Forget the naysayers — fusion energy will change the world

An advance in energy production scientists have been chasing for decades was achieved on Dec. 5.

SHARE Forget the naysayers — fusion energy will change the world
Kim Budil, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, discusses a major scientific breakthrough in fusion research that was made at the lab in California, during a news conference at the Department of Energy in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) ORG XMIT: DCSA105

Kim Budil, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, discusses a major scientific breakthrough in fusion research made at the lab during a news conference at the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 13.

AP

A government laboratory, after decades of tireless effort and many a disappointment, announces that it has achieved the holy grail of green energy — nuclear fusion ignition! And the response has been ... a damp squib.

A reporter at The Guardian sniffed that what happened at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was a “milestone event but not a major one.” Yes, he agrees, “nuclear fusion would have a beneficial impact on our planet by liberating vast amounts of energy without generating high levels of carbon emissions and would be an undoubted boost in the battle against climate change.” So why not cheer? Apparently because failures and hoaxers have claimed breakthroughs in the past that didn’t pan out.

But dry holes and failures are the story of innovation. If previous flops discredit an avenue of research, we’d have to dismiss any scientific advance because whatever it is, someone has failed to achieve it in the past or has lied about it. The spinning jenny? The electric light bulb? Antibiotics? Check. Check. Check. That’s the process. You keep testing hypotheses and building upon the knowledge your failures provide until the day when — eureka! — something works.

That’s what happened in Livermore, California, on Dec. 5. An advance in energy production scientists have been chasing for decades — a reaction that produces more energy than it consumed — was achieved. Yes, briefly, and at extremely high cost, but it happened. It’s no longer theoretical, and that changes everything. Sen. Chuck Schumer was on the money: “This astonishing scientific advance puts us on the precipice of a future no longer reliant on fossil fuels but instead powered by new clean fusion energy.”

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But a Wall Street Journal editorial tossed cold water on it, arguing that the Biden administration is “overselling” it. Why? Because practical applications are probably decades away, and anyway, this was government-funded research and the Journal doesn’t want anybody getting the idea that this advance justifies spending more government money.

But this was about as basic as basic research gets. And the Journal’s argument is that more basic research needs to happen before the technology can have real-world applications, so would it really be so terrible if the federal government continues to fund the science?

I suspect that if this success had been achieved while Donald Trump was president, the Journal would have hailed the potential benefits, which include solving climate change, obliterating the power of fossil fuel dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, Russia and Venezuela, permitting desalination of sea water wherever fresh water is scarce around the globe (including Southern California and other U.S. locations), vertical farming, reducing poverty and much more. Instead, they are minimizing the accomplishment under the title “Hold the Nuclear Fusion Hype.”

The Washington Post editorial board is unimpressed with this fantastic news for other reasons. Sure, they acknowledge, nuclear fusion power is “tantalizing,” but the technology is “unlikely to play a major role in the energy grid for years or decades” and won’t be online in time to fight climate change. So now everyone needs to get back to investing in the technologies we know about: solar, wind, carbon capture and, almost as an afterthought, nuclear fission.

Why so sour? Yes, we have to cut emissions and engage in mitigation strategies in the short run to deal with the climate problem that is upon us, but this strengthens the case for widespread adoption of modular nuclear fission reactors. After Livermore’s breakthrough, we know that we won’t be accumulating nuclear waste indefinitely, but only for a few decades.

Besides, we can’t know that it will really be decades before fusion power plants become a reality.

It was only 66 years between the Wright brothers’ first flight and Apollo 11. And that innovation took place in a world without supercomputers, machine learning, extensive international scientific cooperation and vast wealth. Part of what speeds technological progress is wealth. In southern France, 35 nations are participating in a project to create another form of fusion energy that many believe is even more promising.

We’ve endured more than our share of awful news in the past few years. The news about fusion energy is nothing but good. It’s a reminder that America still leads in scientific innovation. It’s a glimpse of an abundant future, freed from one of mankind’s great burdens — expensive, polluting energy. It’s a corrective for the millions of young people around the globe who despair of being able to raise kids of their own for fear of climate catastrophe.

Humans are capable of believing in QAnon, yes, but they’re also able to create a coronavirus vaccine in record time and to harness the power of the sun here on Earth. Despair is not realism; it’s a lack of imagination. Historians will record Dec. 5, 2022, as a significant step on the road to clean, abundant, affordable energy. This is a time for gratitude and wonder, not for grinding axes.

Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the “Beg to Differ” podcast.

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