31 January 2010 9:35 PM (nif | nuclear engineering | fusion | fission | energy | power)

Good evening, internet. I've got a personal story to tell, then something of immediate relevance. I just can't stand these stories about the NIF, this test fusion facility at Lawrence Livermore. But the personal bits first.


Faced with the typical dilemma of "what to do with your life", as a 16-year-old high school student, I was sure I wasn't going to be a nuclear engineer. My dad worked for the power company at that time, and I had grown up in the figurative shadow of McGuire nuclear station. The nerdiness of the whole thing attracted me, but the nuclear profession seemed so dead, like so much office work.

So it was with some surprise that I found myself that summer at a camp run by the nuclear engineering department at North Carolina State University. To this day I'm not sure why I went. But go I did, and ended up being attracted by the promise of solving our world's energy problems via fusion power. Limitless energy! And I, your humble writer, could have a hand in it. Surely there would be a corner of the spotlight reserved for my modest contributions, and if not the spotlight, then some nook in engineer heaven.

Nothing about the education there had much to do with fusion, though. Most undergraduate programs are basically funded by the nuclear power industry. There is some medical work, a fair amount of plasma work, and a modicum of fundamental work, but the professors who do well (and transitively, their grad students) sell to the fission power industry. Thermal hydraulics simulation codes. Safety assessments. Sponsored chairs. Fuel rotation algorithms (my department chair got rich off that).

But it took me a couple years to realize that, because you know, it's the bait and switch thing. Even to the very end. In my last year there I was working for a professor on a monotonic X-ray source, for medical imaging applications. As it was sold to me, this was going to allow more accurate mammograms, without the need for painful compression. All the simulations were coming out good, the device looked quite powerful, and my advisor said, "This will make a great gun!"

A gun! Because I didn't mention the other funder: the military. This guy was a Naval Fellow This and a Thank You From The Army That, and here I was thinking I was earning my honorable discharge via working on a medical imaging device.

I did end up getting my BS there, and at the top of my class, which that year was a class of one. But that's another story.


Well, longer story shorter. When I went into nuclear engineering, in 1997, the main way of thinking about fusion energy was the tokamak, the donut-looking thing that tries to make a ring of plasma, then magnetically compress it into a density and temperature that will sustain fusion. Then somehow you extract the heat, boil water, turbines, generators, same old story.

It's an enormous complicated thing, into which billions and billions of dollars were sunk, both in the US (like at the Princeton facility) and internationally, through ITER. About the same time I went into NE, US funding for ITER was pulled.

So what was I to do, the erstwhile fusion power Nobel prizewinner? Well the US story was that they had another thing going, the so-called National Ignition Facility. Perhaps you've seen it in the news recently. Their PR agency is quite good; the message was mainly conveyed as "plucky and valiant scientists make step towards fusion energy".

But the NIF has little to do with energy. Here's the deal: due to popular protest, the US can't make test explosions of H-bombs any more. But how are they to know what would happen if they dropped a bomb on some unsuspecting adversary, if they can't test their weapons? Well they simulate those explosions with computer codes. (That's why LLNL and LANL have the some of the world's fastest supercomputers.)

But how will they know if their codes actually work? They need actual fusion explosions. So they concocted a plan to sell Congress a power plant driven by fusion bombs.

That plant is NIF.

Of course, the actual development of this story has more nuances, but the reason that the US is funding NIF is entirely due to its military applications.


Peak oil, peak coal, peak gas. Blood for oil. Global warming. Poisonous gas wells. Vampire hydro dams. These things are well-known.

Peak uranium is also fairly well-known, but fission energy has other problems, of which I'll touch only one today. But first, the engineering issues with internal-confinement fusion power.

NIF claims to be a power plant. But actually getting useful power out of bombs is very unlikely. How are you going to harvest the resulting heat energy without destroying the enclosure? What about all those neutrons? What about the radioactive trash that the neutrons make?

But beyond that, how would you sustain ignition of fusion bombs? The idea is, one explosion goes off. Then you position the next pellet, fire on it, and so on at such a rate that the residual heat creates conditions for a sustained reaction: ignition. When I was studying these things, the estimated necessary rate for this process was 10 to 20 times a second.

This is an engineering nightmare. Fission is easy in comparison.

I don't think ICF will ever achieve ignition, but this is a prediction from someone who's been happily out of that industry for almost a decade.

An almost equally large problem is money. Finance, rather. Nuclear fission plants can deliver effective per-unit costs of electricity, of course ignoring externalized costs. That is, effective if you don't count in finance costs. Building a fission plant typically costs multiple billions of dollars. Fusion plants are probably just as costly. The NIF test facility is already brushing 5 billion, though I wouldn't be surprised if it ended up costing twice that.

This financing issue turns out to affect not just the bottom line. It ends up being large, centralized agencies that control such large investments. Centralized power is centralized control, and that goes for electrical power too.


As someone who went in idealistic, with the hopes of solving the world's energy problems, I am still an optimist. The solution to the world's energy problems will be twofold: power-down, and energetic democracy. One way or the other, we will consume less energy in the future. That's power-down. The other side is people producing sustainable energy for themselves and their community: geothermal heat, solar power, wind power.

There's simply no other way. We can try other ways, but they will only hurt us in the end.

