Fusion Energy Science Research & Development – Why a New Path Forward is Needed

The conventional approaches to fusion have proven long and costly; the US Government does not have a coherent, unified approach to fusion energy

  • Inertial confinement fusion (ICF) is funded through the DOE National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) as a nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship activity.
  • NNSA is adamant (when convenient) that NNSA’s mission does not include Inertial Fusion Energy (IFE).
  • Non-LLNL weapons scientists say NIF is not needed for stewardship.
  • Magnetic confinement fusion (MCF) is funded through the DOE Office of Fusion Energy Sciences (OFES) in the Office of Science (SC).
  • In OFES, “fusion” really means only “steady-state, magnetically confined fusion.”
  • In practice, OFES “fusion” is “tokamak uber alles.”

The insatiable appetite of ITER and NIF for all available funds dominates US fusion politics.

  • Fusion is costly: ICF–$476 M/year, MCF–$400 M/year (FY12)
  • ITER and NIF have been in the planning stages for more than 2 decades; 3X cost overruns and long schedule delays have not dampened advocates.
  • OFES FY13 budget request moves $50 M from domestic research (universities, national labs, etc.) to ITER construction, for a total of $150 M; expected ITER need is $300 M/year for 10 years (US only).
  • “Vested interests” discourage a healthy scientific dialog:

    “a couple of researchers would not go on record criticizing the [non-ITER] cancellations for fear DOE would retaliate in future funding,” Physics Today, September 2011, p. 30.

  • NNSA and OFES have cast aside promising alternates, in spite of Congressional pressure for a more balanced program.

NIF has been in the news because an end-of-FY12 milestone-ignition (and scientific breakeven)–was not achieved

  • Conceptual design ~ 1994.
  • “The Committee provides $56M … to achieve the 2010 ignition goal,” House Appropriations Committee, 5/17/06.
  • “(we will) conduct a credible ignition campaign in 2010,” E. Moses, Nuc. Fusion 49, 104022 (2009).
  • “If someone offered me the job to build a commercial prototype fusion plant and they said ‘You’ve only got 10 years,’ I’d take the job,” E. Moses, Newsweek, 11/23/09.
  • “We are now in a position to say with some confidence that ignition will happen in the next 6-18 months,” M. Dunne, 1/26/12, www.optics.org/news/3/1/37. “We have all the capability to make it happen in fiscal year 2012,” E. Moses, Nature 3/7/12.
  • “NIF reminds us that the line between optimism and overselling is a thin one that can too easily be crossed,” Nature editorial, 11/7/12.

After a decade of NIF cost overruns and schedule delays, Congress may be running out of patience

  • “If NIF does not achieve ignition … by the end of fiscal 2012, the Committee directs NNSA to submit a report by Nov. 30, 2012 that (1) explains the scientific and technical barriers to ignition; (2) the steps NNSA will take to achieve ignition with a revised schedule …,” Senate Appropriations Committee, 4/29/12.
  • “So far unfruitful, (the NIF) fusion project faces a frugal Congress … Moses called many of the critics uninformed …,” NY Times, 9/29/12.
  • “I have told the people at Livermore lab more than once to keep quiet about electricity from inertial fusion until they make a nano-bomb go off since they have made promises in the past and failed to deliver. They have not listened and they have reduced their credibility once again,” Burton Richter, Nobel Laureate, NY Times .dotearth.blogs 10/18/12.

The magnetic fusion community is concerned it will be caught in a NIF backlash

  • “This (failure to reach ignition) non-event should not bear any relation to the fate of other vital work centering on an entirely different approach … (this) has nothing to say about progress in magnetic fusion … the liklihood of (ITER) success is high … a demonstration fusion power plant … 25 years from today … we are unaware of any major project failures in magnetic fusion,” S. Prager (Director, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory), NY Times .dotearth.blogs 11/29/12.


