Fusion energy seems like an unobtainable dream. For the last century, the pursuit of fusion has always been 50 years in the future. Does this mean that fusion will forever remain a dream? Humanity has in the past faced similar challenges and prevailed. The critical difference in solving these prior challenges was a sense of urgency, virtually unlimited funding, and a specific way of organizing these projects. It might help to recall how those challenges were solved when facing our current difficulties.
The playwright Samuel Beckett wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
What Beckett’s words remind us of is that all advances build on failures. Achievement in technology, science, or creative endeavors, is often the offspring of many failed attempts. The path to success is one paved by failures — they are the cobblestones on which we tread in our acquisition of knowledge, and they are the ground from which we advance.
Many unsuccessful launches preceded the achievement of Scott Kelly when he returned to Earth after 340 consecutive days in space. But all the failed attempts are also part of the incredible story of man’s conquering of space, leading to Scott Kelly’s’ record-breaking journey.
On December 6th, 1957, the first U.S. attempt at Cape Canaveral to launch a satellite, the Vanguard TV3, into orbit lasted two seconds. It reached a total height of 4 feet before the rocket sank back to the launch pad, rupturing and exploding its fuel tanks. The failed launch attempts into space count over 160 to date. Part of this total is the April 4th, 1968, Apollo 6 mission, the final uncrewed test for the Saturn V rocket, before a three-person crew would travel around the Moon and back. Two minutes into the launch, the rocket experienced severe turbulence and later lost parts of its lunar adapter before two of its five engines shut down prematurely. And while the rocket did reach space, it never made the planned 100-mile circular orbit.
Kelly’s story, therefore, doesn’t begin with the lift-off on March 11th, 2015, that started his record-breaking journey, nor with his first space flight in December 1999. His story has its beginning in the early days of space flight. An era propelled by the cold war into a race between the U.S.S.R. and the United States. With a clear goal to be the first to place their man and respective flags on the Moon.
Recorded as space failures, the Vanguard TV3 and Apollo 6 are cobblestones on the path to the Apollo 11 mission. The Apollo 11 mission lifted off on July 16th, 1969, carrying the American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin. Apollo 11 was the space mission where the U.S. “won” the race to the Moon.
Other more tragic tales also form part of this story. Tales that are not mere analogies of better fails or metaphors of cobblestones on paths. These events count the loss of human lives, such as the Apollo 1 mission, where a cabin fire killed the entire crew during a pre-launch test. However, stories such as this and the continued persistence to conquer space speak of a particular political acceptance of the loss of human lives — which bears witness to a sense of urgency, one resembling the, at least political, acceptance of human losses often seen during warfare.
The political climate during which the Apollo program, also called Operation Moonshot, was launched gives us insight into why such a sense of urgency surrounded the space program. First conceived during President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, it was indeed launched in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy, in an address to Congress, made it a national goal for the 1960s to land “a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”. After a presidential campaign that focused heavily on space exploration and missile defense, the newly elected Kennedy promised American superiority over the U.S.S.R. on both fronts. It also bore witness to a great worry represented by the “missile gap”- the concern that the number and power of the U.S.S.R.’s missiles were significantly superior compared to those of the U.S.
Both the political and public spheres felt a sense of urgency. Linked to this sense of urgency was the suspicion that losing the space race might also mean losing the future. This suspicion changed into fear on April 12th, 1961, when the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to fly in space. Only one day later, U.S. members of Congress declared their support for an ambitious space program, and soon the national space budget was increased.
N.A.S.A. Administrator James E. Webb then recruited Dr. George E. Mueller — later credited as being The Father of the Space Shuttle — for an influential administrative position. In turn, Mueller appointed several high-ranking officers in the U.S. Air Force. They also brought a significant number of mid-grade and junior officers with them.
