For American physicists like myself, there is much not to like in the 2019 budget request recently proposed for the Department of Energy. Funding for environmental science, especially anything having to do with climate change, is slashed; renewable energy is starved; and, perversely, fossil fuel development gets a massive injection of new cash.
How surprising it is, then, to discover at least one good idea in this document—albeit one that has caused consternation among many physicists. It is the call to rein in spending for fusion energy research. This includes the planned three-year ramping down and closing of a prominent laser fusion laboratory at the University of Rochester.
My experience of more than a dozen years in a government lab and in academia, working on both laser and magnetic fusion energy research, convinces me that this change is long overdue.
Beginning almost immediately after WWII, the governments of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. invested in programs to explore the possibility of exploiting nuclear fusion reactions for civilian energy production. Other technologically advanced nations joined in.
It was, for the first 60 years or so, a rational expenditure, as fossil fuels were finite and renewables were not capable of meeting the needs of an increasingly power-hungry civilization. And conventional nuclear fission power came with a host of serious problems.
But the joke that since 1950 practical fusion energy has been a decade away is a fair summary of the field. While some progress has been made, immense scientific and technological obstacles remain. We are still decades, and billions of dollars, away.
Over the past five years, the Department of Energy has spent over $2.2 billion on research related to fusion energy, with little to show for it. Meanwhile, a quiet revolution has taken place in the field of renewable energy, particularly in photovoltaic technology.
In purely economic terms, solar energy is now a better investment, considering the amount of energy returned per dollar spent, than any other form of energy. Increases in efficiency, decreases in manufacturing cost, and improvements in energy storage technology mean that renewables will soon be able to supply all of our energy needs, if we have the political will to build the infrastructure.
It may take decades, but it is a project that we know can succeed. There are no fundamental obstacles in the way, as with fusion energy.
Even if we could figure out how to build a viable commercial fusion power plant tomorrow, we wouldn’t want to. Despite the breathless exclamations about “limitless, cheap, clean energy,” fusion power would be none of those things. Nuclear fusion creates radioactive by-products, a proliferation hazard, and requires, in most of its practical forms, the extraction of a rare and extremely hazardous material.
Fusion research in some form should continue, to provide experimental data that we used to get from atomic tests. But the success of renewable energy has rendered irrational the continued expenditure of vast sums in the pursuit of an ever-receding dream of civilian fusion power.
In the coming months, Congress will wrangle over the nation’s budget, using the administration’s proposal as a starting point. It may be vain to hope they will reject some of its terrible ideas, and increase funding for climate science and renewable energy. But I hope it’s not unrealistic to think they may take this opportunity to end the distortion of our applied science programs’ priorities and budgets caused by the fusion energy pipe dream.
It is time to cut our losses, to stop chasing the fusion chimera, and to spend the money saved on programs that will be of some real benefit to future generations.
Lee Phillips, a former research physicist for the Naval Research Laboratory, has worked on projects for DOE, NASA and the Navy, and is writing a book about German mathematician Emmy Noether. He lives in McLean, Virginia. This column was written for the Progressive Media Project, affiliated with The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.