It is time for us, as a society, to finally acknowledge something we should have realized decades ago: nuclear fusion is a scam. The countless tens of billions of dollars that have been dumped into it have mostly been wasted. It’s not going to help to keep throwing money at the problem; we need to admit our collective mistake and stop throwing good money after bad.
How did things get this way? The biggest problem is that nuclear fusion is now an industry, just like the coal or oil or gas industry, except that it doesn’t actually produce anything. As any scientist will tell you, there’s little money in research, and most scientists are in it because they enjoy it, not to get rich. Nuclear fusion has, however, become an exception to this. Every year, billions of dollars are spent building more, and larger, nuclear fusion test reactors. The people in charge of these mammoth building projects, naturally, don’t want their funding to be cut off. And so, in order to ensure continued public support for fusion research, they have used a good chunk of the billions of dollars thrown at them to saturate their airwaves with propaganda, much of which is blatant lies.
According to the nuclear fusion propaganda machine, when we are finally able to build fusion power plants, it will solve all of our energy problems forever. We’ll have unlimited free energy. We won’t have any pollution from power plants. There won’t be any risk of explosions or catastrophes. We’ll have solved global warming. We won’t have to deal with the radioactivity of conventional (fission-based) nuclear power plants, and there’ll be no more radioactive waste. It would, indeed, be wonderful if all these things came true. However, unfortunately, it is all lies and misinformation.
In order to understand how all of these claims are either highly exaggerated or outright false, let’s take a look at how a future fusion power plant would work. Of course, to start off with, you need fuel. What kind of fuel would a fusion power plant run on? Two kinds, actually- deuterium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen, and lithium, a very reactive light metal used in rechargeable batteries. During the fusion process, the lithium atom is hit with a neutron, causing it to break up into tritium (a radioactive isotope of hydrogen) and helium. The tritium atom then collides with the deuterium atom at very high speed, creating more helium, and another neutron to start the process all over again.
According to fusion propaganda, the fusion reactors of the future will be “powered by water”. It is true that one of the fusion fuels, deuterium, can be found in seawater. However, this is extremely misleading, because seawater only contains a tiny amount of deuterium- 0.0032% by mass. And this 0.0032% is extremely hard to separate, because it’s chemically almost identical to regular hydrogen. Saying that a fusion power plant is “powered by water” is like saying that aluminum foil is “made out of rock”; there is, in fact, more than a thousand times more aluminum in rock than there is deuterium in water, and the aluminum is actually easier to extract. And this also ignores the other component of fusion fuel, lithium, which has to be mined out of a big hole in the ground like any other metal; lithium is also just as hard to get as deuterium. For instance, the Handbook of Lithium and Natural Calcium says, “Lithium is a comparatively rare element. Although it is found in many rocks and some brines, it is always in very low concentrations.”
With this knowledge, we can also expose the lie that fusion is the “power source of the stars”. It is, in fact, also true that stars run on nuclear fusion. However, the type of fusion that stars run on- the proton-proton chain reaction- is so inefficient that trying to use it on Earth would be utterly hopeless. Stars are actually very inefficient as power sources- luckily for us, because if they were more efficient, they would have burned through all their fuel ages ago. If we wanted to actually power our homes using “the power source of the Sun”, we would need six hundred and fifty metric tons of hydrogen, a power source which would weigh the same as fourteen Boeing 727 jumbo jets, just to run a single microwave. The reality is, the fact that the stars run on fusion has nothing whatsoever to do with whether fusion is a viable power source for our civilization.
Now, once we have the fuel, what do we do with it? We need to fuse it and turn it into electricity, and this requires a power plant- an extremely large, complicated, and expensive power plant. To build the power plant, we’re going to need thousands of tons of concrete. We’re going to need thousands of tons of steel. We’re going to need huge boilers, steam turbines, and generators to make the electricity. We’re going to need thousands of miles of very thick copper wires and huge transformers to get the electricity to the grid. We’re going to need workers to run it, workers to maintain it, and workers to refuel it. We’re going to need a huge pile of licenses and permits from the government, and lots of safety checks to make sure that no disasters happen, and much, much more besides. All of this costs money- lots and lots and lots of money. Hence, even if the fuel were free (which it is not), there’s no way we’re going to get power that’s “free” or “too cheap to meter”, because someone has to pay for all this stuff. Already, in many places, the cost of delivering power from the plant to the customer is more than half of people’s electric bills, and this isn’t going to go down, no matter how cheap power generation becomes.
All of this stuff also blows a hole in the claim that fusion power will be pollution-free. While it is true that a fusion plant itself won’t generate any pollutants, what about the process of building, maintaining, and fueling the plant? All of those thousands of tons of concrete and steel and wiring and structural supports need to be mined, processed, refined, transported, turned into power plant components, and assembled, and pollution is generated during every step of this process. Mining produces a ton of pollution. Heavy machinery to lift and move rock produces a ton of pollution. Chemically refining ore into metal produces a ton of pollution. Transporting the metal to the site of the power plant produces a ton of pollution. And assembling all the parts into place produces a ton of pollution. While a fusion plant is a lot cleaner than a coal plant or an oil plant, it is certainly not some sort of environmental panacea.
