atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,
atomic_fungus
atomic_fungus

#156: Fusion is RSN ("Real Soon Now")

"RSN" is one of those acronyms which came from the computer world. It refers to a situation where an update or new release is due to come out, but keeps getting delayed. But it need not apply only to computer things.

A frequent riff in articles about fusion research is that commercial fusion reactors are about "thirty years away". All we have to do is give the scientists the money they need to build their research reactors, and in, oh, a few decades, we'll get sustained nuclear fusion which can be used to generate electricity.

The problem is, we have been told for the past forty years that fusion power was about 30 years away.

I can quite clearly remember reading articles in the 1980s which cited this figure. Twenty-odd years later we are no closer to commercial fusion reactors than we are to landing men on Mars or building a base on the moon. The state of fusion research has not managed to build even a test reactor which can hit the mystical "breakeven" threshold, the point at which the reactor produces as much power as it consumes.

When anyone writes an article about fusion power, it usually extols the benefits of fusion in contrast to the liabilities of fission power: little nuclear waste, the impossibility of meltdown, the abundance of fuel, and so on.

Although nuclear fusion would be a boon to mankind, it's still thirty years away from being commercially viable. Assuming that commercial fusion reactors actually become a reality in thirty years, that would make an even half-century since I started counting--and even longer since others did.

And, barring some incredible new technology, fusion reactors will not be "Mr. Fusion", as popularized in the Back to the Future movies. They will be enormous industrial installations, probably bigger, more complex, and much more expensive than ordinary commercial power plants. (Even fission power plants.)

Expect NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) types to have hissy fits over the construction of fusion plants. Expect environmentalists to file lawsuits. Expect all, in fact, of the usual suspects to stand in the way of the construction of fusion power plants, just as they stand in the way of all useful projects. The benefits and advantages of fusion won't matter to them. They won't understand (or care about) the difference between nuclear fusion and nuclear fission; "nuclear"="bad" and that's all they'll care about.

Nuclear fusion will not be the do-all, be-all cure for our energy woes. Nuclear fission was supposed to do that, and didn't--and fusion will fail to do so for many of the same reasons.

Before any kind of nuclear power can solve our energy problems, we must have a public which is educated enough to understand the issue, so that it cannot be scared by fearmongers.

In the meantime, keep on working on fusion. Just don't expect any miracles.
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