The Nuclear Option

I am seeing lot of articles likes this uncritically reporting a private company’s press release as news.  The gist of the article is that a start-up called “Commonwealth Fusion Systems” has gotten a $50M investment to build a prototype fusion reactor. They use this illustration:


which looks like a prety cool lego playset.

Their plan is to use the same basic design as ITER but I guess with a newer type of magnet and a budget that is 0.1% of ITER’s.

I find it frustrating because articles like this pop up every once in awhile and people share them as if they represent progress. This is another one from 4 years ago. It talks up the unimportant milestone of net energy production at the National Ignition Facility, where they use lasers to compress tiny fuel pellets to create fusion and study the dynamics of the reaction to understand nuclear bombs better. No one who knows anything about it thinks its a remotely reasonable way to create fusion power.

If you don’t know much about nuclear fusion watch this quick video. Commercial fusion is the best chance we have to completely replace the carbon based energy system on Earth. Fusion power and propulsion is THE technology that we need to do anything other than pure research in space outside of Earth orbit. We know how to make fusion. We have had commercial fusion generators for decades. They make energetic neutrons which are used for imaging the ground for resource extraction. Injecting enough energy into a plasma to generate fusion is just not that hard. You can do it at home.  Lightning does it. What has been hard is to make fusion generate more power than is put into the system. But we know that the necessary power input into a plasma to get it to fusion temperatures scales more slowly than the power output. So we know how to make fusion work. We just need bigger reactors.  That’s the whole thing. There are engineering unknowns and tons of potential optimizations, but we know at the most fundamental level how to make it work. Its not a scientific problem as much as a funding problem.

Its very strange to me that we know exactly what technology we need to develop to make enormous progress on multiple fronts. And that we are in a long term period of slow economic growth and excess capital. And yet people are happy to promote trivial markers of progress in fusion rather than demanding real sizable investment. Its like Black Lives Matter celebrating any traffic stop of a black person that doesn’t end in violence. Sorry, but it’s not good enough!

Now, the libertarian in me says that the private market will make the investments and figure it out, when it makes sense to do so. But, I am not a naive libertarian. I’m a realist. We need tinkering at scale to make this technology work. ITER is going to provide that but it was started during the Reagan administration and it is still far from done! The funding for it is a trickle. ITER should achieve positive net energy but it will never be a commercial plant. The current timeline doesn’t have a commercial plant being built until 2050 or later. It may just be the case that fusion has such large positive externalities and such large up front capital requirements that no corporations can really handle it. ITER is expected to cost something like $50 Billion, and produce no revenue. Uber has spent something like $12 Billion building its business and that’s a record for private corporations. Could a corporation or consortium of corporations really swallow a bill for $100 Billion or $200 Billion before it starts generating any revenue? It doesn’t seem like it. But the US federal government blows $200 Billion like its nothing.

Every year NASA spends nearly $20 Billion. The Department of Energy spends close to $30 Billion. The Department of Defense spends over $600 Billion! If we took $10 Billion from NASA (since fusion is absolutely essential for space travel), $5 Billion from the DOE (since its the future of energy) and $10 Billion from the DOD (since fusion must be important for national security and they waste so much money anyway) then you’d have $25 Billion every year to spend on developing fusion. That means we could build 5 ITERs in the US in a decade! No one, other than some bureaucrats, would even notice whatever pointless projects would have to be cut. That is the kind of investment we need. We need different designs at scale to optimize and bring down costs.

Mr. President, if you are reading this: Do you really want the fucking french to lead in this technology with the US providing only token contributions? The International Space Station was garbage. CERN is pointless. Fusion would be worth many $Trillions. Pleasea, put some real money for fusion in your infrastructure plan to build reactors in America with American workers and American steel!

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