Fusion and the Holy Grail

Choosing poorly on the miracle technology
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In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, our hero dismisses the archaeological quest for Christ’s cup from the Last Supper as merely “an old man’s dream.” It is fitting, therefore, that among all the various energy technologies competing for the “Holy Grail” moniker, fusion power has now been sought for over a hundred years without much success.

There has been some success, as we shall see below. We’ve come a long way; we just don’t know how far we have left to go, because — if you listen to the theoreticians and experimentalists behind the latest headlines — we don’t really know where we’re going.

Let’s just assume we master all the technological challenges and make all the necessary investments in the public or private sectors. The point of this essay is not to provide an exhaustive history of the quest, nor to examine the technical path to deployment. Far abler chroniclers with deeper expertise are out there. The objective here is more limited: to pull, ever so gently, on the thread of fusion regulation and its relationship with nuclear security.

An Old Dream

Across the desert …

— Crusader inscription, translated by Dr. Jones, Jr.

A little history never hurt anybody. We can start the clock in 1920. In February of that year, the journal Nature reported the results of an experiment conducted by a British scientist named Francis William Aston. A future Nobel laureate, Aston’s job at the famous Cavendish Laboratory was to estimate the masses of chemical elements. At the time, it was believed that a single helium atom comprised four hydrogen atoms, suggesting that the mass of a single hydrogen should be exactly one-fourth the mass of a helium. Aston determined this was not, in fact, the case. Hydrogen atoms were just a smidge heavier than they should have been. When four hydrogen atoms fused into a helium, where did the extra mass go?

Enter Arthur Eddington, a British scientist who served essentially (but not merely) as Albert Einstein’s chief popularizer. In August of that year, Eddington delivered a lecture in which he described how stars in outer space were “drawing on some vast reservoir of energy by means unknown to us.” He then speculated that the case of the missing mass could now be solved: it is released as energy during the fusion process. Was the sun a fusion-powered furnace? If this hypothesis were vindicated, Eddington hoped, “it seems to bring a little nearer to fulfilment our dream of controlling this latent power for the well-being of the human race — or for its suicide.” Aston and Eddington didn’t get everything exactly right, but they got it mostly right.

Needless to say, the human race made greater strides toward the nightmare of suicide than the daydream of human flourishing. For the next century, the only application we found for fusion was in thermonuclear bombs.

Mt. Fusion

… and through the mountain …

— Crusader inscription, continued

Amazing things happen when you fire the world’s most powerful lasers into a tiny gold-plated cylinder that contains frozen elemental fuel encased in diamond. Some things implode, other things explode, and the result is a massive release of energy. That elemental fuel is hydrogen, and this reaction, as we have seen, is fusion.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California has been using this method to initiate fusion for years. Nobody paid much attention, because in every experiment it always took more energy to turn on the furnace than the furnace could generate. Costs exceeded revenue. Finally, in December 2022, the lab announced a positive return: the lasers delivered two megajoules and got three back, a tidy profit of one. The milestone of “ignition” had been achieved.

This success, as the lab’s fusion chief Omar Hurricane has explained, is the result of an explicit strategy to establish “basecamps” as the “mountain” of fusion was explored. The yield should be greater than the energy that makes it to the fuel — done! The yield should be greater than the energy that makes it to the capsule that holds the fuel — done! Burning plasma, smoother targets, better symmetry, more powerful lasers — done, done, done, done!

If ignition was achieved at Livermore in December, why couldn’t fusion power our grid right now? The answer: Notwithstanding the profit of one megajoule, the lasers themselves needed some three hundred megajoules to power up in the first place. Lab scientists freely disclosed the math in their technical presentations, but it was — weirdly — both widely reported and shrugged off.

