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Will fusion kill the climate debate?

I keep a weather eye on developments in the nuclear fusion field, although always with an eye to the oft-levelled criticism that practical fusion is just 30 years away and always has been. 

But last week I did start to get a bit more excited when I learned that the Chinese have managed to contain hydrogen plasma at  50 million degrees C for nearly two minutes. The shift from fractions of a second to minutes seems, to me at least, to bring about a change in perception. We are dealing with an engineering problem rather than a science problem.

Windfarms are already redundant - they have never been anything else - but perhaps they are going to be joined on the scrapheap by oil and gas much sooner than we thought.

Although of course we'll still have to deal with the green protests first.

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Reader Comments (83)

How long before the green fascists claim that we will run out of water. Begonias will wither, newt ponds will dry up and our children will never see spagnum moss.

Feb 15, 2016 at 10:05 AM | Unregistered CommenterSteve

The last thing the green movement want is cheap, clean reliable energy.

What they actually want is for humanity to become a stone age rarity, living in peace and harmony with mother nature, dying of diseases when told to, and barely living over 40. And no upsetting the animals, the real inhabitants of this planet.

Feb 15, 2016 at 10:05 AM | Unregistered CommenterTheBigYinJames

I'm not impressed with the reporting

fusion requires at least 100 million degrees Celsius (212 million degrees Fahrenheit).

100 million Celsius is 180,000,032 Fahrenheit and not 212 million.

Feb 15, 2016 at 10:06 AM | Unregistered CommenterTerryS

"but perhaps they are going to be joined on the scrapheap by oil and gas much sooner than we thought". Or perhaps we can stop using hydrocarbons to make electricity and keep on using them to fuel aeroplanes and make plastics and feritlisers etc.!

Feb 15, 2016 at 10:06 AM | Unregistered CommenterMike Post

Arrgh! Fusion is the Devil's Brew!

This is making an opening to Hell on Earth, and will destroy us utterly!

(If we can't get it closed down on environmental grounds, maybe religious grounds will do. And I'm making a bid to become the new Al Gore on fusion - I could do with a bit of the money you can make for spreading stories of disaster...)

Feb 15, 2016 at 10:07 AM | Unregistered CommenterDodgy Geezer

Andrew, it's my belief that the fundamental reason for the climate disaster (as in failure to do real science) is the same reason why the UK and US have failed to get fusion off the ground. And the reason is simple: the projects have been run by academics whose culture just doesn't work in these kinds of projects.

The reason for this, is that academics teach students and students become politicians and broadcasters and academics, and they perpetuate the lie that academia was somehow the bosom of all innovation. In contrast, the evidence for the last few decades shows that this "academic led" innovation is a complete disaster with first Japan and now China overtaking us as our academics continue to invent technologies no one wants, focus on topics of no benefit to humanity for purely political reasons (like global warming) and worst of all - they continually denigrate and undermine industry and commerce which have been the drivers of first our own industrial revolution, then when anti-engieering academia took over control in the UK - then Japanese and now Chinese.

And, the only way we'll ever stop our long term decline in science is if - paradoxically we invest in engineering and elevate the status of engineering. Because without a vibrant engineering sector there is no need for science and academics stop focussing on important things of benefit to the country and go off on some wild goose chase.

And likewise with fusion - it's been one massive white elephant project - which I bet if any engineer had been leading the project would be decades further ahead. Sure, the "science" may not be so good - but we'd be ten years closer to understanding the engineering obstacles that are usually the real issue on projects like this.

Feb 15, 2016 at 10:15 AM | Registered CommenterMikeHaseler

I suspect that the Chinese will do this.

It seems, at the present time, to be a problem that requires a massive amount of capital to be thrown at it with little prospect of generating sufficient compensating returns. A bit like the US moon shot in the 1960s.

But China is the place where are sufficiently centrally planned still to tolerate a dead loss of tens of billions of Dollars, if they can be the first to force the required technology advance.

Of course, we will all benefit. The Chinese will pay and we will win.

Feb 15, 2016 at 10:20 AM | Unregistered CommenterGeckko

Although my knee-jerk reaction to this kind of posts is to say 'but it's only electricity!', of late I've realized that decarbonizing electricity would in fact largely kill the debate.

CO2 emissions are roughly split between power generation, transport and 'heat', which encompasses cooking, space heating, corn driers, steel furnaces...