With significantly increased resources available and an effectively run organization like a military operation, the U.S. space program started to truly take off, one of its seminal successes being the 1968 Apollo 8 space flight. Apollo 8 was the first human-crewed spacecraft to leave the low Earth orbit and to reach the Moon. While its crew, Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders, never stepped foot on it, they did from lunar orbit witness — as the first humans ever — their home, “the Earth coming up”, as described by William Anders. Anders captured this on camera, and the picture that he took, later titled Earthrise, was declared “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken” by the nature photographer Galen Rowell.
How Rowell could make such a bold declaration is probably best summed up by William Anders himself. He said, in an interview with The Guardian at the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission, “It didn’t take long for the Moon to become boring. It was like dirty beach sand. Then we suddenly saw this object called Earth. It was the only color in the universe.” (2)
A man, whose single task was to orbit the Moon, was upon arrival instead drawn to the very object that had been his mission to leave. Anders explains the following about the photo, “People realized that we lived on this fragile planet and that we needed to take care of it”. His photograph, credited as being the image that fueled the environmental movement, is also perceived as the image that led to the first Earth Day in 1970. Earth Day is now a worldwide influential organization fighting to combat climate change. Part of their official vision is that it is “time for the world to hold sectors accountable for their role in our environmental crisis, while also calling for bold, creative, and innovative solutions.” (3)
Less than a year later, on July 20th, 1969, Americans Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the “dirty beach sand” of the Moon. The U.S. had officially won the race. When Armstrong planted the American flag on the lunar surface, Kennedy’s words to Congress echoed in this symbolic act. In the address to Congress on May 25th, 1961, Kennedy spoke: “it will not be one man going to the Moon — if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.” (4)
“For all of us must work to put him there” in many ways sums up the American Apollo program; the incredible number of resources made available to the project, the access to the brightest minds in the respective fields of research — all coming together as a result of a national sense of utmost importance and urgency. And the term “Moonshot” has since become definitive of a particular type of venture, characterized as a highly ambitious and innovative project — a venture intended to have deep-reaching results after a heavy, consistent, and usually quick push.
While the term Moonshot has since the Apollo programs made its way into the dictionaries, the understanding is now, according to the Miriam Webster dictionary, “a project or mission undertaken to achieve a monumental goal”. Similar undertakings and projects precede Project Moonshot, and the Manhattan Project is one such program from which shows many similarities to the American Apollo program.
The Manhattan Project
Like the Apollo program, the Manhattan Project was born from a sense of national threat and great urgency. In 1938 the German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman discovered nuclear fission. This discovery, combined with Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch’s theoretical outline of how one could practically produce this, led to increasing fears that Germany would develop nuclear weapons at the onset of the second world war. Much like the Apollo Program, the U.S. government — with assistance from the U.K. government — needed to win this race. Similarly, the Manhattan Project had a relatively simple yet straightforward goal to produce the first atomic bomb. This goal, however, was met by significant technical and scientific challenges.
As a result, the War Department and the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development set up the Manhattan Project. The U.S. Army officer Brig. Gen. Leslie R. Groves oversaw the project, that had to carry out numerous lines of research to achieve success quickly. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed countless plants, laboratories, and manufacturing facilities. This effort enabled recruited scientists at the forefront of their respective fields, such as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi, and Ernest Orlando Lawrence — to carry out their mission. Recruitment of notable scientists, recruitment of approximately 600.000 people, a vast array of constructions, and an almost limitless budget. All of these committed resources illustrate the significance ascribed to the mission by the U.S. government.
The project advanced significantly due to almost limitless resources and the focused militarily running of the mission, like Operation Moonshot. On July 16th, 1945, the atomic age commenced when the U.S. tested the world’s first nuclear bomb in the New Mexico desert. Less than two months later, the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, and three days later, a second atomic bomb, “Fat Man”, was dropped on Nagasaki.
