National Ignition Facility operators inspect a final optics assembly during a routine maintenance period in August. Photo credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Topics: Alternate Energy, Applied Physics, Climate Change, Energy, Global Warming, Lasers, Nuclear Fusion
After the heady, breathtaking coverage of pop science journalism, I dove into the grim world inhabited by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on their take on the first-ever fusion reaction. I can say that I wasn’t surprised. With all this publicity, it will probably get the Nobel Prize nomination (my guess). Cool Trekkie trivia: the National Ignition Facility was the backdrop for the Enterprise's warp core for Into Darkness.
This week’s headlines have been full of reports about a “major breakthrough” in nuclear fusion technology that, many of those reports misleadingly suggested, augurs a future of abundant clean energy produced by fusion nuclear power plants. To be sure, many of those reports lightly hedged their enthusiasm by noting that (as The Guardian put it) “major hurdles” to a fusion-powered world remain.
Indeed, they do.
The fusion achievement that the US Energy Department announced this week is scientifically significant, but the significance does not relate primarily to electricity generation. Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility, or NIF, focused the facility’s 192 lasers on a target containing a small capsule of deuterium–tritium fuel, compressing it and inducing what is known as ignition. In a written press release, the Energy Department described the achievement this way: “On December 5, a team at LLNL’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) conducted the first controlled fusion experiment in history to reach this [fusion ignition] milestone, also known as scientific energy breakeven, meaning it produced more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it. This historic, first-of-its-kind achievement will provide the unprecedented capability to support [the National Nuclear Security Administration’s] Stockpile Stewardship Program and will provide invaluable insights into the prospects of clean fusion energy, which would be a game-changer for efforts to achieve President Biden’s goal of a net-zero carbon economy.”
Because of how the Energy Department presented the breakthrough in a news conference headlined by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, news coverage has largely glossed over its implications for monitoring the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile. Instead, even many serious news outlets focused on the possibility of carbon-free, fusion-powered electricity generation—even though the NIF achievement has, at best, a distant and tangential connection to power production.
To get a balanced view of what the NIF breakthrough does and does not mean, I (John Mecklin) spoke this week with Bob Rosner, a physicist at the University of Chicago and a former director of the Argonne National Laboratory who has been a longtime member of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for readability.
See their chat at the link below.
The Energy Department’s fusion breakthrough: It’s not really about generating electricity, John Mecklin, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Editor-in-Chief