Heat can be electrified, and has in fact been electrified in countries where electricity is very cheap such as Iceland. That leaves transport as the only major sector with CO2 emissions (ironically Iceland has higher emissions than EU average in spite of this, lots of air/sea travel). A world in which only transport contributes to GHG emissions would a world in which CO2 concentrations would rise by 0.6ppm instead of 2ppm (and that's if the airborne fraction doesn't decline along with overall emissions). In other words, the 'tipping point' would be postponed for many decades - perhaps for centuries. And even if a 'tipping point' does arrive in the year 2300, a given change is easier to adapt to over three centuries than over one.

Of course, some people would still be unhappy with an additional 0.6ppm, and would call for absolutely zero emissions from combustion, replanting trees, going vegan, yadda yadda. But these few can be ignored.

PS: of course many people who claim to be worried about global warming aren't just neutral towards nuclear. They actually want to phase it out (or to stop awarding and renewing licenses, which is the same). These include most parties in my country.

Feb 15, 2016 at 10:26 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlberto Zaragoza Comendador

@Alberto: because of basic mistakes made in 1976, CO2 climate sensitivity has been vastly exaggerated. It could well be slightly negative once biofeedback is considered. I estimate [CO2] will peak at ~450 ppmV before falling as we reach the depths of the new Little Ice Age.

So, there is no imminent catastrophe. Fossil fuels will run out in 200 - 300 years. We may have hot nuclear fusion before then but I doubt it; we'll get LENR systems long before that!

Feb 15, 2016 at 10:35 AM | Unregistered CommenterNCC 1701E

" - to about 50 million Kelvins (49.999 million degrees Celsius)" LOL.

Feb 15, 2016 at 10:36 AM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

What happens to a shed load of Hydrogen plasma at 50 million degrees C. if /when there is a technical failure at the plant?

Feb 15, 2016 at 10:36 AM | Registered CommenterDung

How will we transport goods and services and us on holiday without fossil fuels? Oh I forgot the electric car. Holidays in the next door village if it is not too far away.

Feb 15, 2016 at 10:42 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Marshall

Conversely to Mike H I'm hoping the physicists can make progress in quantum tunnelling to enable fusion reaction at lower temperatures with D-D reactions (instead of D-T) just as the sun does. This would make the currently huge engineering problems a lot easier.

However the UK energy crisis is upon us right now and would have been very evident in a colder winter. I won't derail the thread by suggesting what I think is more likely to come first.

Feb 15, 2016 at 10:44 AM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

MikeHaseler (Feb 15, 2016 at 10:15 AM), I tend to agree with your observation but would go further: fusion projects are driven by the consensus view of 'the correct path' to follow, which is then entrenched by selective government funding.

An example of this was the Brian Cox documentary last Thursday on BBC4 about fusion power, which was actually made in 2009. Professor Cox toured the world showing us the leading fusion research projects that were our only hope of avoiding dangerous climate change. Unfortunately, in his enthusiasm, he forgot to mention 'inertial electrostatic confinement' fusion as well as the more dubious but still noteworthy 'cold fusion'. These omissions may have been due to his ignorance but were more likely due to the fact that these two are somewhat outside the consensus view and therefore are not as heavily funded.

There's been a similar trend in space launcher development over the last 50 years... but I'm now wandering somewhat off-topic.

Feb 15, 2016 at 10:47 AM | Unregistered CommenterDave Salt

"What happens to a shed load of Hydrogen plasma at 50 million degrees C. if /when there is a technical failure at the plant?"

Aurora borealis for everyone!

Feb 15, 2016 at 10:52 AM | Unregistered Commentercmdocker

This looked quite good.
Then I saw that they had gone further than the West by not worrying about fears of a meltdown.

So how close are they?
This quote summed it up.

But they still missed their mark, which was to reach 100 million Kelvins for over 1,000 seconds (nearly 17 minutes), they said, adding that it would still take years to build a commercially viable plant that could operate in a stable manner for several decades.

How many years?

Probably about thirty, as always.

Feb 15, 2016 at 11:00 AM | Registered CommenterM Courtney


.."What happens to a shed load of Hydrogen plasma at 50 million degrees C. if /when there is a technical failure at the plant?".

It goes out like a candle-flame....probably damaging some of the wires in the torus. But the reaction stops immediately, and there's not enough heat there to cause a great deal of damage...