To count the dead of these two bombings is a task of great challenge — much as giving a brief overview of the story of the Manhattan Project. Knowing that behind it are the individual stories of each life lost, and of the personal as well as social trauma that followed years after. Various attempts have been made since 1945 to come up with estimates on the death toll, and there are different methodologies behind making these kinds of assessments, yet there seems to be no straightforward answer. “Low” estimates of 110,000 casualties unsurprisingly come from the U.S. government in the 1940s, while a Japanese-led investigation from 1977 re-estimates the number to be 210,000 dead. (5)
It isn’t only a matter of casualties; the Japanese use the word hibakusha — directly translated to “explosion-affected people” — to describe survivors of these bombings. The Japanese government has recognized about 650,000 people as hibakusha. In March 2020, an estimated 136,682 hibakusha were still alive. These survivors, and their children, are by much of the Japanese public still met with the belief that the hibakusha carry hereditary or even contagious diseases. Despite inaccuracy and uncertainty of casualty numbers, this gives us insight into just how far-reaching the bombings have been — in terms of lives affected and timespan.
We have to recognize the profoundly troubling legacy left behind by the Manhattan Project, and it is part of the entire story we must tell. Even if we concern ourselves with the project as a program that — like Operation Moonshot — illustrates just how far technology and science can advance over a short time if only all components come together.
Both projects were, as mentioned, driven by a national and international sense of urgency and threat, which deemed it necessary to make resources available and gather the right people and minds to commence extraordinarily ambitious and innovative projects.
Manhattan and Moonshot mirror one another in the military-like management. Both projects set incredibly ambitious goals and made innovations of such significance that they continue to figure in modern life today. Their scientific and technological impact is visible in everyday life — from small objects such as the Teflon coating in frying pans to the imposing nuclear power plants providing energy around the globe today.
Ironically, this climate crisis seems to be missing a similar sense of urgency to develop a reliable alternative to fossil fuels. Putting a program in place, in which we will create new technology that can replace our reliance on CO₂-emitting energy sources. Imagine what might happen if similar resources were available to develop fusion energy, as discussed in the previous paragraphs. Suppose we gathered similar great minds and experts to harness its tremendous power. Suppose we create a climate Moonshot program.
As much as being a model for how we might run a fusion energy “Moonshot” program, the Manhattan project is also a poignant branch on our story tree of CO₂. After all, an offshoot of its development is the implementation of nuclear power in a worldwide setting.
After a period of intense concern with the development of the atomic bomb, the end of the second world war saw a shift in focus on developing nuclear energy. In 1953, President Eisenhower delivered his “Atom’s for Peace” speech to the U.N. General Assembly in New York. At the beginning of the Cold War, the address carefully balanced the growing fears of continued nuclear armament with the promise of peaceful use of atomic power.
And this new commercial venture soon took off. The first pressurized water reactor in the U.S. was established in 1960 in Westinghouse and ran until 1992. By then, France had been operating commercial models since 1959. Canada followed by establishing a reactor using natural uranium fuel and heavy water as a moderator and coolant. The Soviet Union commissioned its first power plants in 1964. And the U.K., the nation to first establish a civil nuclear program, had already opened a nuclear power plant, Calder Hall at Windscale, England, in 1956.
The nuclear industry then saw some decline from the late 1970s. Nuclear energy accounted for a total of 16–17% of worldwide electricity production from the mid-1980s, with the so-called second-generation reactors running up through the 1990s and the third-generation reactors taking over with a new boiling water reactor commissioned by Japan in the late 1990s.
With increasing energy demands and increasing awareness of the importance of each country to self-sufficiently meet electricity demands, the new century saw a recovery in the nuclear energy sector with pressurized water reactors. Finland is building such reactors, and more are currently on their way in France and the U.S.
We are now standing at the precipice of the fourth generation of nuclear power. China, for instance, is planning an immense increase in nuclear power capacity by 2030, proposing more than one hundred large units in total. (6)(7)
However, as is often the case, to gaze into the future is also to engage with the past. In the past lie the lessons and knowledge imperative to bring with us, and from which we must build. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with the nuclear catastrophes such as Chernobyl and Fukushima — tell us of the complex material we are operating with, when it comes to the current form of nuclear power.
