SocraticGadfly: Fusion power: Stop me if you've heard this before

July 10, 2011

Fusion power: Stop me if you've heard this before

Stewart C. Prager, the director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, a Department of Energy national laboratory, is giving us the old song-and-dance about how peaceful nuclear fusion power is just around the corner. He's also probably got ulterior motives for this, which I'll address at the end.

He says:
Seven partners — the European Union, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States — have teamed up on an experiment to produce 500 million watts of fusion power for 500 seconds and longer by 2020, demonstrating key scientific and engineering aspects of fusion at the scale of a reactor.

However, even though the United States is a contributor to this experiment, known as ITER, it has yet to commit to the full program needed to develop a domestic fusion reactor to produce electricity for the American power grid. Meanwhile other nations are moving forward to implement fusion as a key ingredient of their energy security.

Indeed, fusion research facilities more modern than anything in the United States are either under construction or operating in China, Germany, Japan and South Korea. The will and enthusiasm of governments in Asia to fill their energy needs with fusion, as soon as possible, is nearly palpable.

What has been lacking in the United States is the political and economic will. We need serious public investment to develop materials that can withstand the harsh fusion environment, sustain hot plasma indefinitely and integrate all these features in an experimental facility to produce continuous fusion power.

This won’t be cheap. A rough estimate is that it would take $30 billion and 20 years to go from the current state of research to the first working fusion reactor. But put in perspective, that sum is equal to about a week of domestic energy consumption, or about 2 percent of the annual energy expenditure of $1.5 trillion.

Fusion used to be an energy source for my generation’s grandchildren; now, plans across the world call for a demonstration power plant in about 20 years.
First, just because other countries are sinking more money into fusion than the U.S. doesn't guarantee they're right.

Second, his time/money estimates are what we've always heard from fusion folks, just like AI ones. There's no guarantee they're close to true; "rough estimate" is probably an understatement.

Third, desal for drinking water is pricey enough, and has environmental consequences of its own right now.

The ulterior motive? Prager works for DOE lab.

Given that the reality of the last space shuttle flight, and a hiatus of at least a few years in U.S. manned space flight is settling on on the collective minds of the scientific world, and given the hard-nosed debt talks in DC, etc., well ...

Expect more op-eds from this from more managers/administrators of federal labs, research centers, etc., whether in fusion, complemenary medicine pseudomedicine, nanotech or whatever.

Look at NASA's fake exobiology arsenic PR smokescreen earlier this year. We probably ain't seen nothing yet.

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