Feb 15, 2016 at 11:15 AM | Unregistered CommenterDodgy Geezer

Prediction. As soon as fusion (or anything resembling it) happens, the Left will switch to demanding that the oil and gas industries be kept alive. For the good of the planet.

Feb 15, 2016 at 11:16 AM | Unregistered CommenterBrian Micklethwait

I cannot get excited by this. Fusion will still generate radioactive wastes and they will still need processing. Given that there already exists a technology that is proven to work, and did so over a number of years, is relatively 'clean' in terms of radioactive waste, I can only presume that here is another agenda at work. That proven technology is of course the LIFTR Thorium nuclear reactor.

Feb 15, 2016 at 11:22 AM | Unregistered Commenterconfused

Let's be honest. Climate stupidity is indefinitely renewable. Enviro-angst inevitably proceeds from having a more comfortable and longer life.

The good news? OK, fusion may well be thirty years away for some time to come.
But catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming will still always be a hundred years away when that happens.

Feb 15, 2016 at 11:26 AM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

confused 11:22 AM

you got there before me...

Handily it can also degrade (burn) waste from previous generations of nukes into relatively short half life isotopes too (the "two birds" bonus).

The Chinese and the Indians are also working on LFTRs....

The Atomkraft? - nein danke! crew will be busy spinning a riposte to this - I think I can see the anti-fracker's next "thing".

Then there's the Skunkworks truck transportable 10MW thingy - that'd set a cat among the pigeons.

Feb 15, 2016 at 11:34 AM | Registered Commentertomo

... practical fusion is just 30 years away and always has been.

Power from fusion has always been fifty years in the future and always will be. And even that's a bit optimistic.

Feb 15, 2016 at 11:43 AM | Registered CommenterMartin A

I'm sad to say...Still 30 years away as it was 30 years ago. It's a big jump from minutes of operation to a practical solution. Still lots of problems to solve in containment and getting useful energy out.

Two things that give me hope:

the greens aren't promoting it as a reason to call a halt to known working solutions. If they got behind it and helped to make it real, they'd have to admit the Malthus and Ehrlich were wrong and technology provides answers extend resources s population control is not the answer;

the Chinese can make it work if anyone can. They could build 20 airports while we were messing about with Terminal 5.

Feb 15, 2016 at 11:44 AM | Unregistered Commenterclovis marcus

Everything I've ever bought from China lasts for 366 days - this will probably be the same.

Feb 15, 2016 at 11:52 AM | Unregistered CommenterCharlie Flindt

As others here have suggested it is only a matter of time before Greens begin to denounce Fusion. The closer success seems, the louder the calls will become. Cheap non-polluting energy is the Green's nightmare as it removes, at a stroke, the need for central control. And control, not environmentalism, has always been the end-game.

I'd really like to run a betting syndicate on which 'reason' they are going to choose.

My money is on 'DANGER!' As in: Fusion risks bringing temperature HOTTER THAN THE SUN to the surface of the planet. Do you want your children living near a nuclear fireball?

Any other ideas?

Feb 15, 2016 at 11:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterStuck-Record

The human race seems to be doomed to constantly using new technology which does not yet work rather than refining current technology to make it more and more efficient. As suggested above Thorium offers a proven and readily available solution for power generation and we have fuel for thousands of years (at least).

Feb 15, 2016 at 11:54 AM | Registered CommenterDung

the cherry on the pie with Terminal 5 was that at a certain stage they sent passenger bags to Milan(?) to have them sorted there..because Heathrow (UK) did not have the capacity and knowledge to sort 20.000 passenger bags that had piled up.

Who even THINKS about such an idea?? I always wanted to see that genius in the flesh

Feb 15, 2016 at 11:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterVenusCold

Watching Frazier this morning on Channel 4 during the break and the Ad for Scottish Power .

Seemed to have dropped the tag line for Clean Energy and have switched to a donation for Cancer Charities.

Channel 4 still have that appalling Diverity drivel montage .From the same channel that brings you endless repeats of Come Dine With Me and Big Bang Theory.

Feb 15, 2016 at 12:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamspid

I remember when we were promised "abundant, free nuclear power" before!

Back in the 1950's.

Feb 15, 2016 at 12:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterPaul Homewood

Extracting the energy from a fusion reactor will present as many problems as maintaining the plasma. It might be used to create fissile material however. The Thorium reactor is the intelligent way to go.
'Thermal pollution' will be the complaint of the blob if CO2 free reliable energy becomes a reality.