While it may be a CO₂-free energy source, it is also a long-term, hazardous waste source. People exposed to radioactivity, either via nuclear bombings or accidents, have felt the consequences of this danger. Even with today’s much safer reactors, we are still dealing with the by-product of radioactive waste, for which no genuinely viable solutions exist.
Decay is a process which for high-level wastes, can take hundreds of thousands of years. Since decay is the only way radioactive waste no longer poses any threat, the world faces tremendous challenges regarding the disposal of these materials. At present, high-level nuclear waste is initially stored at the power plants themselves, while an intermediate solution is to place it in temporary warehouses outside the plants. Permanent disposal through deep geological storage is now internationally accepted as the final management of high-level radioactive waste. Deep geological storage is a solution that requires us to bury the toxic by-product of our CO₂-free alternative deep in the ground. What an ironic reversal of the processes that harness the CO₂-rich fissile fuels from the deep geologic layers of the very same Earth.
We can achieve fusion energy in perhaps 50 years of incremental development, and maybe we can achieve fusion energy within a decade by using a moonshot-style program. After all, fusion energy is a risk-and-toxic-free alternative to fission energy. Until we hopefully arrive at fusion energy, what exactly are the different options for nuclear CO₂-free interim solutions to fossil fuels?
Next-generation nuclear power
We are at the precipice of the 4th generation of nuclear power. For as much as current nuclear energy isn’t without its bad reputation and waste issues, we still have to consider the current energy alternatives to fossil fuels — especially in light of the rising energy demands.
Firstly, the Next Generation Nuclear Plant — or NGNP — is one of the proposed generations 4 very-high-temperature reactors — or VHTR. It exists only in design, coupled with the United States Department of Energy and their NGNP Project. The project envisaged a plant that would partner with a neighboring hydrogen production facility. The intention was to develop a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) plant to produce high-temperature process heat. The heat produced would be used in the neighboring hydrogen production plant. Other energy-intensive industries can then use this Hydrogen in their processes. At the same time, the reactor would generate electric power. The project was, however, terminated in October 2011. The U.S. Secretary of Energy explained that “Given current fiscal constraints, competing priorities, projected cost of the prototype, and the inability to reach agreement with industry on cost share, the Department will not proceed with the Phase 2 design activities at this time.”
Another potential route into the 4th generation of nuclear power is the TerraPower venture, founded by Bill Gates in 2008. Based on new and advanced technology developed to guard against nuclear disasters such as those witnessed in Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island in the U.S., Gates focused on the potential for clean — or at least CO₂-free — energy that nuclear power could offer. The most common reactors in use today are the light-water reactors. Water absorbs the intense heat created when the atoms split during the process of fission. This absorption and cooling of heat by light water can build up steam, which can cause an explosion with the devastating effects experienced, for instance, at the Fukushima Power Plant in 2011.
TerraPower has developed a new type of reactor called the traveling wave reactor. The principle behind the reactor is the placement of a small core of enriched fuel in the center of a larger mass of non-fissile material, in the case of the TerraPower reactor, Depleted Uranium. The neutrons from this core fission material produce fissile material just around the core in some Depleted Uranium. Over time, this material will breed more fuel and send more neutrons further into the surrounding mass, which then undergoes fission, “breeding’ further fission in surrounding material and so forth — a process resembling a traveling wave and continuing over decades.
In terms of the environmental aspect of this method, the use of Depleted Uranium as fuel means a reduction of stockpiles from uranium enrichment — or a ‘recycling’ of the nuclear waste from conventional power plants, thus further reducing the nuclear waste related to this form of energy production.
