Fusion energy is a critical component of a balanced energy research portfolio

Fusion energy, similar to a cure for cancer, unification of the fundamental forces, and human space exploration, is a long-term scientific endeavor undertaken to benefit humanity; the ultimate outcome is, by the very definition of the challenge, uncertain. The desire to expand the boundaries of our understanding and improve our quality of life through science and technology, often in the presence of substantial uncertainty, has been the driver behind what scientist and historian Jacob Bronowski famously called “The Ascent of Man.”

Therefore, when Keith Yost writes in his March 6 opinion that the future of fusion energy is uncertain, he may be right; however, when he dismisses fusion energy as a worthless pursuit, he reveals a profound misunderstanding of the quintessence of the long-term scientific research that will be critical to solving many of the major issues in the 21st century. His argument can be easily summarized: “Failure to solve X problem in Y years with Z dollars means quit.” To demonstrate the absurdity of this argument, I challenge the reader to reread Yost’s article, replacing “fusion research” with “cancer research” where appropriate.

Yost correctly identifies many of the challenges inherent in fusion energy as well as many of its benefits, including abundant fuel, baseload power, inherent safety, and no long-lived nuclear waste. However, three critical corrections must be made to Yost’s article, which is essentially a carbon copy of a then-flawed and now-outdated opinion (“The quixotic search for the silver bullet.” The Tech, Volume 129, Issue 16, 2009.) that he already published in The Tech in 2009.

First, U.S. fusion research — which includes theoretical, space, laboratory, and industrial plasma physics — received approximately $300 million–$400 million per year for the past decade, an order of magnitude below the “few billion dollars” that Yost claims is “tossed” to U.S. fusion each year. Under fiscal year 2010 appropriations, in fact, fusion funding was on par with other energy research in the Department of Energy: efficiency ($629 million), coal ($404 million), solar ($247 million), biomass ($220 million), wind ($80 million), and geothermal ($44 million). (The Department of Energy; The FY11 Department of Energy Budget Request to Congress. Available at http://www.cfo.doe.gov/budget/11budget.)

Second, numerous peer-reviewed studies of fusion energy costs have been published, with most studies finding a cost of electricity between 5 and 12 cents per kilowatt-hour (e.g. F. Najmabadi et al. Fusion Engineering and Design, 80:3-23, 2006.; T. Hamacher and A. M. Bradshaw. “Fusion as a future power source.” “Proceedings of the 18th World Energy Congress”, 2001.) highly competitive with present forms of electricity and grossly at odds with Yost’s unsubstantiated claim that fusion will never be economical. Furthermore, under the four factors that Yost himself believes will make nuclear fission cost competitive at 8.4 cents per kilowatt-hour (reduced capital costs, reduced borrowing costs, a carbon tax, increased natural gas prices) , fusion energy would flourish, without even considering its advantages in nonproliferation and minimizing radioactive waste (K. Yost. “Did Fukushima kill the nuclear renaissance? No, that renaissance died right here at home.” The Tech, Volume 131, Issue 50, 2011.). Historically, tremendous advances in fusion research have steadily reduced the size of fusion reactor designs (decreasing capital and borrowing costs) while increasing fusion power density and thermal efficiency (increasing revenue for fixed costs). Present research, such as high power density in steady-state scenarios being carried out at MIT’s endangered Alcator C-Mod tokamak, is poised to achieve further crucial breakthroughs.

Third, according to the International Energy Agency’s report “Energy Technology Perspectives,” building a sustainable, global energy economy for the 21st century will require substantial investments in new and existing energy technology coupled to enabling policy. When Yost cites the importance of policy, he gets part of the solution correct: transformative policy must be implemented to capitalize on existing energy technology; however, he perplexingly derides the need for new technology as part of a multifaceted solution, dismissing much of his MIT peers’ life work as nothing more than being “born out of frustration, desperation, and self-deception.” Fortunately, governments around the world are increasingly investing in new energy technology while improving existing technology with retrofits and intelligent policy.

In a well-publicized 2005 report, “Energy Trends and Their Implication for US Army Installations,” the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stated: “Policy changes, leap ahead technology breakthroughs, cultural changes, and significant investment is requisite for [the] new energy future. Time is essential to enact these changes. The process should begin now.” Fusion energy research is an embodiment of this declaration, as recognized by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is an important part of a diverse portfolio of promising, advanced energy technologies that are presently being readied for deployment as the foundation upon which to build the energy infrastructure of the 21st century. More information on fusion energy can be found at http://www.fusionfuture.org.

Zach Hartwig is a graduate student in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering.