Feb 15, 2016 at 12:14 PM | Unregistered Commentersrga


100 million Celsius is 180,000,032 Fahrenheit and not 212 million.

When converting from Celsius to Fahrenheit, you forgot to add 32 (million). :)

Feb 15, 2016 at 12:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterPhil R

Others said:

"What happens to a shed load of Hydrogen plasma at 50 million degrees C. if /when there is a technical failure at the plant?"

Aurora borealis for everyone!

Another possibility:

Not much…if you consider a black smoking cinder where the Earth used to be “not much”. Or maybe a black hole.

Good thing it’ll happen 30 years after I’m dead.


Feb 15, 2016 at 12:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterLynn Clark

confused (Feb 15, 2016 at 11:22 AM) said "Fusion will still generate radioactive wastes and they will still need processing".

Radioactive wastes from the current fusion reactor designs arises because most of the energy from the easiest fusion cycles (e.g. deuterium/tritium) is released in the form of neutrons, which irradiate the reactor lining and thereby generate unstable nuclei (e.g. breeding more tritium) and also have to generate electrical energy by a thermal conversion process like any conventional power stations. This is why 'inertial electrostatic confinement' fusion is so promising because it could enable aneutronic fusion cycles (e.g. hydrogen/boron-11) that, as the name suggests, releases no neutrons and so can convert the fusion products directly into electricity because most of the energy is released in the form of charged particles (i.e. helium nuclei).

Feb 15, 2016 at 12:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterDave Salt

Even wind power has similar problems.

The big off-shire Neart na Gaoithe wind farm project "could be scrapped unless judicial review brought by RSPB is resolved ahead of March 26 investment deadline"

Andy Kinsella, of project developer Mainstream Renewable Power, says "The money can't hang around forever" - as though it's burning a hole in its containment vessel, or someone's pocket?

Feb 15, 2016 at 12:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterRudolph Hucker

Feb 15, 2016 at 12:47 PM | Unregistered Commenterjferguson

One thing to bear in mind is that it won't end up "too cheap to meter" ;-p

Couldn't have that .... noooo

Feb 15, 2016 at 12:54 PM | Registered Commentertomo

Just for a laugh, could we fuse one molecule of carbon with two of Oxygen.
We could call it the 'How to make a greenies head explode process'

Feb 15, 2016 at 12:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterEternalOptimist

At least Al Gore will learn what 'millions of degrees' are...

Feb 15, 2016 at 1:02 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp

Four nonsensical comments touting 'thorium reactors' (sic).

'That proven technology is of course the LIFTR Thorium nuclear reactor.' Of course? Then you'll have no trouble providing a reference. Let me save you some trouble, there was no thorium in the 'thorium reactor' at Oak Ridge.

The U.S. abandoned efforts to develop the thorium fuel cycle in the 1980s because it was found that uranium was too cheap and abundant to fool with thorium.

India is pursuing development of the thorium fuel cycle because they hold the world's largest reserves of thorium, but have very little uranium.

Feb 15, 2016 at 1:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterGamecock

There is little doubt that Fusion is practical in Tokomaks - it is simply a matter of making them big enough (surface area to volume ratio is critical), 1GW is almost impractically small, 10GW would make it pretty easy. But Tokamaks will likely remain uneconomic through the 21st century as the huge complex reactors will cost >$10000/kW (ITER >$50000/kW) and can only produce about $300/kW per year electricity at costs competitive with gas and coal.

Other cheaper/smaller approaches being financed privately utilising magnetised target fusion that collapses plasma toroids (General Fusion steam-powered collapsing liquid metal chamber, Helion colliding doughnuts and Tri-Alpha squeezing doughnuts) all have more chance of being smaller and more economic if they can overcome their technical challenges. There is also the Polywell configuration that has a small chance of success if they can find funding. (Focus Fusion is basically no-chance). Also there is heavy ion inertial confinement fusion would also almost certainly be economic and practical using decades old particle accelerator technology scaled up to very high power to make 10-100GW power plants burning cheap deuterium. That is too big to attach to the grid but could be used to cheaply synthesize hydrocarbon fuels from CO2 and Water.

The same R&D money put into hot fast breeding fission reactors would be far more economically beneficial.

Feb 15, 2016 at 1:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterRobL

Paul Homewood

I also remember that promise made in the 1950s.

