I always pay attention to exciting updates about nuclear power, but I refuse to take my eyes off the prize. I’m watching for signs we’re getting to that Solarpunk future we need. The NuScale reactor sounds pretty cool, but it’s time to ask the solarpunk question: What’s nuclear fusion gonna take?
We’re not there, yet. Nuclear Fusion research is definitely a component of the ‘Leaders vs. Greeders’ problems that we face getting to our Solarpunk future. Clean energy has been a hard-fought battle, especially in the United States.
Some Depressing Facts to Be Aware Of
This analysis from Stanford shows that nuclear fusion research has been the red-headed stepchild of energy research investments – maybe $600M/year compared to $18B a year (30x as much) for oil and gas.
But Wait – There’s More! Globally: The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) found that production subsidies by the G20 countries averaged $290 billion annually during 2017-2019. Of this amount, almost 95% went towards oil and gas, with a relatively small amount earmarked for coal.
Is it really as simple as ‘give us research budget?’ According to this decade-old fusion scientists’ Reddit AMA, yes: ‘At this point, if we spent enough money and manpower, I’m confident we could produce energy from nuclear fusion. The main thing holding us up is that we need to build big, expensive (on the order of $1 to $10 billion) experiments and the funding isn’t quite at that level.
‘Best case scenario we could start building a reactor in 20-30 years. (But a huge flood of money could probably push that up. I’m not necessarily advocating for that, but it’s likely true).’
Stanford expresses the frustration we all must be feeling thusly: ‘it is hard not to wonder if fusion energy would be much further along today had the political will been there thirty years ago to make it so.’
Here’s the Good News
In the past twelve months, nuclear fusion investment has exploded from $600M to £2.5bn. Google and Chevron invested in a $1.2 billion nuclear fusion startup. Major breakthroughs in nuclear-fusion experiment happened last year, when the Joint European Torus (JET) research facility in Oxfordshire, UK achieved a new nuclear fusion record of 59 megajoules (16388888.89 Kw/Hs). You can even watch a video of the JET in action here:
But wait, there’s more! The ITER is an international nuclear fusion research and engineering megaproject aimed at creating energy by replicating, on Earth, the fusion processes of the Sun. Upon completion of construction of the main reactor and first plasma, planned for late 2025, ITER will launch with ten times the plasma volume of any other tokamak operating today.
So yes, nuclear fusion is on its way. I can see a potential future where humanity adopts this clean energy technology worldwide, along with carbon capture projects that reduce the amount of CO² in the atmosphere (Example #1, Example #2). The solarpunk future we’re hoping for can be a fun, exciting place!
We just have to live to see it.