  • “The key scientific issues of fusion energy have been resolved … TFTR will achieve not just a power break-even, but will be a net power producer in terms of heat,” A. Davies (U.S. Dept. of Energy), Popular Science, December 1978.
  • “The first working fusion power plant is projected for the late 1990’s,” Popular Mechanics, April 1976, reporting interview with M. Gottlieb (Director, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory).

Ill-advised promises, overstatements, and misstatements have dominated fusion, suppressing promising alternate approaches.

  • “I find it amazing that fusion scientists — even good, honest ones like Dr. Prager –are unable to see the web of contradictions that they weave. For example, Dr. Prager complains about taking the failure to meet an ‘artificial deadline’ seriously, and in the same breath, promises a fusion powerplant ‘25 years from today’ (if, of course, the projects he backs get funded.)
  • These deadlines are self-imposed. They’re promises that the scientists utter over and over again in order to convince Congress to keep funding them for the next 10 years. Ed Moses and other NIF scientists promised that ignition would happen in 2010, then 2011, then 2012, and when finally it didn’t happen–missing by a factor of two (or of ten… the jury’s still out) he’s shocked, shocked, that people took his promises seriously. (Or the promises that NOVA would ignite in the mid 1980s. Or the promises that SHIVA would ignite in the 1970s.) And the fact that those promises were made despite mounds of evidence (including a JASONs report) that said ignition wasn’t going to happen with NIF.
  • This is the history of fusion in a nutshell. Promises made, but never kept. Critics ignored and mocked. It’s true for magnetic fusion, just as it is for laser fusion.” Charles Seife (author of “Sun in a bottle: the strange history of fusion and the science of wishful thinking”) NY Times .dotearth.blogs 11/19/12

If MTF is such a good idea, why hasn’t someone done it?

  • The fledgling efforts in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s were not from “main-line” programs, had limited funding, no political backing.
  • Vested interests in “main-line” programs made sure no effort was allowed to reach technical maturity.
  • “Unfortunately, the whole program was terminated at that point (~ 1968) because the newly established Frascati tokamak program required all the available manpower and resources”–H. Knoepfel, Proc. of MG-IV, 1986.
  • ‘Someone at Princeton went to someone at DOE and said that if LANL succeeds, it will kill your whole Tokamak program’ (A. Sherwood, private communication, ~ 1992).
  • In spite of the success of high-gain target design computations, Sandia abandoned magnetized targets on advice from LLNL, who convinced Sandia that high-gain magnetized targets were not practical (G. Yonas, private communication, ~ 1990).
  • The Lindemuth & Kirkpatrick survey was a “bootleg” effort that was for the most part ignored by the fusion community and strongly discouraged by LANL management.

Sandia National Labs. are focussing fusion effort on a magnetized target concept MagLIF (Magnetized Liner Inertial Fusion)

Length = 5 mm
Initial radius = 2.7 mm
Initial magnetic field = 300 kG
Initial mass density = 3 mg/cc
Implosion velocity = 10 cm/µsd

  • The liner is imploded on the “Z” accelerator (26 MA, 20 MJ, 100 ns).
  • High gain, yield is predicted for this type of system (S. Slutz and R. Vesey, Phys. Rev. Lett. 108, 025003, 2012).
  • Preheat and magnetization experiments and integration with Z will begin in 2013.

China may be making a commitment to explore MTF

  • J. Li, Director, Institute of Plasma Physics, indicated that MTF was being considered as a candidate for EDEMO (ICOPS/SOFE, Chicago, June 2011).
  • Yang Xianjang of the Beijing Institute of Math. and Comp. Phys. gave an MTF talk at the Megagauss-XIV conf. (Maui, October 2012).
  • A UNR/SNL delegation has been invited to visit China to lecture at several institutes on MTF and related pulsed power (May or October 2013).

