On 5 December 2022, fusion power researchers at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) achieved two technical milestones which by 12 December had encouraged a media-fuelled, gigantically unfounded and exaggerated projection about impending cheap, carbon-free, infinite electricity supply. Yes, ‘ignition’—a sustained, lab-controlled fusion reaction—was achieved. So too was ‘gain’, as the energy released by the fusion reaction was greater than that required by the lasers used to heat and compress a deuterium-tritium fuel pellet. But we are light years away, at minimum, from fusion power contributing electricity into a grid and in any way helping to resolve the climate crisis. What is going on in all the pretending otherwise?
Almost every word written about ‘net energy gain’ from a fusion reaction is a species of manufactured ignorance generated by managing uncomfortable knowledge, which is complicated by a tension between the desire to trust fusion experts but the knowledge that those experts operate under powerful incentives to engage in hype.
We have been at the doorstep of fusion hype before. In fact, ever since the 1950s fusion power has been just over the horizon. The fusion illusion has become its own cottage industry, with competing fusion research teams over-calling each other in a series of breakthroughs and decisive advances that generate hype, but no electricity.
For instance, on 9 February 2022 the Joint European Torus (JET) fusion reactor in the UK announced that it had produced 59 Megajoules of energy and that this indicated ‘powerplant potential’. Yet JET consumed significantly more power than it produced. Hence I suggested that the claim of a net power gain was a form of hyped science communication in which future promise colonises present limitations.
Researchers at LLNL’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) are the most recent hype-mongers. In fusion research, there are two main approaches: doughnuts and lasers. The ITER tokamak reactor in France is a doughnut-shaped machine that uses high-temperature magnetic confinement to create a stable and continuous plasma in which fusion can occur. By contrast, in the inertial confinement approach, discrete fusion reactions produce bursts of energy. In NIF experiments, a weak laser pulse is created, split, amplified, converted from infrared to ultraviolet energy, and then, in the form of 192 beams, focused onto a capsule containing deuterium and tritium, heating and compressing (fusing) the nuclear fuel to create alpha particles and release neutrons.
In their 13 December announcement of NIF’s experimental result, the US Department of Energy (DOE) advertised the result as a ‘game changer’ and quoted a host of US politicians directly linking the result to commercial fusion power and the goal of a ‘net-zero carbon economy’. Media outlets which really should adopt stricter editorial standards gushed about the result implying ‘limitless, zero-carbon power’ or stating that it ‘changes everything’ and heralds a decisive step towards ‘carbon-free energy’ for ‘everyone’ for ‘millions of years’.
The only thing limitless and free about fusion power is the hype it generates.
Back in reality, the DOE specified that ‘LLNL’s experiment surpassed the fusion threshold by delivering 2.05 megajoules (MJ) of energy to the target, resulting in 3.15 MJ of fusion energy output’. The DOE suggested ‘there is momentum to drive rapid progress towards fusion commercialization’, but what does that 1.10 MJ ‘gain’ in fact mean?
Even science magazines regurgitated the hype, suggesting the fusion reaction released ‘roughly 54% more than the energy that went into the reaction’. Yet when any of these media sources came up for air, typically late into the triumphant narrative, there were somewhat grudging estimates of total energy input, always attributed to some scientists who otherwise had gushed about technological promise. These scientists estimated that the total energy consumed by NIF’s 192 lasers was between 300 megajoules and 500 megajoules. Multiple credulous sources split the difference at 400 megajoules. As one sceptical physicist noted, ‘consuming 400 MJ and producing 3.15 MJ is a net energy loss greater than 99%’, akin to you giving me $400 and me returning to you $3.15, then trying to pump your tyres about how wealthy you just became.
I am not a particle or theoretical physicist, and am admittedly biased by finding nuclear fission as a commercial electricity option to be a kind of technological creationism, and certainly a white elephant for Australia. Moreover, my field of Science and Technology Studies is known more for deconstructing facts than building them up. But as a sociologist of knowledge interested in theorising the positive, ‘partnership’ role experts can play in democratic decision-making, I ask, could experts with specialist knowledge relevant to fusion engineering be doing a better job of reining in the unwarranted hype about fusion net gain?
