Nuclear Fusion And The Myth Of Progress

The National Ignition Facility Target Chamber | Wikipedia

The news cycle in recent days was full of gushing stories about the ‘breakthrough’ in nuclear fusion announced by the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California last week. The typical headline talked about the potential for “unlimited clean energy” or something similar along those lines.

As a physicist, for me these stories trigger both excitement and despair. Whilst interesting from a science point of view, these stories are better understood as an example of the struggle to keep the ‘progress’ narrative alive in a world where things are going back over fast as energy and minerals shortages begin to bite.

In a long-forgotten past (only a couple decades ago) announcing a ‘breakthrough’ had meaning and usually some practical implications. With the nuclear fusion story last week, we are supposed to get excited about generating 3MJ of energy from the 300MJ of energy actually consumed by the 192 lasers. The trick in the ‘successful fusion’ announcement and in the dutiful regurgitation by the news media lies in neglecting the energy conversion costs of the lasers. The useful laser energy applied to heating the 1mm fuel pellet was 2MJ, so yes technically there was an ‘energy gain’.

Whilst some reports did mention the fact that the energy gain was ignoring 99% of the energy applied to achieve ignition, overall it reflects a rather sad state of affairs in the standard of science reporting. The official press release at the NIF doesn’t help either, as it neglects to mention the additional 298MJ required to deliver 2MJ of energy to the target. The press release does mention that the NIF secured a record allocation in the new US defence budget, though. Which probability tells us what the announcement was really about.

From a practical point of view in providing “unlimited clean energy” this ‘breakthrough’ has almost zero relevance. Apart from the issue of how to overcome the <1% energy conversion efficiency of the lasers, the pellets use tritium which costs about US$30,000 per gram and the total world stockpile of tritium is 25kg! Further, at present it takes 4-8 hours between laser firings at the NIF. That would need to be reduced to less than 0.1 seconds to become useful in terms of generating energy commercially. Which creates the problem of moving the next pellet into place after the mechanism that holds it with the extreme precision required is destroyed after each firing. Which nobody has ever proposed even a schematic solution for, yet.

In short, the breakthrough is not a breakthrough, it is at best a baby step and probably not even a baby step in the right direction. So, the question arises how and why it generated so much widespread attention by the news media. This is where the myth of progress and the link to our addiction to never-ending economic growth comes into play.

To ‘solve’ our current problems with climate change, biodiversity loss and energy shortages the only acceptable solution is more science, more progress and more growth. Every other option, like reducing consumption and drastically constraining individual choices, is taboo. This is not just a result of capitalist logic; it is the result of a deeper ‘theology’ that capitalism has co-evolved with.

In this theology we are the masters of Earth, the conquerors of nature and we have achieved a god-like status of being all-powerful and, having more than doubled our life expectancy, become nearly immortal. The ultimate purpose of all this ‘progress’ is to leave our biological roots behind and be able to live anywhere (in space, on Mars etc.) and ideally forever. This is not just the billionaire’s dream; it is a collective delusion. Musk has over 100 million Twitter followers because the majority of us share his dream of colonising Mars and putting computers in your brain.

The dream of becoming ever more god-like requires repeating what has worked in the past – extracting and using more natural resources and, once that becomes impossible due to Earth’s constraints, using ‘unlimited’ energy sources like nuclear fusion. So, the excitement in the press about even a tiny breakthrough on the road to unlimited energy is not really about nuclear fusion, it is about still ‘making progress’. If we have to destroy nature in the process, well that’s a price worth paying.

Rationally, we may know that this is not going to work out. But we are not rational creatures. We prefer the collective delusion, the prospect of heaven on Earth, the dream transcending nature and its constraints. We are addicted to things getting ‘better’, without really knowing what that means. And we haven’t got any happier since WWII, despite all of the ‘progress’ we have made over the last 75 years:

It is much easier to cling to the progress myth for as long as we can than come up with an alternative that would appeal to the majority of people today. The National Ignition Facility will get more money to continue making ‘breakthroughs’ until the money runs out. Which isn’t too far away, but far enough to pretend we are still on the right track.

Peter Lanius

Peter Lanius is a physicist by training who has worked in IT, Telecoms and as an executive coach across many industries. He believes in collapsing early to avoid the rush and lives on a 20acre property in regional Australia.