If there ever was a time for our nation, especially our federal government, to step up to bat and make a vigorous effort to help develop fusion nuclear energy — which most energy experts would consider the ideal form of renewable, clean energy — now is that time. And I say that for two basic reasons.
The first and most obvious reason for pursuing fusion is that fossil fuels are rapidly becoming obsolete. Quite simply, they’re not a stable or low-cost form of energy. A March 21 front-page article in the Star Tribune (“Fuel costs put economy on edge”) describes very well this bad-news situation. And, needless to say, fossil fuels are not a clean or safe form of energy. The U.N. secretary-general‘s report that the world is “sleepwalking to climate catastrophe” makes abundantly clear that we need to reduce our use of fossil fuels to net zero, starting immediately.
The second reason has to do with the shortcomings of currently available alternative-energy sources. This point was well illustrated by a March 20 front-page article titled “Solar vs. scenery: Panels sow division” — which, of course, also applies to wind generation farms. And even though better energy storage batteries are in the making, the consistency and reliability of wind and solar can also be a real concern.
Furthermore, there are numerous other advantages of fusion vs. current energy sources. Its footprint will be small. It can be a reliable backup for other forms of energy, including solar. It’s also sustainable, because its fuel is derived from water, which also means locally sourced energy. There’s zero emission of CO2, only helium, a nontoxic gas. It’s projected to be very price-competitive. And, when compared to conventional nuclear fission, there’s absolutely no radioactive waste or risk of meltdowns. Plus, its fuels cannot be converted to nuclear weapons.
The one very obvious downside of trying to develop fusion as a commercially viable source of energy, however, has been the huge technical challenges it has posed. Over two dozen international organizations and companies have been diligently working on this technology for over 50 years. And most fusion generators to date consume more energy than they produce.
But here’s the good news. A joint effort of MIT and a privately funded spinoff company have developed a high-temperature superconducting magnet that potentially enables a fusion device to generate 10 times more energy than it consumes. Many experts in the field of nuclear physics are saying this is one giant stride. And this program, called SPARC, envisions developing a prototype fusion device that can power a town by 2025, then be able to sell its fusion electrical generators around the world by 2030.
So why should the federal government jump in and provide significantly more funding and support for privately supported ventures, such as SPARC, and other similar efforts? Because, if there ever was a prime example of how our nation rapidly achieved success in a scientific endeavor, it was when a government agency called NASA fully utilized the hard sciences available at the time, and we won the “space race” with Russia. Plus, we even exceeded our own expectations then.
And one of the primary reasons NASA’s endeavors succeeded 50 years ago was that its budget represented 4% of the federal budget. Today, however, funds allocated to the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop alternative energy, such as fusion, solar, battery backup, wind energy, etc., totals about $5 billion, or 0.10% (yes, only 0.10%) of our current federal budget. And when it comes to a real serious funding shortfall in the DOE’s energy development budget, only $1 billion is currently being directed toward the development of nuclear fusion energy. Relatively speaking, that’s peanuts.
I know, having the feds spend more money is something some folks don’t want to hear. But if we stop subsidizing the fossil fuel industry to the tune of $20 billion a year, that’s a large chunk of change that could definitely be directed toward solving this problem.
So looking forward, if we seriously want to move the needle and make a bold new green “space race” effort succeed, we seriously need to bolster our nation’s and the federal government’s efforts. And while it’s never been easy to predict the future, there’s one thing that’s always going to be for certain. A greener future can’t help but benefit everyone.
Jon R. Clark lives in Minneapolis.