Keith Yost almost 6 years ago

I feel compelled to respond, but to write a letter or second article would be beating the horse to death.

Firstly, fusion research does not belong in the same bin with cancer research, space exploration, etc. To wit: a person with an incurable cancer has no options-- either society devotes the resources towards solving his disease, or he dies. But an electric utility has at least half a dozen practical means of boiling water for a turbine, with or without fusion power. The decision to tackle cancer involves an apples-to-oranges trade-off between resources and human life, but fusion is, and will always be apples-to-apples, steam for steam. This doesn't mean that some apples-to-oranges trade-offs shouldn't be rejected-- I'd gladly side against the Large Hadron Collider or NASA (and even some cancer research, if a compelling enough case was presented)-- but it does mean that the defenders of these projects can claim, as you do, that their research deserves some sacred shroud of protection. Who is to say how many apples are worth how many oranges? It is a value judgment, not easily made or dismissed. Fusion energy can hide behind no such value judgment, it wears no sacred shroud.

Secondly, "Failure to solve X problem in Y years with Z dollars means quit," is exactly the metric by which society should be allocating its savings. To wave your hand and say that "long term" research should be prioritized over other research, no matter how abysmal its rate of return, is economically unsound. You want to summarize my argument as "research projects should be prioritized by their rate of return to society." I don't see the problem.

Keith Yost almost 6 years ago

Thirdly, you are playing fast and loose with the numbers. I claimed a billion dollars per year is spent by the U.S. government on fusion, and you retort that the Department of Energy only spends 400 billion per year. These are not mutually exclusive statements, Mr. Hartwig. Add in the contributions from the other agencies of government, and you're beyond one billion easily.

Similarly, a 2001 paper that says fusion will cost between 5 and 12 cents per kWh is not incompatible with my statement that the heat island for fusion will cost 2-3x more than that of fission. The heat island is not the entirety of the cost, and inflation matters. But why defend myself against your paper? All it does is assume a learning curve and extrapolate out to 2100. They found that if they assume progress for 90 years, fusion would still not be economical! Your paper makes my point exactly. Of course, it does not need to resort to hand-waving assumptions of technological trends-- we can estimate for ourselves how large a future fusion reactor would be, assuming we could achieve a particular level of magnetic confinement. And on that basis, we would estimate a fusion plant cost well in excess of those offered by competing (and already functional) technologies.

Fourth, you like to fold fusion research into the broad category of "new energy technology," as if those opposed to wasteful research projects must be opposed to smart research projects as well. You do so many times in your closing paragraphs, quoting various boilerplate in government reports as evidence of how critical fusion must be to our energy future. So lets play a game. Replace fusion with "cold fusion" in your arguments, and then explain to me the distinction. If your arguments don't distinguish yourself from the funny men with garages full of jars with palladium electrodes stuck in them, then maybe they lack rigor, non?

My simple, two-part argument remains: If fusion does not have a reasonable chance of improving humanity's lot in life, then society should not be devoting scarce resources to it. And fusion does not have a reasonable chance of benefiting humanity.

Evan Davis almost 6 years ago

Hi Keith,

You are correct in pointing out that the 400 million (not billion, as your response states) per year only accounts for the budget of the DOE's Fusion Energy Sciences, and that fusion is also being "pursued" by the DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

However, the NNSA is charged with maintaining the nation's nuclear stockpile (i.e. nuclear bombs). As the US is faced with increasing pressure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would ban tests of nuclear bombs in all environments, the NNSA must find novel methods to maintain, improve, and ensure the safety of the nation's nuclear stockpile. Because certain inertial confinement fusion devices (laser fusion, z-pinches, etc) largely replicate the conditions present in an exploding nuclear bomb, the NNSA has invested heavily in these devices, most noticeably the multibillion dollar National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).

Having spent several months of the past year at LLNL, I was fortunate enough to tour the NIF twice, which I'm guessing is at least once more than you have. The tour guides are scientists and engineers intimately acquainted with the operation, management, and mission of the facility. The tour guides will flatly tell you that 80 of NIF's mission is weapons related. The other 20 is fusion and a small mix of basic science so I'm not convinced that Zach's 400 million/year is that far off.

It would be wonderful if NIF does obtain ignition and the mission of the facility shifts, but until then please do not lump a portion of the burgeoning defense budget into the already beleaguered budget for the development of a viable source of fusion energy. Thanks!

Evan Davis almost 6 years ago

Sorry, weird formatting issues... the above should state

"The tour guides will flatly tell you that 80 percent of NIF's mission is weapons related. The other 20 percent is fusion and a small mix of basic science..."