Feb 15, 2016 at 1:12 PM | Unregistered Commenterpesadia

GameCock, I thought they abandoned it because it didn't provide enough/any plutonium. Silly me...oh and Thorium is estimated to be about three to four times more abundant than uranium in the Earth's crust. Its as common as Lead

" . It’s abundant — the US has at least 175,000 tons of the stuff — and doesn’t require costly processing. It is also extraordinarily efficient as a nuclear fuel. As it decays in a reactor core, its byproducts produce more neutrons per collision than conventional fuel. The more neutrons per collision, the more energy generated, the less total fuel consumed, and the less radioactive nastiness left behind."

Feb 15, 2016 at 1:30 PM | Unregistered Commenterconfused

CAUTION : On this particular story. A fusion breakthru, first reported in a South China Morning Post quite amateur item, rather than something coming out of the much bigger ITER project. (too "wow" to be true ?)
..It would be wise to wait until the story is substantiated and contexted.
The China story is not on the ITER twitterfeeds like @US_ITER.
(I note the naive hyped up a recent German fusion thing as a "breakthru" when in reality it was a photo-op for Merkel doing an opening.)

But on a general note : Fusion psses all over renewable gimmicks like solar and wind and doesn't have the particulate problems of wood/fibre burning.
...Green energy investors should have known that all along.
..There maybe a reason why other countries don't stupidly try to be renewables leaders like the UK tries to be. ..Like get stuck with a load of wind towers which have been superceded by fusion.

I hope a lot of those chanting "always 30 years" will get a surprise as fusion tech moves thru the remaining barriers step by step.

Feb 15, 2016 at 1:32 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

Well I won't hold my breath, but even if true EU Govs and US Congress are sure to tariff/health and safety it to death to protect their cronies and all those jobs in the oil/gas/electricity industries affected... just as they offered grants and subsidies to encourage installation of solar panels then taxed Chinese imports to protect domestic producers.

Plus of course the rent seekers in the climate change 'science' and industry will lobby to save their stipends.

Feb 15, 2016 at 1:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn B


the reference you left out.

Mind you... the very idea that Baroness Brownout is a fan might well be the kiss of death for LFTRs

Feb 15, 2016 at 1:46 PM | Registered Commentertomo

The waste issue, as with conventional radioactive waste, can be simply solved by loading the steel cased concrete encased waste onto a ship with doors that open out to the sea. It can then be transported to the nearest sub-duction zone, & lowered to the sea floor, where it will be sub-ducted into the Earths crust, (from whence it came in the first place), never to be seen ever again! We have the technology after all!

Feb 15, 2016 at 1:51 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan the Brit

Fission is expensive mainly because of regulation. The purpose of regulation is safety. Safety is a critical and essential benefit. However safety is the result of sound science and good engineering design and construction. My experience in a nuclear related environment is that the extremely complex regulations militated against good design, resulting in a less safe, less usable and more expensive product. The regulations appeared to be written by people with little scientific or engineering experience.

Wait until the politicians and regulators/lawyers catch up with fusion.

Feb 15, 2016 at 1:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterBudgie

If we stop returning plant food to the atmosphere by switching entirely to nuclear power for electricity, transport, and heat it is possible that the natural sequestering of CO2 into shells, woodland detritus and eventually back to coal, peat and the white cliffs of Dover will reverse the good that we have been doing by releasing it for use in the natural world again. It was in the nick of time that we came along at 280ppm and have now managed to help, in a small way, get it up towards a better level of around 400ppm.
Without wishing to invoke any form of deity it does seem to be an enormous coincidence that the Industrial age started as the CO2 levels were reaching dangerously low levels. Like some kind of preordained path for evolution on Earth. Obviously one would have to check this possibility with our spiritual advisers, The Dork and Aila.

Feb 15, 2016 at 1:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterIvor Ward

"Prediction. As soon as fusion (or anything resembling it) happens, the Left will switch to demanding that the oil and gas industries be kept alive. For the good of the planet."

Yes, spot on!!! I reckon 20 years hence we could be in some serious cold times, and it'll be 'Keep the CO2 emissions high to warm up the planet' and 'No more fusion reactors, they're freezing the Earth!!'.

Feb 15, 2016 at 1:59 PM | Unregistered CommenterJim


Most unfortunate that the CO2 will not actually cause any warming... ups. ^,^

Feb 15, 2016 at 2:29 PM | Registered CommenterDung

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