This is my eighth – and likely final – column on the absolute necessity of America’s reassuming the lead in developing nuclear fusion (not fission) as the last best hope for our own energy supply, and that of the whole world.
If you haven’t read any of the first seven, I hope you will. They’re archived here. My basic point is this: While we and our government fumble around debating the pros and cons of oil, gas, coal, solar, wind – and algae, for Pete’s sake! – we’re running out of all fossil fuels, and before the end of this century they’ll be used up.
That’s just fact.
Then what? Currently, a world powered by nuclear fission – with the constant threat of meltdowns, malfunction, megatons of radioactive waste and questions about the earth’s supply of the necessary fuel (uranium, thorium, etc.) for thousands of fission plants – paints a bleak, dangerous Orwellian picture.
So, what’s the answer?
Look up. Whether cloaked by clouds or shining ever brightly, the sun is supplying light and energy not just for our planet, but the whole solar system. And it is a nuclear fusion reactor, pure and simple!
For untold millennia, this giant fireball in the heavens has been furiously fusing various forms of hydrogen, combining them – fusing them – into helium, and releasing unimaginable heat, creating and sustaining life anywhere it is found.
As detailed earlier, American scientists, sometimes working with counterparts in Russia and elsewhere, have been seeking the way to create and harness this vast, inexhaustible power source for all of us. For over 50 years, brilliant visionaries like Dr. Edward Teller have made significant strides, utilizing Einstein’s E=MC2 and proving that that energy and mass are interchangeable – and that when (not if) we can apply and control sufficient heat to the process, a little bit of solid matter can be converted to massive amounts of usable energy!
America was always the “lead horse.” Terrific labs such as Los Alamos National Laboratories, Sandia National Labs and Lawrence Livermore National Labs were focused on the use of lasers to produce X-rays, to implement Teller’s concept of triggering fusion reactions in hydrogen. Excitement was building.
Inspired by Dr. Teller’s work, and his prophetic warning to keep people informed, a Michigan physics professor named Dr. Keeve (Kip) Siegel formed the first and only private-sector company to pursue controlled fusion research using lasers. In the early 1970s, he formed KMS Industries, with the goal of successfully achieving laser inertial fusion energy.
With private funding, on May 1, 1974, KMS carried out the world’s first successful laser-induced fusion reaction in the laboratory, using deuterium-tritium in pellets. His breakthrough was acknowledged by our Energy Department and leading scientists around the world, including France and Russia. In December 1974, Forbes Magazine published a story about KMS … and the government’s attempts to shut it down!
What? You heard me. Shut it down. Because of pressure from rabid anti-nuclear groups (and the government’s insistence this should be controlled by them, not private industry), Dr. Siegel was brought before Congress to testify on what he and his company had proven in the area of nuclear fusion power and his research. It was not the most hospitable environment – and Dr. Siegel, only 52 years old, died of a stroke, in the hearing, before he could complete his testimony before the American people.
Since that day, almost 40 years ago, our progress toward controlled fusion has slowed to a crawl. And the clock keeps ticking toward doomsday.
Oh, our government has spent hundreds of millions over those years, creating the Department of Energy Organization Act of 1977, combining efforts of a host of organizations and experiments, and consolidating all of it into the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Well-meaning and all, but almost every bureaucracy grows large, complex and grinds exceeding slow.
Since 1999, the NNSA, a DOE sub-agency, has controlled nuclear stockpile stewardship programs, spending roughly $11 billion a year watching over the huge pile of nuclear weaponry, which we thankfully have never used and have no intention of using unless provoked unavoidably.
Isn’t it obvious? If we spent far less than that, say $1 billion a year – we could create a nuclear fusion supply of energy for us and the whole world! Might that not be a better peacekeeping program than continuing to store enough weaponry to destroy mankind?
If our government saw the light (no Einstein pun intended), it could retake the lead in fusion development. But it’s not going to happen. The Obama administration, while adding trillions to our national debt in other areas, is trying to force DOE cutbacks, shutting down MIT’s fusion program altogether in 2013, halting work for the 100 highly trained staff members and 30 graduate students. A letter from directors of MIT, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, and General Atomics, with other U.S. fusion scientists, stated: “If implemented, the $49 million cut will result in the layoff of hundreds of fusion scientists, engineers, graduate students, and support personnel” and “will demote the U.S. program to a second-tier player in the world fusion effort.”
Meanwhile, China, seeing an incredible opportunity to control energy forever, has mandated that its University system graduate 2,000 Ph.D.-level scientists specifically in high energy physics and plasma fields to build China’s already robust internal fusion development programs. Do you get it now?
In my fifth article, “There is Hope for the World,” I mentioned scientists coming together at a workshop. In December 2011 a presentation was made by Los Alamos National Laboratories physicists on a very promising branch of fusion called Pulsed Jet Magneto Inertial Fusion or PJMIF. This may be a migration path to lower-cost fusion as the LANL presentation included a budget and time line for a Demonstration PJMIF power station at a cost less than $1.5 billion and in 15 years.
Guess what? Just a few days ago, April 27, the physicists were informed by the Office of Fusion Science Energy (DOE), their project is canceled effective May 31!
This, just as Lawrence Livermore National Labs National Ignition Facility (NIF) is making breakthroughs using lasers to compress hydrogen in pellets using pulsed power – Dr. Siegel’s vision! NIF is close to fusion “ignition,” the brief but sustained release of energy resulting from the fusion process. In a recent meeting, the director of Laser Fusion Energy and Photon Science at NIF, Mike Dunne, told my friend Tom Tamarkin: “Ignition is the point at which the fusion fuel no longer needs an external source of energy. It’s like kindling to a long-burning wood fire, necessary to get it started … after which the fire no longer needs the ignition. …”
Friend, fellow citizen, America – and indeed, the world, the earth and its people – hangs in the balance. Two choices. We as an informed and aroused citizenry can prevail on our leaders who have billions and trillions of our tax money to direct, to get back on track and push America to the head of the line, so that we control future energy, not China. Or we must reach our industrial leaders, the actual geniuses who birthed and grew the Internet, cellular communication, atomic energy, supersonic travel to the moon and outer space … with and without governmental help. It’s up to us. Social media like Facebook’s energy awareness can help.
I believe in the latter course. It’s reliably estimated now that less than $30 billion expended over 10 years, with our already proven scientists and techniques, will bring nuclear fusion to the world; some say less than $10 billion.
Other governments are moving diligently to do it; ours likely won’t. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett together could do it and still have billions left over. But will they?
“Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.” Which of our good and capable visionaries will come to our aid, while there’s still time?