Why Fusion Power Isn’t Happening

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In 1961, Kennedy said, “Hey, Russia. We saw your Sputnik, and that was cool. But hey, guess what? We’re going to put a dude on the moon. That’s right. That moon.”

And we did. In 1969, Neil Armstrong ambulated in a way that was at once small and giant, once again proving that distance is dependent on perception–without a doubt the most important discovery of the Apollo missions.

So that’s why things like this are really frustrating. Why is it that this so complicated? I would really like it if someone could explain to me why it takes fifteen years to build a nuclear reactor, when Wal-Mart can throw up a store in seven weeks? Is it a question of money? They’ve got the design already. What is it that costs so much?

We used to be able to set a goal and meet it. What went wrong? Is it a matter of money? Motivation? Are we simply not smart enough?

What is this barrier that’s preventing us from cranking out a working tokamak in six months? The design and the technology exist today. If it’s a problem of motivation, perhaps it’s that we don’t have anybody with a forceful enough personality to come out and say, “Here’s how shit’s going down, so listen up.” We need an Alexander. We need a Genghis. We need a freaking Kennedy. And none of the old, red-faced, boring Kennedys. We need the young Kennedy who told us we could land on the moon. Nuclear fusion should be a walk in the park by comparison. I had high hopes for Obama. I’m not seeing the results that I want, but I haven’t given up on him. Yet.

We know that there’s an astonishing amount of money locked up in hydrogen. The math is solid and so is the physics. It’s a given. It’s clean energy. It solves almost all of the energy problems that currently plague us. It’s as abundant as stray cats in Rome.

The deputy director of the project says, “you really need to know whether the major components work. It’s absolutely clear that this is the right approach.” I’m not so sure. But I can see a couple of different perspectives.

It’s entirely likely that this is a situation where we have too many hands in the pot. It’s great to see an international project that brings people together into a unified goal. But when that goal is just a huge, inefficient money sink, then it’s not serving anyone’s needs. My problem is the fact that this is actually something that we need. This needs to happen or we’re all screwed. Fifteen years is too long to wait for a solution to our budding energy crisis. We need it like yesterday.

Maybe it wasn’t Kennedy that was our motivator. Maybe it was the Russians. It was a threat that the Russians were going to beat us to the moon that really kicked the space race into high gear. What we need is the new millennium’s Russia. Terrorism is obviously not it because they’re not strong enough, not pervasive enough, and nobody really takes them seriously. There’s no palpable fear. We need a threat the size of Russia during the Cold War to drive us toward what we’re actually capable of. Alien invasion, maybe?

Perhaps the guy is right. Maybe the fusion project actually is too big to complete without the kind of bureaucratic machine behind this one. If that’s the case, then I have my doubts about whether we’re capable of such a feat. I mean, look at the Large Hadron Collider. It was proposed and approved in 1995. Fourteen years ago, we decided to build it. That means that it was theoretically possible for us to build it fifteen years ago. This means that technology has not improved in that time. It was beset by problems and delays and other nonsense and despite the fact that it was successfully activated, it broke pretty much right away.

If we extrapolate that out, assume that the same level of ineptitude is likely to plague this fusion project, there’s very little hope that this thing will be operational until 2050, far too late to solve any of our energy problems.

Our only option, as far as I can see, is to not hold our breaths on this one. Our current attitude toward goal-setting is pretty loose. In the 60’s we set goals and we met them. We don’t really do that so much anymore. Multiple sources of energy are going to be needed to fill the gaping hole left when oil prices get too high. Solar, wind, and possibly good old fashioned nuclear fission. Fusion is probably going to remain a pipe dream for some time yet.

Bummer.

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