Now, how will this power plant turn fuel into electricity? Fusion advocates want you to believe that this requires some sort of miraculous, yet-undreamed-of innovation, so that they can justify large research budgets. However, the truth is, the largest and most successful fusion projects nowadays use the same basic technology that was in use thirty years ago- a magnetically contained, toroidal deuterium-tritium plasma, surrounded by a lithium blanket. Most of the money that goes into fusion has not been put into investigating new approaches, like inertial electrostatic confinement, that could produce better results. Instead, most of the money has just gone into taking old designs and scaling them up, making them bigger and more expensive. A full-scale, commercial fusion reactor would indeed be an extremely impressive engineering achievement. However, most of the effort doesn’t go into basic research; it goes into simply making the thing big enough to generate more power than it consumes.
The actual process of generating electricity from fusion is, conceptually, rather simple, though very difficult to implement. Once the deuterium and tritium nuclei have fused, they generate two particles- an alpha particle, or helium nucleus, which is positively charged, and a neutron, which is neutral. The alpha particle, because it is positively charged, remains in the fusion plasma (which is magnetically contained) and helps to keep the reaction going. The neutron flies off, and crashes into a lithium atom, generating more tritium for the reaction, and a great deal of heat. The heat is then used to boil water, which then drives a steam turbine and a generator, producing an electric current.
However, inevitably, some of these neutrons won’t hit a lithium atom. They’ll hit a magnet on the inside of the plant, or a concrete wall, or a wire, or something else that they weren’t supposed to hit. And when that happens, the atom that they hit will actually become radioactive, through a process known as neutron activation. There is no way to remove this radioactivity, other than just letting it slowly decay away, which might take decades or centuries. And so, we can also see that a fusion plant will, in fact, produce radioactive waste, because anything that gets within a certain distance of the reactor core will become radioactive and remain that way.
What if something goes wrong during this whole process? Sometimes, people point out that a nuclear fusion plant cannot undergo a nuclear chain reaction, and explode like an atomic bomb, because too little fuel is in the reactor at any one time for much of a reaction to happen. However, it is also impossible for a conventional (fission-based) power plant to explode like this, because there are two kinds of uranium, U-235 and U-238, and power plants have too little U-235 to create a bomb-style explosion. It is, in fact, extremely difficult to create a nuclear explosion, which is why the Manhattan Project needed so many bright scientists, and five years of hard work, to succeed; it is certainly not going to happen by accident.
What really happens during a nuclear power plant disaster is a chemical reaction. If the reactor overheats and breaks open, the coolant can leak into the reactor, causing a steam explosion which destroys the plant and scatters the radioactivity everywhere. This is what really happened at Chernobyl: the reactor overheated and broke open, causing the water surrounding the reactor core to come into contact with the hot graphite moderator, and all of the hot, high-pressure gas that the graphite/water reaction created made the reactor core explode. A fusion power plant is, if anything, even more vulnerable to this, because of the one key ingredient: lithium. Lithium is an extremely reactive element, and the lithium near the reactor core is kept very hot and liquified by the fusion plasma. If some water leaks into the lithium, it will explode on contact, and the explosion may well rip the reactor core open, causing an even bigger explosion and dumping dozens of tons of lithium into the environment (remember that the lithium, in addition to being toxic, is also radioactive from the high neutron flux near the reactor core).
Finally, there is one last lie left to expose: the idea that fusion power will free us from our dependence on foreign oil. Very little of our oil actually goes into generating electricity; out of all the electricity generated in the US in 2008, only 3% came from oil. Hence, even if we had unlimited free electricity tomorrow, our dependence on foreign oil would scarcely let up at all. What we really need are plants to take electricity, from whatever source (nuclear fission, fusion, wind, solar, hydro, geothermal), and use it to manufacture oil out of water and limestone. We’ve had the technology to do this for over eighty years; the Nazis used it during WWII to supplement their oil stocks, after the Allies captured the Romanian oil fields. All we need to do is to actually go out there and build the darn things. But we haven’t, because there’s been zero government support, and because oil prices have been quite low until very recently. If oil prices go high, and stay high for five years or more, that will begin to change.
Having said all this, is fusion better than some of the other alternatives for generating power? Yes. It is, in fact, better to have a fusion plant powering your city than a coal plant, because the coal plant will generate a great deal of smog and carbon dioxide, and because the coal plant will need to burn a lot more coal than the fusion plant will need to burn deuterium and lithium. But we don’t need to use dirty coal plants to generate our power. We already have safe, cheap, efficient, and well-tested power plant designs, such as those for thorium reactors, that will generate more electricity than we could ever possibly need, and don’t need sixty years and a hundred billion dollars to develop. Ironically, what has happened is that the backlash against nuclear fission reactors over the past thirty years has helped trigger a resurgence in the coal industry, which exacerbated global warming and covered our planet in pollution.