That’s quite a deficit in energy terms, which means we’re still a long way off from generating power. It also means that a lot more funding will need to go toward this expensive research. But the fact that Livermore is one of three “weapons labs” owned by the well-funded National Nuclear Security Administration, the agency that oversees our stockpile of nuclear warheads, goes a long way in explaining how such an expensive expedition could be undertaken. (This is not to suggest that the NNSA’s role was hidden in any way, shape, or form. Its sponsorship was quite public and most of the officials involved in the press rollout were affiliated with NNSA or Livermore.) Knowing how to achieve ignition may someday help civilian fusion power efforts indirectly, but the main point is conducting fusion experiments without needing to detonate anything. It is not a power plant.

Which Chalice?

… to the Canyon of the Crescent Moon

— Crusader inscription, continued

Upon arrival at the Crusader temple near Alexandretta, Indiana Jones is faced with a series of “three challenges” before he can lay eyes upon the Holy Grail. He narrowly avoids losing his head and falling to his death. That’s a cake walk compared to deploying fusion power.

Connecting fusion reactors to the electric grid is not going to just happen — again, even assuming all the technological hurdles are overcome. During the shale oil and gas renaissance that unfolded over the past decade, the federal government was, and could afford to be, mostly a passive bystander. That will not be the case with fusion, which currently sits in a regulatory limbo.

Who will regulate fusion? Probably the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has asserted its jurisdictional primacy and which Congress has directed to develop fusion regulations. Writing in these pages last year, Thomas Hochman and Nate Hochman wrote of “the sluggishness of the nuclear regulatory bureaucracy” and described the travails of a different nuclear technology’s journey to deployment: advanced nuclear reactors. These fission-based pilgrims are theoretically much cheaper, much smaller, much better understood, and far closer to being connected to the power grid than anything on the fusion community’s horizon. Nonetheless, the NRC’s sluggishness is all but guaranteed to result in missed deadlines, blown budgets, and canceled projects. How on earth will fusion, which lassoes the sun down to earth, fare under this regime?

At the moment, the live question for the NRC is whether it should treat fusion projects as particle accelerators (Part 30 of Title 10) or as nuclear reactors (Part 50). This may sound like hopelessly obscure regulatory arcana, but it’s not: Particle accelerators can actually get built in the United States, whereas nuclear reactors — lately, anyway — cannot. Private industry obviously prefers the particle accelerator approach. Under the pending rulemaking, NRC staff have suggested a hybrid approach. Of course, there’s a fine line between a hybrid and a mutant.

And now we return to the scene of ignition. In addition to its stockpile stewardship mission, the National Nuclear Security Administration (along with related agencies) is also tasked with nonproliferation — that is, controlling the spread of nuclear weapons-related “knowledge, technology, and materials.” In 2013, the National Research Council published a report that identified several technical proliferation risks that “are real but are likely to be controllable.” Private industry and Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff both agree that the current array of fusion power-plant designs do not implicate proliferation.

But that could change. Opponents of fusion power, whether motivated by anti-growth ideology or something even more exotic, could employ the same combination of regulatory activism and litigation used to block infrastructure projects. Add to this the specter of a vague association with nuclear weapons, even if spurious, and they may have a predicate for political interference that co-opts the powerful nonproliferation bureaucracy to compel additional rulemaking, studies, and hearings.

Once again assuming that the technological challenges are overcome, the political leadership in the United States will have to decide that it wants to deploy fusion power, if fusion power is ever to be deployed. The reaction needs a catalyst to ignite.

Today, we are rapidly approaching Peak Holy Grail — at least in the world of energy policy. Some say it’s small modular reactors, others say lithium metal batteries, concentrated solar power, or hydrogen. If mastered, fusion power would be the holiest of these grails. As Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade nears resolution, the Grail Knight warns to “choose wisely” among the various cups on offer. With Sean Connery bleeding to death offscreen, Indiana knows that refusing to choose is itself a choice. It’s a close call.

Tristan Abbey, “Fusion and the Holy Grail,” The New Atlantis, Number 72, Spring 2023, pp. 127–131.
Header image: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory via ZUMA Press Wire Service / Alamy

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