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The False Promise of Nuclear Fusion

We’ll never achieve unlimited energy. And for that perhaps we should be grateful.

Crawford Kilian 20 Dec

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

The media went wild on Dec. 13 when American scientists and officials reported the first instance of hydrogen fusion that actually produced more energy than they had pumped into it. By slamming hydrogen atoms together inside a tiny diamond shell, the force of 192 high-powered lasers had created helium and 3.15 megajoules of excess energy — “the equivalent,” according to one report, “of about three sticks of dynamite.”

The test had been conducted on Dec. 5 at the National Ignition Facility of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, east of the San Francisco Bay Area. The NIF promptly issued a long news release praising the scientists “whose work will help us solve humanity’s most complex and pressing problems, like providing clean power to combat climate change and maintaining a nuclear deterrent without nuclear testing.”

That nuclear-deterrent line said the quiet part out loud, just as a U.S. government official had in the press conference about the test. Marvin Adams, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s deputy director for defense programs, made it clear at the press conference that this and future tests would help in the design of better nuclear weapons, thereby enhancing the credibility of U.S. deterrence. Oh, and yes, we might someday see “basically unlimited” carbon-free energy.

That reminded me of a promise made in 1954 by Lewis Strauss, the then- chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Strauss pledged that atomic energy would someday create electricity “too cheap to meter.” Almost 70 years later, the Livermore test puts us no closer to that goal.

For this, I am very grateful. We will never achieve unlimited energy; if we tried, we would only destroy the planet even faster than we are doing now.

Consider a little thought experiment. Canadians currently consume a yearly average of 13,654 kilowatt hours per capita.

That’s the equivalent of 49,154,400 megajoules, or about 15,604,000 times the 3.15 megajoules generated at Livermore.

Fusion energy for every Canadian

Now let’s try to use fusion to provide the same amount of energy, on average, for each of 38.5 million Canadians. Assume that we can build one fusion plant per province, hook it up to the existing power grid and then disconnect the old infrastructure of dams, nuclear reactors and power generators burning fossil fuels. Assume optimistically that each fusion plant costs about $1 billion to build and start producing. We’d pay that off in a year or two from all the extra income we’d earn using energy (almost) too cheap to meter.

So we could clear cut forests for a fraction of today’s cost, mill the wood into lumber and build millions of new homes for a relative pittance. The same with new roads and bridges and airports.

Of course the fusion plants would require a lot of concrete, water and electricity just to build. Building electric logging trucks and other vehicles would require digging ore, smelting it, turning it into metal and then into parts. Such construction would add to our emissions.

We couldn’t completely shut down our fossil-fuel industries. We’d still need fossil fuels for long-range air transport — and especially for our military.

Speaking of fossils, imagine the response of petrostates from Saudi Arabia to Alberta if we embarked on a worldwide conversion to fusion energy. They would not welcome becoming mere energy boutiques.

Seventeen tons of GHGs per capita, every year

If we start our thought experiment on Jan. 1, 2023, we must still wait decades (and spend billions of dollars) before the first provincial fusion plant lights up on, say, Jan. 1, 2053. During those decades we will continue to pump out CO2 and methane at the current yearly rate of 17.83 tons per capita or more. (As per-capita emitters, we rank 12th out of 103 nations — just above the U.S. and just below Saudi Arabia.)

So we will build fusion plants during 30 years of wildfires, floods, droughts and famines. Water wars will rage — and fusion plants will need prodigious amounts of water to generate electricity. Immediate crises will take priority over long-range projects like fusion, postponing the day when plants go online (and raising costs far beyond the overruns of old-fashioned projects like TMX.)

As a result, even while building fusion plants we could be producing greenhouse gases on a “business as usual” scale, emissions by the 2050s could reach 43 billion metric tons, up from 35 billion in 2020.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development predicts that without sharp reductions in emissions, our atmosphere in 2050 will contain 650 parts per million of greenhouse gases — a 50 per cent increase from this year’s 417 ppm, and more than doubling the 310 ppm of 1941, when I was born.

By then we will be far beyond any hope of escaping hothouse Earth, no matter how many fusion plants we’ve built.

A disastrous delusion

Underlying the cheery dream of nuclear fusion is a disastrous delusion: that we can indefinitely increase our consumption and energy use as long as we don’t emit any more CO2 in the process. Moreover, even the poorest countries still aspire to the standards of living currently enjoyed in the “advanced” nations, though it’s clear such standards are unsustainable.

Like Hemingway’s character who went bankrupt, our economic and political collapse will happen slowly and then very rapidly.

This is why we have climate and biodiversity conferences that do nothing while emissions keep rising and the climate worsens. This is why nations jostle one another as if we all still lived in the age of expanding empires and colonial wars. We pretend it’s the 20th century, because in the 21st century the bills are coming due.

Compared to many countries, Canada could still be relatively well off by mid-century. With neither fusion nor fossil fuels, non-emitting sources like nuclear, hydro, solar and wind power could provide roughly 80 per cent of our present electricity needs.

But drought could sharply reduce the water available for hydro power and violent weather could hinder solar and wind energy generation.

We would be lucky to keep our air conditioners going in the heat domes of the 2050s.

Poverty or degrowth?

The only likely alternative to unsustainable prosperity is a standard of living we would define as abject, hand-to-mouth poverty — at least for the vast majority. We would consume very little energy by eating only locally produced food, walking or bicycling everywhere, and pooling resources with others in co-ops to purchase more expensive goods and services. And everything would be more expensive.

An unlikely alternative would be degrowth, but as the authors of a recent article explain that would require “scaling down destructive sectors such as fossil fuels, mass-produced meat and dairy, fast fashion, advertising, cars and aviation, including private jets.” Those who currently benefit from such economic sectors would bitterly resist being “scaled down.”

The impoverishment of the rich nations would be an unprecedented shock to their populations. After all, we have defined the good life, the meaningful life, as the consumption of ever-growing quantities of energy, goods and services. That life will become impossible.

Many would violently resist impoverishment by supporting far-right groups. They exist, after all, because their members already sense the catastrophe ahead and the end of the good life of high consumption. They blame it on scientists, academics, civil servants, health-care workers and the “woke.” Their targets are precisely the people needed to maintain a stable science-based society (with or without fusion stations).

For 70 years we have dreamed of consuming energy that would be too cheap to meter. Despite the success of the Livermore test, it seems likely that smallest package for sustained nuclear fusion is a star.

And that’s OK, if only we can choose to live poor rather than die rich.  [Tyee]

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