The > 1e4 density, > 1e2 velocity range of MTF admits many plasma/ driver combinations; plasma may be magnetically or wall confined with simple magnetic topology; pulse-shaping is not needed

NNSA’s recent “Ignition Path Forward” report to Congress makes MagLIF a recognized element in the ignition effort

  • “MDIs (Magnetically Driven Implosions) with pulsed power may reduce the risk for inertial confinement fusion to achieve relevant fusion conditions by increasing the energy delivered to the target and the size of the target and by magnetizing and preheating the fuel to possibly reduce target performance requirements.”
But, it’s also business as usual

“Because the indirect drive approach … has the closest relevance to nuclear weapons physics, this will remain the mainline approach … It is too early to assess whether or not ignition can be achieved at the NIF … Present ICF codes had predicted that NIF would attain ignition … Once the codes and models are improved to the point at which agreement is reached, NNSA will be able to determine whether and by what approach ignition can be achieved at the NIF” (same process that lead to previous ignition predictions on Shiva, Nova, and NIF) …“The three-year plan culminates … at the end of FY2015. At that time, NNSA will have an assessment of the liklihood and schedule for achieving ignition.” (i.e., no ignition until after FY2015)

  • “Both PDD (polar direct drive) and MDI offer an alternative … if lower convergence ratios or higher energies are required.” (if, and only if???)
  • “This strategy is balanced … ” (but, not in $$$)
Ill-advised promises, overstatements, and misstatements will continue to dominate fusion and suppress promising alternates.

Some people think MTF just might work!!!

  • “What has successfully been tested thus far (in the LANL/VNIIEF MAGO collaboration) has all the earmarks of a ‘pure fusion’ neutron bomb,” S. Cohen, Wall Street Journal, May 15, 1996.
  • “Three major technologies could contribute to feasibility of pure fusion weapons:” (i) NIF; (ii) MTF; (iii) X-1. NIF and X-1 are illegal under a CTBT. “MTF experiments that would achieve ignition should be stopped,” Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, July, 1998.
  • “We see no immediate danger of a militarily attractive new type of weapon being developed from the current unclassified research programs on pure-fusion explosions … ICF, MTF and z-pinch enthusiasts claim that their research might result in an economical source of power, but that seems extremely unlikely,” S. Jones, R. Kidder, F. VonHippel, Physics Today, September, 1998.
  • “These (alternative) concepts, which include a hybrid approach that crushes the plasma, as in inertial confinement, while bottling up the hot particles with magnetic fields, ‘are really exciting and are bringing young scientists into the field,’ said Mauel (Columbia U.),” Science, July 1998.
  • MTF “offers a true alternative to conventional magnetic fusion concepts, and … is certainly worth examining as a potential source of fusion energy,” J. Freidberg, Plasma Physics and Fusion Energy, Cambridge U. Press, 2007.

Without a major culture change in the U.S. fusion community, fusion may always be 30 years away.

From “Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking,” Charles Siefe (Penguin, New York, 2008):

  • Science is little more than a method for tearing away notions that are not supported by cold, hard data. It forces us to discard ideas that we cherish. It eliminates some of our hopes, … dreams, … wishes.
  • The real danger of wishful thinking comes … from the wishful thinking at the very core of the scientific community. This … is what makes the dream of fusion energy so dangerous to science. The community seems to be in thrall to a collective delusion.
  • The fusion community clings to the hope that fusion energy is just thirty years away… It is just another case of wishful thinking.
  • There is something uniquely powerful about the promise of fusion energy. It harks back to the ancient quest to build a perpetual motion machine, but this time the source of unlimited energy doesn’t violate the laws of physics… The rewards are so great that they can blind the scientists on the quest.
  • Over and over again, the dream of fusion energy has driven scientists to lie, to break their promises, and to deceive their peers.
  • The promise of a fusion reactor a few decades away has been a cliche for a half century. Every time it is repeated, it just lluminates how generation after generation of scientists, drunk with the promise of personal glory and unlimited energy, keep forgetting the hard lessons learned by their predecessors. The quest to put a star in a bottle is intoxicating. Fusion might be the energy source of the future. If fusion scientists are unable to rid themselves of their intemperate selfdeception, it always will be.

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