Jo Smith | |

Annie Kritcher, Livermore – “It’s a great feeling”
Washington DC – US department of energy has trailed an announcement later today (Tuesday), from energy secretary Jennifer Granholm and under-secretary for nuclear security Jill Hruby to announce “a major scientific breakthrough” at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Physicists have since the 1950s sought to harness the fusion reaction that powers the sun, but this is the first time they had been able to produce more energy from the reaction than it consumes. The figures to be released later today reach a milestone known as net energy gain or target gain, which would “derisk” investment in fusion to achieve a reliable, abundant net-zero alternative to fossil fuels and conventional nuclear energy.

Boosters of nuclear fusion are already claiming that this announcement puts commercial fusion production less than 10 years away. There are fears it will provide an excuse for governments and industry to put current Net-zero plans on hold. Even on the most optimistic assumptions about climate change that would be too late to stop catastrophic warming.

Physicist Daniel Jassaby, who worked at the Princeton plasma lab, said a fusion reactor would be “far from perfect and in some ways close to the opposite”.

Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists he said the process of nuclear fusion has the potential to produce radiation damage and radioactive waste – contrary to claims it is clean and safe.

He also says the “parasitic drain” of power needed to fuel fusion reactors renders means that they could “consume a good chunk of the very power that they produce”.

Fusion reactors have to be supplied with fuel made from fission reactors which he said implies a “perpetual dependence” on them.

And there is the potential for nuclear weapons proliferation through the “clandestine” production of plutonium-239.

In total there have been 21 commercial start-ups in fusion energy over the last five years, with a cascade of private funding over recent months following successes by the Livermore lab in 2021.

The Fusion Industry Association in Washington says there are currently five private companies pursuing inertial fusion of different forms, including the UK’s First Light, Focused Energy and Xcimer Energy in the US, and Marvel Fusion and XB11 in Germany.

“The advances being made point to market viability much sooner than expected, within the next 10 years,” said Todd Ditmire, co-founder of Focused Energy.

The $3.5bn National Ignition Facility at Livermore was primarily designed to test nuclear weapons by simulating explosions but has since been used to advance fusion energy research.

Achieving ignition involved collaborators at DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, and Nevada National Security Site; General Atomics; academic institutions, including the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California, Berkeley, and Princeton University; international partners, including the United Kingdom’s Atomic Weapons Establishment and the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission.

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