The Climate Column

Nuclear fusion is an expensive delusion – so of course this government is right behind it

It’s time to redirect the billions being squandered in fusion energy and invest in solutions to the climate crisis that actually work, writes Donnachadh McCarthy

Friday 18 February 2022 12:17 GMT
The UK’s JET Fusion programme only produced enough energy to boil 60 kettles
The UK’s JET Fusion programme only produced enough energy to boil 60 kettles (PA)

It is time to end the fusion delusion. Last week, there were headlines (again) about a “major breakthrough” in the search for unlimited, cheap, carbon-free electricity from nuclear fusion reactors.

Breathless announcements suggested that the UK’s 38-year-old JET Fusion programme had finally produced 11 megawatts of heat energy for five seconds. To the average person on the street that sounded impressive.

But it equates to the energy needed to boil a measly 60 kettles. Even more unimpressive, but a crucially important question that the headlines missed, was: how much energy had to be put into the Jet machine to get these 11 megawatts (MW) out?

So we decided to ask the UK Atomic Energy Agency (UK AEA), whose sole mission is to research and produce a working fusion electricity plant and who carried out last week’s experiment.

The sad truth is that they admitted that they actually had to put 40 MW of heat into the plasma to produce 11 MW of sustained fusion heat for five seconds. They added: “It is no secret JET uses a lot of energy. It was designed in the 1970s with copper magnets and will soon pass the baton to more energy-efficient experiments.

“Of course, the ultimate success of fusion could solve energy problems in the future. The results announced last week prove we’re getting closer.”

They went on: “ITER, the larger and more advanced upgrade in France, will use superconducting magnets to drastically lower the energy cost [...] ITER aims to release 500 MW of fusion heat using only 50 MW of external heating, and if you consider the power consumption of this entire experimental facility, it will break even.”

The italics are mine – this hugely expensive new fusion experiment is not expected to produce a single net kWh of electricity.

Thus, after literally a hundred years of research, since Arthur Eddington first postulated that nuclear fusion could be the stellar energy source, and untold billions of pounds invested by various governments ever since to try and replicate the creation of a mini star on earth, we still cannot produce a single net kWh of energy.

The fusion “industry” is always promising us unlimited clean energy in two to three decades time, but the cruel truth is that despite yet another annual flurry of “breakthrough” headlines, the fusion Holy Grail remains as illusory as the Grail itself.

Despite all these wasted billions, Boris Johnson’s government, as part of its supposed “10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution”, stated: “Our ambition is to be the first country to commercialise fusion energy, enabling low carbon and continuous power generation.”

It pledged another £222m for the spherical tokamak programme which “aims” to build the world’s first commercially viable fusion power plant by 2040, and another £184m to help found a global hub for fusion innovation in the UK.

But in response to an excited BBC interviewer asking a fusion spokesperson when she might be able to boil her kettle with fusion energy, they said possibly in the 2050s. So, two years after the Johnson 2040 fusion promise, the delivery date is again delayed to three decades hence at the earliest.

Even if fusion is delivered then, it is far too late to help us reduce even one ton of CO2 by the net-zero deadline dictated by the science of 2030.

But behind the headlines lies another really dirty truth about the UK AEA fusion experiments. Over just the last four years, it has consumed an eye-watering 232 million kWh of electricity to run its projects. Not a single kilowatt of the electricity used was from a renewable energy supplier. It also consumed 23 million kWh of fossil fuel gas and emitted 70,000 tons of CO2. In addition, they used 349 million litres of water and 11.75 million sheets of photocopying paper.

Over £0.5billion has been poured into the AEA fusion project over the last three years alone, with £100s of millions more planned over the coming decades.

Just this three year AEA budget would have insulated the roofs of 1.6 million poor people’s homes and thus reduced their heating bills and heating carbon emissions by 25 per cent. It costs just £300 to insulate the average semi-detached roof.

Even if fusion can eventually produce more electricity than that required to run the fusion plant, it is likely to be far more expensive than using renewables, energy efficiency and storage to eliminate carbon emissions.

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Daniel Jassby spent 25 years as a senior fusion researcher at the Princeton Plasma Research Laboratory. In a shocking expose for the Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists, he explained that even if an operating plant were successfully launched, it would require mind-boggling amounts of water to cool it and a large labour force to keep it operational and safe.

And while fusion, unlike nuclear fission, does not risk a disastrous nuclear meltdown if the plant goes awry, the amount of radioactive waste, whilst being less radioactive than fission, is many times larger. This is a huge problem as no nation has yet satisfactorily solved how to safely store radioactive waste.

He also points out that fusion plants can readily produce the enriched plutonium-239 used in nuclear bombs and so would pose a potential major nuclear proliferation risk. Fusion is the perfect metaphor for the UK government’s policies on climate action. All PR bluster and a refusal to get a grip with the reality that the climate emergency needs action now and not in 30 years.

It is time to halt this fusion delusion and instead invest the billions being squandered, in technologies and solutions that we know can actually work in time to potentially save us from catastrophe.

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