Specialist commentators on fusion power could do worse than get more comfortable with uncomfortable knowledge. Uncomfortable knowledge is information or understanding that is available but unevenly distributed or acknowledged, inadvertently or strategically obscured or left undone, and actually or potentially disruptive for the goals and interests of select organisations and institutions.
In fusion research, the fact that net energy gain is not the goal of either magnetic confinement or laser inertial confinement is the most salient piece of uncomfortable knowledge. ITER recently withdrew its claim of net energy gain—of 500 MW of fusion power from 50 MW of input power (a Q value of 10)—and now says that ITER is ‘the investigation and demonstration of burning plasmas’, in which the energy of helium nuclei produced by fusion reactions is enough to maintain plasma temperature.
The LLNL team admitted as much as well, describing the NIF result as a ‘proof of concept [not designed] to plug the NIF into the grid’, with other physicists adding that NIF was designed to be a big laser that could ‘give us the data we need for the [nuclear] stockpile research programme’.
Given the hype about limitless clean energy just over the horizon, another type of uncomfortable knowledge involves the judgements about the feasibility of commercial electrical power from fusion. Put differently, rather than being regaled by hyped milestones and heroic assumptions about future developments, why not cold, hard assessments of uncertainties and obstacles?
While it seemed easy to find a dozen experts willing to gush on record about how remarkable it was to spend $3.5 billion to produce an energy output that might boil a few kettles, frank assessments of future prospects are confined to scattered observations by disconnected critics.
But the list of uncertainties includes: how to increase the fusion reaction frequency from 1 per day to maybe 10 per second; how to reduce the cost of the capsule ‘target’ from tens of thousands of dollars to a few cents, especially as production ramps up from one capsule per week to up to one million per week; how to ensure the laser can reliably fire ten times per second, not once per day; whether energy out can increase versus energy in from 1.54x to 30x; how the heat produced by the fusion will be extracted; whether the efficiency of the yield can be increased by least two orders of magnitude; and whether it is possible to breed enough of the tritium fuel for a commercial industry.
Where such uncomfortable knowledge about feasibility is tackled in depth, it is only by critics. One physicist thus suggested commercial feasibility would demand an increase in fusion output of 100,000 per cent [other estimates suggest fusion would have to increase output by a factor or 317, or 31,700%], a mastery of exceedingly strict conditions vis a vis temperature, shape of target capsule and vacuum chamber, a solution to the problem that the machine breaks when it works and requires hours to recover, and an overcoming of the low supply of tritium fuel and its prohibitive cost.
A final form of uncomfortable knowledge includes drawbacks, which are typically managed through practices that include denial (avoiding acknowledging information even if others bring it to collective attention), dismissal (manufacturing justifications for rejecting a counter-claim), diversion (distracting via a decoy issue) and displacement (swapping problems).
Two examples will suffice. One is the deuterium-tritium fuel needed for any future fusion reactor. It scarcely exists in nature (a fact met with denial) and must be produced either in heavy water reactors or by breeding it from enriched lithium-6, which is in short supply (met with dismissal), and, no, it is not solved by speculations about extracting the fuel from sea water (a diversion).
A second drawback is that nuclear fusion may be not the perfect energy source for a climate crisis but, as a former fusion physicist put it, is ‘in some ways close to the opposite’. Put succinctly, the fact that neutron streams comprise 80 per cent of fusion energy output in deuterium-tritium reactions makes it an odd electrical energy source. The neutron streams damage the structure of the machine, produce relatively bulky radioactive waste, require biological shielding, and constitute a proliferation risk (Pu-239). The fusion reactor itself has a high parasitic power consumption, a scarce fuel supply, and likely high operating costs due to continual radiation damage.
Yet when managing such uncomfortable knowledge via the strategy of displacement, we substitute a more manageable surrogate. Ambiguity about net gain is that surrogate. Net gain in fusion research today exploits holes in our broader culture about what we do not know we know. It is unevenly known that more power is consumed than is produced by fusion experiments. The process of manufacturing ignorance about that unevenly known fact turns on excluding uncomfortable knowledge because of the way that knowledge might threaten fusion-related institutional goals and interests.
