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ChinaTalk: Nuclear Fusion: Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Today US Department of Energy Secretary Granholm announced a nuclear fusion breakthrough at Livermore Labs. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to be getting commercially viable fusion reactors anytime soon.

Economist Eli Dourado wrote in a piece today: “Nuclear fusion has long been hailed as the next great energy source, capable of providing nearly limitless power without the harmful emissions and waste associated with other forms of energy generation. This week, the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced that it had achieved “ignition,” which occurs when the energy output from plasma in a fusion reactor exceeds the energy put into the plasma. With continued investment from government and the private sector, we are likely to see many such scientific milestones reached in the next few years.  

it is important to be wary. Many of these milestones have little bearing on the commercial viability of nuclear fusion. Despite the press releases, the National Ignition Facility conducts weapons tests, not clean-energy research. There is no realistic path from the kind of fusion being celebrated this week to any sort of commercial project. To a lesser extent, that may also be true of progress that we’re seeing in other fusion projects, even commercial ones.”

In the 1970s, many thought we were only a few years away from fusion, but here we are today still burning oil, gas and coal. To explore why, I wanted to repost a fantastic episode of a podcast from a friend of the show. Ben Reinhardt is the host of the Idea Machines podcast, a show that explores innovation systems from history and today. In this episode, Ben interviews Stephen Dean, who was present at the creation of America’s investment in fusion in the mid-70s and has been working in the space ever since. It’s a fascinating exploration of how government-funded science can fail us. Ben Reinhardt is also the creator of PARPA, a private sector DARPA aiming to “unlock robust technology to open new frontiers” which you can check out at parpa.org. This show was recorded in 2021.

Click here to listen to ChinaTalk in your favorite podcast app.

Here’s the link to the plan discussed in the podcast: https://fire.pppl.gov/us_fusion_plan_1976.pdf

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