Nuclear Fusion, Shiny Objects, and Glitzy Desserts
An advance in basic research makes nuclear fusion the latest shiny object in energy technology. It mustn’t distract from real decarbonization options that are already set for prime time.
With this week’s announcement of a breakthrough in nuclear fusion research, the latest shiny object in energy officially landed.
Scientists and politicians waxed enthusiastic after 192 lasers at California’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory bombarded a small hydrogen pellet with just over two megajoules of energy and freed up three megajoules of heat, the first time after 70 years of trying that a fusion reaction produced more energy than it consumed.
The experiment ran less than 100 trillionths of a second. It didn’t take much longer to cue the over-the-top celebration.
“Fusion breakthrough is a milestone for climate, clean energy,” The Associated Press headlined.
“Fusion breakthrough could be climate, energy game-changer,” the Globe and Mail enthused.
In fairness, the actual news coverage behind the headlines was more measured, pointing out that practical uses for nuclear fusion are decades away at best.
But the hype isn’t new. A few years ago, one of my daughter’s profs wowed her college class with the idea that nuclear fusion was right around the corner—just as its boosters have claimed since the 1970s or longer. We agreed that if fusion was a viable option by the time she graduated, I would owe her a glitzy dessert. If not, she would buy.
In the end, I bought the dessert because I’d phrased the question imprecisely. I still won the bet because I got to have a glitzy dessert with my daughter.
But it’s a lot tougher to reframe the win if the attention to nuclear fusion draws time, attention, and dollars away from real-world options to drive down emissions and get the climate emergency under control.