Fusion, Seawater and Stewart Prager’s OpEd

Interesting Op Ed piece in the 2011 Jul 11 New York Times by Dr. Stewart Prager on the status and potentials for fusion power.  Dr. Prager is the Director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL); he does a good job presenting a cogent case for fusion energy.

I want to take this opportunity to reinforce Prager’s Op Ed column and this comment represents a large skip-ahead in my informal posting schedule.


ITER, the international tokamak fusion test bed.   Note man on lower left

Prager’s clear comments respond to the same comment/question that I have fielded for the last 25 years →    “Ok, you say fusion is possible.  So, why have you guys said  nearly every day for the last 50 years  that it will be only 20 more years until we really produce power?”    A variant on this would be  “Now that fusion attempts have failed, why should we put more good money into the private playground of a select few?”

Personally, I usually respond with my 30 sec sound bite:   “Yes, fusion energy is highly feasible, and the time to grid power is probably never.

Prager hit the high points

  • Fusion power is a demonstrated fact  The difficult physics and technologies required for a 100 Million Degree plasma has become highly developed. We know how to build machines to hold such a plasma for  8+ minutes at a time.

I can attest to this.  The “thermometer” type device I built and operated on the Doublet-III  tokamak in the early 1980’s, measured plasma temperature well into the fusion generation range of over 100 M degrees, and held it for at least 5 seconds.  (10 years earlier, I did my thesis work on 10,000 degree plasma in a device that held plasma for 30 msec.)   Such temperatures have been routine now for over 30 years.

  • Fusion research is not the toy of a scientific elite  Fusion is the strong, joint-research effort of many nations.  ITER, the International Tokamak Experimental Reactor, represents the concern by the world’s political and technical leaders about energy supplies this century as petroleum becomes hard to produce and very expensive by 2011 standards (or 1985 standards, too).  The 6 core countries in the ITER consortium are  EU (all 24 members count as one) , Japan, India, So. Korea, China, and Russia.  These have joined to contribute funds and scientists to the ITER program.  To this list, tack on the U.S. as a sometimes partner.

The U.S. is the 7th official partner, currently.  It was one of the original instigators and supporters for a large fusion test device in 1985, helped launch 1988 design efforts for ITER, withdrew in 1999 because it was too costly, rejoined in 2003, about the time Canada withdrew due to its own funding issues, withdrew in 2007 when it withheld FY 2008 funding, rejoined in late 2008 with reduced contributions, proposed 41% reduction in contribution for 2011.  Would you count on the U.S. as a stable partner?

  • National fusion energy technology test beds are under construction all around the globe.  Prager lists China, Germany, Japan, and So. Korea as those with modern new facilities being designed or actually built.  He could have included a number of other countries, but these are the largest, with fusion based engineering issues their primary goals.

Inside JET prior to DT ops. Note man on left

The UK has upgraded its 30 year old JET (Joint European Torus) facility to be an ITER test lab  and it has its innovative MAST (mega amp spherical tokamak) unit for innovative work.

We in the U.S. are in the unique  situation of having started the fusion effort with the stellarator design.  We then launched a fleet of large tokamak facilities based on the successful Russian design. We started turning our backs on all this in mid 1980’s.  ITER was proposed in 1988 after our ETR (Engineering Test Reactor) was dismissed out of hand before 1988. By the way, ETR would have had the same target plasma capabilities as ITER. The 1988 proposal for INTOR ( the International Torus) was also rejected, and ITER was finally accepted in concept, in 1988.  


DIII-D 1985 after vacuum chamber upgrade. Note man at the left.

You say:  So add 20 years.  Why was ITER task not completed by 2008?  No!  ITER began construction only in the last several years.  Start up is defined as first plasma, currently delayed until 2018.  Add 20 to that.

The U.S. still operates its 35 yr old DIII-D facility in San Diego, upgrade of  the one I worked on in the early 1980’s. MIT operates its Alcator upgrades and there are a scattering of other university tokamaks across the continent. 

Sometimes I think we have stopped work on more innovative programs than there are new ideas  (This includes a beautiful spherical tokamak program and an innovative stellarator, both were being built at Dr. Prager’s PPPL).  

  • The United States has lacked the political will to succeed.  Actually, Dr. Prager said we lacked the will — the last 2 words are mine own.  He says that this will not be cheap: $30 billion (30 G USD) to build and operate.  The US economy puts in about $1.5 trillion (1.5 T USD).  ITER and fusion power is costly, but this cost is only about about two weeks of energy consumption by the United States.  He ends with the comment that fusion energy development … “is a litmus test for the willingness of our nation to tackle the tough challenges”.

Funding this is not a task for private industries. Companies, especially US ones, operate on a 3-6 month horizon. Most everything that works and is large was done with Government funds:  the Interstate system, the rail system across the continent (another topic for a set of posts), and our  Space program including the Apollo/Saturn-V moon landers, SkyLab, space shuttles, and the International Space Station.  This Space program redefines expensive.  it almost matches one of our wars – Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan.  The development of fusion energy is dwarfed by these wonderful adventures.

I want to say “Yes, we can,”  but that phrase has been made trite and meaningless nowadays.  The development of fusion power is vital to our national interest, and to all the other countries that want to stay “modern.”  Payoff for its success would support us on through the coming decades and centuries, continuing on for many millennia.

click for list of LastTechAge MFE posts

I am not optimistic about fusion energy development, but I wish the technical fusion folks well.  They are sacrificing themselves to an unbelievably important cause.   I am really afraid trends of the last several decades have generated a sea-change in American attitudes, though.     One of the foundation goals for LastTechAge is to trace what led us,  the American people, to turn our collective backs on energy problems and ignore the vast set of  opportunities for solutions that we held in our hands.

BTW, the image on the New York Times seems to be tied to Prager’s essay.  It is in unbelievably bad taste.  The little editors must have thought a night map of a city with a nuclear explosion at its heart was just so very  fusion.   Did I indicate yet that it is an insult to Dr. Prager and the other scientists and engineers – some of whom I worked with, all of whom I deeply respect?

Update: 2012 Mar 01 The American fusion program is under attack by the budget wonks, read about it at Twilight of the Gods?.   Laser fusions premier facility, the National Ignition Facility is behind schedule in fusion power efforts.  See NIF Retasked? .

Update: 2012 Nov 01  Dr Prager also defends fusion energy after expected NIF laser fails to meet its promise.   Reference to his DotEarth blog response in LastTechAge’s  Fusion Energy – Kill The Beast .

Charles J. Armentrout, Ann Arbor
2011 Jul 11
Listed under   Technology   …   Technology > MFE
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About LastTechAge

I am a physicist with years of work in fusion labs, industry labs, and teaching (physics and math). I have watched the tech scene, watched societal trends and am alarmed. My interest is to help us all improve or maintain that which we worked so hard to achieve.
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3 Responses to Fusion, Seawater and Stewart Prager’s OpEd

  1. Chris Baird says:

    This issue like the others comes back to politics as you and Dr. Prager noted. That normally wouldn’t be a problem if politicians were elected on the basis of ideas and vision. However, soundbites and personality are the qualities necessary to win elections today (the same for winning shows like The Bachelor or Big Brother). If this trend continues, I will be surprised if any truly meaningful projects are funded. There simply isn’t anything politically appealing about putting money towards projects that can’t guarantee a win in the next election cycle.


  2. Actually, if fusion power is going to pan out, it makes good sense to lag behind in being a funder of its progress. We can simply copy or buy the plants when they start producing power for grids.

    Or perhaps you’re claiming that U.S. money is needed if anybody’s project is going to work. Not sure why you’d say that. If the technology is remotely promising, somebody will spend the money.

    Personally, I smell a rat.


    • LastTechAge says:

      You bring up several good points that really out to be discussed.
      (1) We should lag in our work, let others do it for us. (2) We should copycat ideas instead of invent and develop them after they have gone on grid and proved themselves. (3) We should let Private Enterprise do this because they will sift viable ideas from the trash, if not it would be because they have no value.

      Lag. Wish we could do this. If we do lag on supplying power to our country during its approaching need, our current high expertise and economic power will be lost, probably permanently. It looks as though the world production has actually bumped into its ceiling. Before, if we wanted more petroleum we just turned up the pumps, dropped a few more wells heads. Now, pumping more now seems to require reinventing pumping technologies. This is what peak oil means – oil won’t just stop, it will be harder and harder to get hold of. This coupled with the social and technical turmoil global warming represents means that if we do not have effective solutions in hand we will only be able to chase our previous lifestyle that is always dropping with us scrambling hard to keep is much going as possible. In the middle of this, we get hit by fleets of tornadoes, massive earthquakes, chains of Katrina style hurricanes, and technology failures like the gulf oil spill. Downwards we drop … because we chose to lag in our responses to clearly defined need.

      Copycat. Won’t work for high technology. Japan and China first tried to make an economy out of knockoff pens and watches. Throw in some pirated entertainment (tapes, CD’s, DVD’s depending on how far back you go). The did not get world class manufacturing and economic power going until they invested in their own deep infrastructure surrounding the manufacture of difficult stuff. No one laughs at the names Toyota, Honda and Mitsubishi anymore… Add chinese corporate names within the next couple years to awesome manufacturing powerhouses. The problem with fusion energy is that it is ultra high tech. Harder than anything done in space. Suppose China would even let your children get close to a safe powerful fusion reactor — would the people of your children’s generation even understand what they were looking at?

      Leave it to the Giants of Enterprise.? Their timelines are 3 to 6 month payback. This leaves out fusion or efficient/safe nuclear power. Both of these, started today, would not pay back until 2030 or so. Little that is really important to our country has been developed by the Giants. Certainly not transcontinental railroads. Not interstate roadways. . We do not have safe nuclear power, every one of our 104 reactor cores and their piles of nuclear excrement are waiting for the “unusual” events (like earthquakes and tidal waves) that will crack them open and spread their contents across the landscape like jelly on bread. Generat Atomics invented the safe, efficient HTGR but got out of the business just before it bankrupted them. This was because they did it on their own, and had to follow an inadequate development path (that they could afford). If going to power on the grids after our ancient coal fired plants have worn out, it will have to be with massive support from the U.S. government. The most effective G of E in the US today are our banker CEOs. These guys all drank deeply of your personal tax contributions just 2 years ago. I am sure your recall. Bankers and financial giants may be the biggest Welfare Mommas that are weighing down our civilization. (Yes, most of them have officially paid it back, but it was there for them when they wanted it! )

      So I stand by my contention that we need to restart fusion power development in the U.S. for our own security.


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