Don't count on Fusion power any time soon

I have previously written here that developing a workable fusion power plant is going to be more difficult than most people realize. It isn’t just a physics problem of getting a stable, controllable fusion reaction going. It is also, perhaps more importantly, a materials science and engineering problem. Materials need to be developed that can withstand the intense neutron radiation that the reactors will produce. This is particularly needed for the so-called “first wall”, the first wall that the high energy neutrons produced from fusion will encounter.

Construction recently began on a materials testing facility in Spain, that will try to answer some of these questions.

Note that this is basically just a research and testing facility. The actual designs for a working power plant will come later, possibly decades away.

Related to this research facility is the ITER fusion reactor project, currently under construction in France. The purpose of ITER is to demonstrate that a stable, longer lasting nuclear fusion reaction can be established. But ITER will not be a working power plant. As described in the link below, ITER might have a deuterium-tritium reaction going around 2035, though it will probably be later than that.

There are other fusion projects going on in various other countries, including some private ventures that have big hopes, but no big breakthroughs yet, from what I have seen.

Just my opinion, but most of these efforts going into fusion would be better spent on developing advanced fission power. Molten fuel fission reactors, high temperature gas-cooled plants, or other exotic designs, have a better chance at success than fusion at this point. We already know how to do fission. It works. But there is a good chance we could make fission even safer, more efficient, and capable of using fuels that are much more common than U-235.

  • Pete

So, basically, your position is: “Don’t spend effort on fusion power technology commercialization?”

We know that fission is something we need much more of, but why are these (bleeding) cutting edge technology projects not acceptable as scoped at the present time?

If these projects were scoped as standard fission or edge technology fission reactors, would they be in effort at all, and by these groups?

If not, then these are additional efforts which are adding materially to our understanding and development of nuclear as a power source for commercial applications.

They are expanding our commercialized technology tool kit through their successes, and are pruning our fractally driven tree of innovation for those technologies which fail.

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It’s worth while as a long-term, low-level research type project, but I don’t see it as ready for prime time (“commercialization”). This has pretty much been the case for almost half a century now.


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The problem as I see is that fusion research is incredibly expensive and there is no guarantee it will ever pay off. At best, the payoff is far future. It might be better to try to hit a few singles.

Coincidently, I saw this article just today. Note: Just the site is ending, not research.


I’m not sure I understand all of your questions, but will try to explain in more detail.

If I had my choice, I would like to see more fusion and fission R&D. Fusion has a lot of potential, but the engineering problems I partially described in the original post make it a long term proposition.

Fission is here right now, but admittedly there is a small amount of risk associated with the plants built in the 1970s and 80s. Newer designs, such as the gas-cooled plants that use TRISO spheres, would make melt-downs almost impossible. I need to put in the “almost” disclaimer, but let’s just say those plants would be much, much safer. There is also the possibility of developing thorium or uranium-238 as fuels. Those plants would need different designs, but Th and U-238 are much more common, making fission almost inexhaustible as an energy source.

Another reason why new fission needs to be developed sooner is because the atmospheric CO2 concentration is now near 420 ppm and rising each year. Past and current efforts at even slowing the rise have been ineffective. We need more and better tools, if this CO2 thing is really such an existential problem. Going back to the same wind, solar, wind, solar, batteries choices just aren’t going to get the job done.

  • Pete

My other BIL (I know disgusting of me, LOL) an MIT Physicist says the physics are settled. This is an engineering problem.

At least my two sisters are consistent, a physicist and an endocrinologist.

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First, I’m in agreement that aggressive (re)development of functional advanced fission designs need to be implemented and proliferated.

My line of questions is really related to the value of pursuing meaningful problems and the the balance of progress that occurs when part of the set of interested parties pursue “academic” problems in lieu of developing or supporting a program of commercial facilities.

This is not an inconsequential issue. There are only so many entities, people and industrial centers that can/will work on nuclear. If some portion of them pursues only fusion problems (apparently to no broader benefit to mankind), then that portion is not available to push commercialization of right here-right now fission processes.

Effectively: Further research on fusion is not as meaningful to our future as working harder now to implement fission technology.

Economically what is affordable in the West (read US, UK, and Japan…perhaps Australia and SK) as we build our factory bases will change. We are coming from a place of major national debts and retooling industry.

The entire phase of potential nuclear build-out is about 5 years out going forward. The engineering part of this will attract more recent engineering grads.

What I have seen with Donald Sadoway MIT his projects span many areas of material sciences. He has teams of students involved.

We are talking about a handful of material issues and planning issues for scaling it up. The professors can tackle a few of these things while setting up post-grads to work on them in separate teams.

The physics settled. The engineering for fission and fusion is needed. The economics developing. It is possible to get there.

The issues with fission won’t necessarily go away.

The risk to both options is lower-cost alternatives as their power output increases.

Fission has not proven to be a deflationary policy.

Fusion might prove a deflationary force. People have said it could be. I have not seen any cost considerations as to why it is deflationary.