10 responses

  1. Martin Sevior says:

    Powerdown is unlikely in the previously "Third World"

    BTW Peak Uranium, Peak Coal and Peak Gas are a long way off IMHO

    And yeah I'm very familiar with all the arguments. I hang out at TheOilDrum a lot.

  2. Anonymous says:

    It seems worth pointing out that a decrease in energy consumption will only happen with the increasing adoption of more efficient implementations for the same needs or wants. You won't get people to give up a useful or fun gadget unless either you make one that works more efficiently or you make something that obsoletes it.

  3. says:

    So what do you think about breeder reactors? Especially things such as the Superphenix, the Integral Fast Breeder, or various proposals based on a Thorium fuel cycle, such as a Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactors?

  4. wingo says:

    @Martin: Thanks for stopping by. Oddly enough, it's the third world that's most ready for powerdown, even as their aspirations to the first world's level of consumption are heating up; it would be ironic if it weren't so sad.

    @Anonymous: I don't think it's possible to reach energetic sustainability solely via efficiency. The twentieth century was anomalous in that regard: like the succulent that shoots out a flower and dies. But the other side of that pessimism is the knowledge that we will adjust our expectations, because if adjustment doesn't happen voluntarily it will happen involuntarily, only much nastier.

    It's not my main point, but I will give an example. A couple of years ago the gasoline prices spiked. European truckers who were on fixed-price contracts, precarious to begin with, started to actually lose money on their shipments. They blockaded the border at the Pyrennees, burned trucks, and at least one person died. Within two days the shelves of supermarkets here in Barcelona were bare. The strike was broken a couple days later, by the police, and things resumed to normal. But that was just a small taste of the kind of event that will make people realize that their current patterns of energy consumption are not sustainable.

    @3: I'm not aware of the particular designs you mention. When I was studying, it was clear breeder reactors had lots of advantages regarding fuel availability, but designs have been out since the 70s at least. I know the military runs them, but why don't we see breeder reactors in usage, even in the US? As far as I know it's for weapons proliferations concerns. It's simply too easy to make bombs with these plants. And of course they inherit most of the other problems with fission energy. I could be wrong of course, but I don't think anything fundamental has changed with breeder reactors in the last 10 years.


  5. Jason McBrayer says:

    Re: fusion, how about Polywell and the other inertial electrostatic containment designs? Possibly viable? And if viable, small enough to be reasonably decentralized? (i.e., startup costs in the millions rather than the billions)? I'm a layman in this kind of thing, so I have no idea how to judge the claims.

  6. Rob J .Caskey says:

    Ironic if it weren't so sad. I would call that a tragedy. So, basically you believe the third-world is in for an unavoidable tragedy that trying to avoid with the technology we have now will only make worse, so we should take care of the first world? Guess that works out OK for me but I'd hate to be the guy to brake it to the guy in China.

  7. Russ says:

    I think you've proven that promising to sell a commodity whose price you have no control over is foolhardy.

  8. Nathan Myers says:

    Thank you for this. I learned more than one thing.

    It seems clear to me that people will not reduce their use of coal to generate power until the alternatives are cheaper than the operating cost of burning coal. Unfortunately, typical alternatives are most cost-effectively employed by making it cheaper to operate coal plants, e.g. by pre-heating water and heating or pressurizing intake air, so most advances move back the goalposts. Carbon taxes only work where you have jurisdiction to collect them, and they drive down the price of commodity fuel (except, probably, coal), increasing consumption elsewhere. They really can only help insofar as they drive development of alternatives.

    I keep hoping to see more development of no-moving-parts windmills, based on Alvin Marks's charged-mist designs, that could easily scale up to gigawatt range.

  9. Russell says:

    Gosh, this sounds so very, very familiar!

    Here's an excerpt from what I wrote when I came to the same conclusion exactly one year ago, and jumped from theoretical plasma physics to genomics :

    In a nutshell, here is the solution to the energy crisis : Stop being a pussy.

    We don't need to be "saved" from this. Not by fusion reactors. Not by advanced nuclear whatever. Not by magical carbon sequestration. The human race will have fewer gigawatts to play around with, and so we'll use them more carefully. The reality of the energy crisis is this: Our sense of entitlement and its associated low inclination to innovate is coming face to face with the laws of physics. Physics will win. Exit crisis, pursued by a bear.

    Energy is neither cheap nor abundant. It never has been, and it never will be. If you don't believe me, get on a stationary bike and do 860 calories of work (you'll burn about 2400 calories, or three good meals). That's one kilowatt-hour. You will be tired as hell. Right now, you pay about a dime for that much work. No matter how you generate it, it's crazy to pay so little for so much. It should come as no surprise that there are hidden fees in the fine print, like "may destroy the Earth." Cheap energy was always a Faustian pact.

    There are lots of good reasons to build reactor tokamaks, but cheap energy isn't one of them. Fusion would be a great power source for space exploration; the fuel is everywhere, you don't have to worry as much about radiation, and you get your vacuum pumping for free. Sometime soon, I think we'll do just that. But for now, I simply refuse to grind through all that horrible mathematics just so Cody McFuckhead can leave his X-Box running while he goes on spring break.

  10. Roshan says:

    That was an interesting read. It's always cool to read something from an insider.

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