Nuclear Fusion Isn’t the Silver Bullet We Want It to Be

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I awoke on December 13 to news about what could be the most significant scientific breakthrough since the Food and Drug Administration authorized the first Covid vaccine for emergency use two years ago. This time, however, the achievement had nothing to do with that ongoing public health crisis. Instead, as The New York Times and CNN alerted me that morning, at stake was a new technology that could potentially solve the worst dilemma humanity faces: climate change and the desperate overheating of our planet. Net-energy-gain fusion, a long-sought-after panacea for all that’s wrong with traditional nuclear-fission energy (read accidents, radioactive waste), had finally been achieved at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

“This is such a wonderful example of a possibility realized, a scientific milestone achieved, and a road ahead to the possibilities for clean energy,” exclaimed White House science adviser Arati Prabhakar.

The New York Times was quick to follow Prabhakar’s lead, boasting that fusion is an “energy source devoid of the pollution and greenhouse gasses caused by the burning of fossil fuels.” Even Fox News, not exactly at the top of anyone’s list of places focused on climate change, jumped on the bandwagon, declaring fusion “a technology that has the potential to accelerate the planet’s shift away from fossil fuels and produce nearly limitless, carbon-free energy.”

All in all, the reviews for fusion were positively glowing and it seemed to make instant sense. What could possibly be wrong with something that might end our reliance on fossil fuels, even as it reduced the risks posed by our aging nuclear industry? The message, repeated again and again in the days that followed: this was a genuine global-warming game-changer.

After all, in the fusion process, no atoms have to be split to create heat. Gigantic lasers are used, not uranium, so there’s no toxic mining involved, nor do thousands of gallons of cold water have to be pumped in to cool overheated reactors, nor will there be radioactive waste byproducts lasting hundreds of thousands of years. And not a risk of a nuclear meltdown in sight! Fusion, so the cheery news went, is safe, effective, and efficient!

Or is it?

The Big Catch

On a very basic level, fusion is the stuff of stars. Within Earth’s sun, hydrogen combines with helium to create heat in the form of sunlight. Inside the walls of the Livermore Lab, this natural process was imitated by blasting 192 gigantic lasers into a tube the size of a baby’s toe. Inside that cylinder sat a “hydrogen-encased diamond.” When the laser shot through the small hole, it destroyed that diamond quicker than the blink of an eye. In doing so, it created a bunch of invisible X-rays that compressed a small pellet of deuterium and tritium, which scientists refer to as “heavy hydrogen.”

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