moon. The literal
challenge is beyond today’s capacity. But Henderson says ITER is poised
to surpass previous efforts simply due to the sheer scale of the
proposed machine, which builds upon already established technologies. Unlike General Fusion’s ambitions, the immediate
goal of ITER is not energy production, though the project does
have an eye towards eventual commercialization. We’ll start building the
actual tokamak itself, which is about 20 yards in diameter
and about 20 yards in height. And that device should be completed
around the 2024 period, and then targeting to go nuclear
in the 2035 period. So by 2040, which seems a long
way, we will have gained all the information that allows the next
generations to build demos. Henderson hopes that these demos will
achieve ignition, opening the door for industrial scale reactors that
generate electricity for the grid. And that is literally where
fusion will take off. It’s not in our lifespan, but it
is in our grandkid’s or the great-great-grandkid’s type lifespan. It’s a grand vision, but even if
ITER hits all its targets, how to translate that into a commercially
viable reactor remains somewhat unclear. That’s an
entirely different problem. That’ll take another 30
years at best. And whether the economics works
out is another question. Henderson says it’s impossible to say
right now what a fusion reactor would cost or if the
price point would be competitive. There is, however, a price
tag on ITER itself. And while it’s not cheap, it’s
not necessarily exorbitant for an undertaking of this magnitude. ITER is going to cost
roughly about 20 billion. It cost roughly about 120 billion in
today’s money to put Neil Armstrong on the moon. So we’re
a fraction of that cost. And yet what we’re offering is
countless of generations a clean, basically limitless energy source. It’s stupid we don’t do this. Despite the project’s obvious potential,
funding for ITER can be intermittent and unreliable, as countries
like the United States frequently change their contribution levels
in tandem with their election cycles and energy budgets. Right now we’re pretty much governed by
the electoral 4 year or 2 year cycle. We need to
be looking beyond that. Not everyone thinks fusion is
so integral to our survival. Fusion isn’t the only game out there. Fission is like
fusion’s ugly sibling. It’s like no one wants
to get involved with it. But that is the only technology that
we have outside of solar and other sorts of renewables, that we can
produce energy without carbon waste. Public opinion on nuclear fission remains
split, but many within the industry say the
controversy is undeserved. It’s controversial for those who
haven’t studied it carefully. For those who have studied
it carefully, it’s not. You look at mortality rates per unit
of energy produced and nuclear is the lowest of all. But there is
a fear because of its origins. Many proponents of nuclear say to look
back at the past to the accidents that happened is being naive about
the innovation and evolution of technologies. Microsoft’s Bill Gates is
one of these proponents. He’s intent on building safer and
more efficient fission reactors to reinvigorate the industry. In 2006, he founded TerraPower, a
nuclear reactor design company that’s working on building new
Generation 4 reactors. Most of the operating reactors around
the world today, of which there’s about 450, are Generation 2. Generation 3 plants are now being
built out in the U.S., in China, in Russia. Generation 4 plants, they represent
improvements in not just economics, but safety and waste reduction. So the reactors that we’re working on,
they operate not just at lower pressures, which should be less expensive
than today’s reactors, but they operate at higher temperatures. When you move to those higher
temperatures, you actually get a higher plant efficiency. Levesque also says
TerraPower’s reactors are “walk-away safe”. That means that during emergencies,
the plant will cool and stabilize itself without
an operator present. Furthermore, Levesque says the plant produces
80 percent less waste and requires less uranium enrichment,
allaying proliferation concerns. But getting new fission technologies off
the ground is an expensive endeavor, so companies like TerraPower
want government support, both to build out their tech and to help
them compete with cheaper power sources such as natural gas. The U.S. government does
this all the time. They did it in the case of hydraulic
fracturing, they did it in the case of wind and solar, and now
it’s time for the U.S. government to help demonstrate the next
phase of nuclear technology as well. Levesque estimates that
building TerraPower’s first demonstration reactor will cost more than a
billion dollars, ideally funded through a public-private partnership. I can’t have my grandchildren, let
alone my children, rely on fusion. This is something we’ve got to do
because it’s the one major system that we know we can build. It’s a matter
of how perfect we can make it, not whether it’ll work. So
here’s where we stand. Fission proponents want to upgrade
existing nuclear power plants and technologies. Fusion researchers say projects
like General Fusion and ITER need more investment from both public and
private sources in order to turn nuclear fusion into a reality. And climate change activists say the
world needs to decarbonize, using the resources we have now,
before it’s too late. We need to turn to fission, turn
to solar, turn to wind, turn to geothermal, turn to hydroelectric. Do whatever we can to get
off of the carbon addiction. Then, if the research and investment comes
to bear, we can turn to fusion to support our
rapidly growing population. I think fusion is
actually an inevitable thing. I think we will solve this problem. The key is to get it
there as fast as possible. How soon we’ll reach this fusion-powered
future remains up for debate. The first demonstration will happen in
about 10 years, I would think. By 2060 or 2070, the world is
likely to be largely powered by fusion. Near the turn of the century, or
maybe even a little bit beyond that. I think if the human race is still
around in the year 2500 and we look back, I would wager that
fusion plants will be there. However, these estimated timeframes may
rely heavily on how much government decides to invest
in fusion power. I think the question
is political will. To what extent are our governments
willing to spend the money to investigate these things? At this present rate and at this present
level of will, I don’t see it happening. If you were to ask me,
“What is the most challenging thing about fusion?”, I would not say holding
some hot gas at 150 million degrees Celsius. I actually
think it’s our mentality. We don’t think 5, 7,
12 generations down the road. A more realistic plan, a portfolio,
is probably to concentrate on various renewables and work on
improving standard fission. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And through the process of building a
machine like ITER, as well as building a machine like NIF, as well
as building a machine like General Fusion, we learn so that we can
then apply that to the next time. Yeah, it goes beyond our generation. But sorry, I don’t use
that as an excuse.

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