Another Fusion Failure Bites the Dust, Maybe

By Kennedy Maize (@kennedymaize)

Washington, D.C., 6 Oct. 2012 — A big science boondoggle bit the dust this month, giving the quest for fusion energy another black eye. But look for the high-energy physicists who have been living off of fusion confusion for more than a generation to mount a rescue mission, claiming somehow that it’s unfair to expect big science to produce even small practical results, regardless of the amount of money (yours and mine) spent.

As September passed into October, the federal government ended one fiscal year and began another. In the process, the $3.5 billion Congress has supplied – on a seemingly a limitless credit card – for the National Ignition Facility came to an end. This is a project, launched at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, that uses a fabulous array of lasers to try to confine the plasma needed for hydrogen atoms to fuse into helium, releasing almost unimaginable amounts of energy.

Many, too many, years ago I was a young reporter beginning to dig into U.S. energy issues, just as Congress was getting ready to create the U.S. Department of Energy out of a bunch of existing federal programs from places such as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Interior, and the remnants of the Atomic Energy Commission. I asked several fusion scientists just how long it would take to turn the science behind the hydrogen bomb into something useful for civilians, such as electricity. Their answer: about 25 years. At that point, the physicists had already put some 30 years into fusion research.

Two years ago, when I was researching my book on some of the embarrassments of big atomic science (“Too Dumb to Meter: Follies, Fiascoes, Dead Ends and Duds on the U.S. Road to Atomic Energy”), I planned to write a chapter on fusion. I found that the fusion boffins, after more than 60 years of well-funded research, had revised their estimates of how much longer it would take to turn the processes of the sun into electric generating plants. The guess now: 100 years.

Useful fusion energy, it turns out, recedes further into the future the more time and money is spent researching it. It is, in seems, a “fornever” fuel, although it’s a mighty nice full employment program for physicists.

During my years of writing about emerging energy technologies, I became friends with a fellow named Bob Hirsch, who is both an engineer and a PhD nuclear physicist. As a young man, he worked with the unlettered Mormon polymath Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of the television. Farnsworth also invented the only functioning practical demonstration of fusion energy not embedded in a warhead, the Farnsworth-Hirsch fusor, still in use today as a neutron source. Hirsch was hired in the 1960s to run the AEC’s fusion program, later ERDA’s fusion program. He got fired when he committed truth and told Congress that they and the executive branch were traveling at high speed down a dead end road.

Hirsch was particularly critical of the amount of money the government was spending on magnetic fusion, an approach that was trying magnetic fields to contain the pesky plasmas. Ultimately, with Hirsch long gone from government, Congress and the DOE reluctantly abandoned magnetic fusion, although it lives (with substantial U.S. money) in the $21 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project in France. The U.S. then focused on the laser approach, known as “inertial confinement,” in part because the program also offers a way to simulate atomic weapons explosions, useful since the civilized world has abandoned actual tests. The national security aspects of the program provided an extra funding rationale and an excuse to refuse to reveal much about how it all worked. Top secret, you know, except for well-placed leaks at budget time.

But Congress imposed a test on the NIF for 2012: achieve “break-even,” or briefly produce as much energy from the experiment as it consumes, by the end of the fiscal year or fold. The test failed, and it now remains to be seen if Congress will cut off the funds, or if the solons will fold and continue to fund the program.

NIF has followed the lead of its fusion predecessors in winning funding. The physicists always seem to come up with scientific breakthroughs – “almost” moments – timed to coincide with the congressional funding cycle. The phenomenon is well known to those of us who follow the ebbs and flows of Washington energy and science funding. In early March, for example, as the appropriators were making their annual forays into the science budget, Nature breathlessly proclaimed, “This could be the year that the National Ignition Facility (NIF) finally lives up to its name.” The magazine quoted Ed Moses, the director of the Livermore program, “We have all the capability to make it happen in fiscal year 2012.” Oops.

I decided not to include a chapter on fusion in my book, in part because it was conceivable that NIF might work, upending the organizing theme of failure. But I did include a bonus chapter on the book’s website.

The chapter detailed the cons, scams, frauds and fanaticism that have swarmed around fusion energy over the years. In that chapter, I mentioned NIF, brushing it off as “unlikely to produce useful energy, operating mostly as a job training project for rookie atomic weapons designers.” That judgment looks increasingly on the money, but it is still predictable that the scientists will scramble to restore the fusion credit card.