We are not ignorant of fusion gaslighting because of some natural but temporary state of maldistribution of knowledge, nor because we just happen to have not done the relevant work of knowing. Instead, fusion hype actively makes and sustains broader ignorance. Manufacturing ignorance is an achievement which in the case of fusion relies on fuzzy measures today being masked by heroic projections about tomorrow, aided by eliding the uncertainties attending fusion technology.
The truth of the matter?
If the managing of uncomfortable knowledge is leading to the manufacturing of ignorance about fusion research, is the solution to embrace frank assessment? Unfortunately, a tension exists whereby we reasonably suspect both that experts are best placed to know of uncertainties, and that those same experts might have incentives to underplay them. Social and political analysts of techno-science represent this as the conflict between the certainty trough and the commercialisation of science.
The certainty trough is the finding that those alienated from institutions committed to a non-preferred technology are uncertain due to distrust, but that insiders or producers of knowledge are uncertain (even if only in private) due to close experience with the relevant techno-science. If the question can be established as technical, not political, then by the principle of the locus of legitimate interpretation, in science the producers of knowledge ought to be the arbiters of meaning (unlike in the Arts, where we accept that consumers can play the role of interpreters of meaning).
Yet the commercialisation of science often incentivises an instrumental function of hype in which scientists sell opportunity and underplay risk, producing warranted distrust in the delegating of meaning-making to experts. The hermeneutics of suspicion can be either crude (financial investments are said to directly undermine norms of objectivity), subtle (a medialisation process is shifting the norms of science towards the norms of marketing, entertainment, media and attention cycles), or deep (a restricted agenda of tractable uncertainties, resolvable by existing frameworks, makes invisible the limiting commitments and assumptions of any given techno-scientific project).
The NIF experiment is especially burdened by the tension between trusting and being suspicious of experts because it is a weapons project. The DOE announcement slipped in that the ‘breakthrough will ensure the safety and reliability of our nuclear stockpile’. The director for weapons physics and design at LLNL did not hide this, clarifying that fusion ignition is important because it ‘has direct application to maintaining the weapons stockpile—NIF’s primary mission’.
The DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration warranted the NIF ignition test as part of the Stockpile Stewardship Program, in which thermonuclear weapons are assessed and certified without the need for explosive testing. In reply, critics linked the test to concerns about proliferation and continued weapons development, and clean energy was branded a ‘convenient reason to keep the dollars flowing to dual-use weapons R&D’.
Is this tension a catch-22? Is there no escape from the mutually dependent but conflicting conditions? We want to know about the uncertainties attending fusion research, but are the people best placed to discuss those uncertainties because they are at the coalface of technical innovation mired in commercial, and sometimes military, incentives to underplay risk and overplay potential?
Maybe there is a sliver of hope. The director for weapons physics at LLNL lamented that ‘he would have preferred [the results] be released through a scientific journal. But the results were sure to leak out’. The unedifying hype accompanying fusion research trades on the image of science as magically pulling rabbits (clean, infinite power for all, tomorrow) out of hats. Distrust follows when exaggerated projections are revealed to be emperors with no clothes.
But here is a scientist, enmeshed in all the complexities of military and commercial work, still holding on to a key value of science: organised scepticism. The more scientists opt for the less sexy route of assessing results and uncertainties, checking before unveiling and opening research to scientific scrutiny before turning meaning-making over to the norms of sensationalism, the more the rest of us might have access to their distributed judgements about uncertainties.
Note there is an historical precedent: the LIGO result announcing the detection of gravity waves. LIGO detected the ripple in September 2015 but waited until February 2016 to announce it, using the time to double-check everything. The story is told by the sociologist of science Harry Collins in Gravity’s Kiss (2017), where he suggests that the result was withheld because LIGO was still hostage to the ‘science is revelatory’ image. There remained a commitment to flawless and glorious truth, and a reluctance to let science be a bit uncertain and maybe even wrong. There is historical precedent here too: some nuclear waste disposal programs have let their institutional selves be vulnerable, which is a key condition for building trust, by making their choices amenable to checking and changing by broader audiences. I am just, I guess, fusing some ideas together.