In new technological developments, Terra Power is also looking to use a different cooling method in liquid sodium — also known as Natrium. The boiling point of liquid sodium is much higher than water, implying it can absorb more heat than water can. The higher boiling point means that there is less likelihood of overheating, building pressure, and a reduced risk of explosion. The reactors will subsequently transfer the heat to molten salt, stored in tanks and used to generate steam for electricity production on demand, enabling the reactor to run continuously at constant power.
Charles Forsberg, a principal research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, highlights the essentials required for such a project. His statement echoes the components that made the Moonshot and Manhattan projects possible, “The most important factors in developing a new reactor are money and very competent people”.
The TerraPower venture also illustrates the importance of politics and how politics have to create an inductive climate for such programs. As a part-funded program by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Trump Administration in January 2019 placed transfer limitations upon Terra Power. These limitations put a stop to the TerraPowers 2015 agreement with the state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation to build a reactor prototype. The same department then chose TerraPower as the grant recipient of between $400 million and $4 billion depending on matching funds. The funding is to go towards the costs of building a demonstration of the Natrium reactor, so time will tell where this venture might head and how much political goodwill it will receive.
Meanwhile, a third route into the CO₂ neutral alternative exists in Thorium-based nuclear power. The properties of Thorium, named after the powerful Norse God Thor, means it can be applied to fuel the nuclear chain reaction that runs a power plant and creates electricity. The element will not itself split to release energy. Still, Thorium will instead undergo a series of chain reactions if exposed to neutrons, eventually causing Thorium to undergo a change and become an isotope of Uranium called U-233. When this isotope encounters a neutron, it will split and release the desired energy that fuels our lifestyle.
From an environmental perspective, this route might be an attractive CO₂-free alternative because the Thorium cycle does not produce bigger atoms such as Plutonium, Americium, and Curium — these being the atoms causing health concerns related to long-term nuclear waste. The nuclear waste associated with a Thorium reactor will be less toxic on the 10,000+ year scale. The Thorium route is not well-explored yet and does present many challenges, so, again, time — and the political willingness to explore this particular route in the 4th generation of nuclear power — will tell.
Scientists are also not 100 percent in agreement about the toxic waste material that a Thorium reactor produces. The extended timeframe that nuclear projects need, the uncertainty about the waste material, and the enormous cost of these reactors should somewhat dampen our excitement concerning nuclear fission energy as a CO₂-free energy solution.
An additional problem connected to nuclear energy and radioactive waste material is the security aspect. After all, terrorists could build a “dirty bomb” from radioactive waste material. A significant sum of money is spent every year on securing dangerous waste materials. However, this cost of nuclear energy is often not included in the total price of this form of energy. In the case of producing many small, decentralized reactors, this security issue will multiply, and the expense will burden the taxpayers.
We examine these potential CO₂-free alternatives to fossil fuels, not from an advocacy point of view, nor with the illusion that they are risk and health-risk free. Instead, they are part of a landscape of interim solutions to consider as CO₂ levels continue to rise, as energy demands continue to increase, and as no nations have yet set out environmental programs to change this trajectory credibly. It is no viable solution — it will continue to produce nuclear waste — but it remains on the discussion table until we can move from fission to fusion.
And what exactly is fusion? How does it work? Firstly, we experience fusion every day, and it is the basis of life on Earth. Fusion is the process that happens inside the sun, generating heat and light — giving our Earth “the only color in the universe”, which William Anders saw. If William Anders could have gotten close enough to the Sun to look inside its core, he would have seen a process equally mind-blowing. Hydrogen atoms, joining together — the process called fusion — making helium atoms, and in this process releasing enormous amounts of energy. This nuclear fusion in the Sun produces solar energy that reaches 150 million kilometers out into space and warms our Earth.
Now, imagine an invention that reproduces the process happening inside the Sun. Imagine that we build the machine here on Earth, copying the very process that keeps our planet alive. Could that process, conducted here on Earth, also end up being the solution sustaining life as we know it — meeting all our energy demands, ceasing the continued rise in CO₂ levels? The simple answer — and we will come back to the complexities behind this simple answer — is yes.
