National Commentary

What About Fusion Energy?

bentonmug

With the nuclear fission meltdown in Japan, gas prices at the pump in the U.S. beginning to soar as the summer months approach, and memories still fresh of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last spring, President Obama delivered a major speech on American energy security yesterday, setting a goal of reducing the nation’s imports of 11 million barrels of foreign oil a day by a third by 2025

With the nuclear fission meltdown in Japan, gas prices at the pump in the U.S. beginning to soar as the summer months approach, and memories still fresh of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last spring, President Obama delivered a major speech on American energy security yesterday, setting a goal of reducing the nation’s imports of 11 million barrels of foreign oil a day by a third by 2025

But superficial optimism and “can do” appeals to superior American ingenuity are hardly sufficient to fuel America’s future. Most alarming is what the President’s initiative didn’t even mention.

Every aspect of this subject is fraught with uncertainty, especially in these volatile times. The uncertainties are both political, in terms of how the ferment in the Middle East plays out over time, and technological, as the extent of the nuclear crisis in Japan is still not known and the potential for another oil production catastrophe, especially as the nation pushes to increase domestic production, remains unknown.

Then, one resource shortage potentially more devastating than an eventual exhaustion the world’s oil supplies – namely, of fresh water – looms before everyone on the planet, with no articulated policy to address this.

Still, as glaring as these omissions are in the policy initiative, the most critical oversight pertains to the potentially game-changing energy technology that isn’t even mentioned: controlled thermonuclear fusion power.

This is stunning. Ladies and gentlemen, the most overwhelmingly abundant, efficient and cheap form of energy production anywhere in the universe is staring us right in the face (at least when the sun is out).

Nuclear fusion is the process by which the sun burns. In its simplest form, it is the compression of atoms of hydrogen, by gravity or another force, to cause a powerful nuclear reaction.

On earth, the most abundant source of atoms of hydrogen is sea water (the “H” in “H20” being hydrogen). The challenge for scientists since efforts first began to replicate the process that causes the sun to burn has been to develop an environment where the fusion of the hydrogen atoms can occur in a stable way that captures the energy.

Over the years, this has been a big tripping point in fusion research. Whether an electromagnetic-contained doughnut-shaped configuration relying on compression can work, one where the reaction is triggered by a laser, or a combination of factors represent the best promise for success has not yet been established.

Efforts at developing a process called “cold fusion” gained some notoriety a couple decades back, but was thoroughly discredited, helping to cast a pall over the entire fusion effort.
It is perplexing how little many of our leading politicians and policy makers know about even the basics of fusion, which helps to explain why it is completely off the radar screen in the U.S. energy security strategy.

One leading Washington political figure I spoke to just this week, a man who is bright, progressive and who takes pride in being “cutting edge” on matters of new energy technology potentials, didn’t even know what fusion energy was.

In the usual political fashion of trying to pretend to know something about everything, when fusion came up, he sputtered something about it having to do with using energy supplied by the sun mixed with other things.

When I pushed to clarify the subject, it became clear that he didn’t have a clue.

For years, when the subject has come up, the overwhelming prevalent response has been a dismissive wave of the hand and declaration that if ever, the technology is far, far down the road.

But how can that be the case if the energy crises are as serious as they clearly are, and the potential of fusion is so massive?

In the 1970s, optimism about fusion was tempered only by the recognition that a massive government-led “Manhattan Project” scientific mobilization was needed to bring it to realization. But then came Reagan and the neo-cons insisting government should have nothing to do with anything so big, and now fusion sits, for all intents and purposes, locked in some basement filing cabinet.

One wonders if the Chinese aren’t quietly taking a much different approach.


Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected]