The Quixotic Search for a Silver Bullet

Fusion Research Is a Waste of Society’s Resources

Take it from a nuclear engineer: there is no future in fusion power. It will never be economical. Even if the very sizable technical hurdles were surmounted — magnetics, plasma physics, materials, and tritium availability to name a few — the capital cost of fusion’s heat island (the reactor sans turbines and other accouterments), would still be 2-3 times greater than that of a fission reactor, on a per-MW basis.

Nor is there any compelling motivation to develop fusion power. At current uranium prices, we have guaranteed reserves sufficient for 150 years of present-day consumption. And if that weren’t enough, for every doubling in ore prices, resource availability goes up by a factor of ten — or, to put it differently, we could mine uranium for 1500 years and the quality of the deposits would go down by only 50%. Given that uranium is a very small contributor to the end cost of fission, we could use fission power for millennia before any economic need arose to find alternatives.

Support for “loser technologies” is often predicated on a sloppy application of Moore’s law. Photovoltaic solar advocates are routinely in the business of claiming exponential annual increases in the efficiency of their technology while simultaneously presuming the stagnation of any competitor. They assume fantastical and sustained rates of technological increase, extrapolate out for N decades, and predict a year when their technology will be competitive with present-day alternatives.

One wonders why they don’t simply continue their extrapolation to N+1 decades and promise us effectively free electricity for everyone. One also wonders why they don’t think such fantastical breakthroughs can occur in mature technologies. In fission for example, there are plenty of research areas, such as annular fuel or nanofluid coolant, which have similar game-changing potential.

Fusion and other “out-there” research is regularly billed as an investment in our future, but the more apt analogy is buying a Power Ball ticket. This is not a sound roll of the dice, this is a move born out of frustration, desperation and self-deception. It stems from a lack of political will to tackle the policy problems of today’s technology. Instead of bringing disparate stakeholders together to settle energy policy issues, we’d much rather cross our fingers and hope for a technological savior to deliver us from the need for political courage.

The basic premise of economics is scarcity. If you want to spend resources on fusion, then you must necessarily take them from somewhere else. We always like to imagine that the resources will be taken from areas we don’t like (Personally, I wouldn’t mind funding fusion if the money somehow came from, say, reality TV). But that isn’t how such transfers occur — it’s more useful to imagine the resources being diverted in proportion to current levels of spending. A dollar in fusion comes out of, to varying degrees, education, health care, and, most importantly, other research.

Tossing a billion dollars a year towards fusion doesn’t sound like a lot in these wild days of government check writing until you remember that MIT as an institute “only” spends about a billion dollars a year in its entire operating budget. With proposed fusion funding we could finance an entire MIT’s worth of education and research.

One of the troubles of letting government pick winners is that legislators and bureaucrats are likely to under-appreciate the opportunity costs of the funds they use. If the government is going to be productively involved in directing funding, it needs to set priorities and draw lines. Fusion, unfortunately, does not make the cut.