No Crystal Ball for Fusion Power

Lawrence Livermore Nat'l Lab
Photo: Lawrence Livermore Nat'l Lab

Now here’s a guy with some historical perspective: For something north of a half-century, David Perlman has been covering science for the San Francisco Chronicle. On KQED’s Forum program this morning, he noted that “40 years ago, they said ‘in 20 years, we’ll have unlimited energy from fusion’.”

The record will show that we didn’t quite get there–but that hasn’t stopped them from trying. The long quest for bottled fusion will pass another milestone this week, when the US Dept. of Energy formally cuts the ribbon on the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Comparing the hardware with other titanic undertakings, like the CERN particle accelerator in Switzerland, Perlman called the 192-laser assembly “one of the most amazing machines–if it succeeds–and one probably won’t know for the next two, three years.”

That’s the hopeful time frame for creating fusion in a fuel pellet the size of a BB (artistically rendered in the image, above) Will they? Perlman says: “I would not dream of putting a bet on it.”

Nor would sparking some mini-fusion at NIF quickly translate to a national solution for clean, safe energy. Scaling that ignition up to practical size for reactors would likely require decades more.

A NIF technician appears to be gazing into a "crystal ball," which is actually used to amplify laser beams--but not much good for predicting the future. Photo: Lawrence Livermore National Lab
A NIF technician appears to be gazing into a "crystal ball." Precision-ground crystals are used to amplify laser beams--but not much good for seeing into the future. Photo: Lawrence Livermore National Lab

Earlier this week, in an interview with NASA scientist James Hansen, I asked him about the potential for nuclear power to make a comeback with new technology. Rather than waiting for fusion, Hansen favors the technology known as “fourth-generation nuclear,” which he says could “burn nearly all of the fuel, where at present, the nuclear technology that we’re using burns only one percent of the energy in the uranium.” From one percent to “nearly all” would represent a drastic reduction in the current radioactive waste problem.

There may be some wishful thinking in that. An early report published in the magazine 21st Century Science & Technology describes these “Generation IV” reactors as “about 50% more efficient than conventional nuclear reactors.”

Other nations have moved ahead with Gen-IV reactors. The French expect to have one under construction by 2020.

Meanwhile, as the US pursues a parallel Gen-IV research program, it will press on toward the Holy Grail of fusion with its Livermore megalaser, described by Perlman as “already a mini-Manhattan Project.” Costs so far have run to nearly triple the original budget of more than a billion dollars. DOE expects to spend $140 million per year to run the NIF. So, it would be–you know–nice if something comes of it.

No Crystal Ball for Fusion Power 28 May,2009Craig Miller

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Craig Miller

Craig is a former KQED Science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to that, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.

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