Supposing we were indeed able to invent this machine, we would supply it with the simple and relatively safe gas made from water, called Hydrogen. Inside the device, the Hydrogen atoms would fuse and make Helium — again, a clean and safe gas. This process would release immense amounts of energy able to fuel generators and produce electricity in the same way the conventional nuclear power plant would work — but without the nuclear waste and the release of pollutants and CO₂.
And what would this involve — how might we practice on Earth what is happening inside the Sun? Research tells us that different atomic forms of Hydrogen, such as Deuterium and Tritium — also called isotopes — are heavier than the ordinary Hydrogen atom. Deuterium has one proton, one neutron and one electron, while Tritium has one proton, two neutrons, and one electron.
If we fuse these two Hydrogen isotopes, we end up with two protons, three neutrons, and two electrons. The fusion process binds the isotopes to make Helium, with two protons, two neutrons, and two electrons. Thereby Deuterium and Tritium will fuse into Helium and have one neutron left over.
The conversion of these two so-called unstable atoms into one stable Helium atom releases enormous amounts of energy. Why is this? A nuclear reaction is a process of changing the atom you start with into an entirely different atom. Now, the amount of energy required to hold the nucleus of one atom together is much more significant than the amount of energy needed to bind two different particles together. And herein — in this process of fusing two atoms, Deuterium, and Tritium, into one particle, Helium — lies the release of energy.
In other words, we know that current nuclear energy, or nuclear fission, releases binding energy by splitting large unstable atoms into smaller, more stable ones. But atomic fusion does the exact opposite; it joins tiny unstable atoms into larger, more stable particles, thereby releasing the binding energy.
So, comparing where we start, the mass of a Deuterium atom plus a Tritium atom, to what we end up with; the mass of a Helium atom and a leftover neutron, we will see some mass loss during the fusion reaction. It is this very “leftover” mass, converted into energy as the nuclei fuse. It may sound like a small “leftover” in the overall equation, but as proven by Einstein in his famous equation E=mc2, a tiny mass can produce an enormous amount of energy.
While we won’t go into the details of the equation itself, we will suffice to say that for a pure Hydrogen atom, a single reaction releases 17.59 million electron volts (9). In one gram of Hydrogen lie 600,000 million million million atoms “waiting” to release energy, so the potential here is vast. While the figures alter slightly with Deuterium and Tritium’s Hydrogen isotopes, the point still applies. As the two unstable atoms rearrange to make one stable atom, fusion releases an incredible power.
Let’s translate fusion into the language of our daily life. When going through the fusion process, Hydrogen contains 13.789.320 times the energy than gasoline fueling our cars. What this means is that a mere 10 grams of Hydrogen could fuel a car for the entire lifetime of the vehicle — or allow it to drive about 1.000.000 miles; that is, if we could build a fusion reactor into this car. No such inventions have succeeded — to date, no design has produced more fusion power output than the electrical power input. Research into fusion reactors to date has not succeeded, and we need to test many methods before we find the right one. Researchers will need to fail, then fail again and fail better before they succeed. To succeed, we will need funding, the gathering of the brightest minds, the proper management, and a political climate that facilitates all of this.
So, when might this dream become a reality? Does the “Fusion Dream” seem further fetched than the 1960s’ dream of placing a man on the Moon — and is the fusion venture less urgent than the Moonshot project or the Manhattan Project? Both programs were successful due to a political climate of urgency, making the necessary funds available, gathering the right people, and running the projects as urgent military operations. While we may not be talking about being at war with CO₂, we are, as examined, facing a genuine threat to life as we know it, and time is of the essence. There is a real urgency to develop viable, lasting, and safe alternatives to fossil fuels. As the Earth Day Organization says, now is the “time for the world to hold sectors accountable for their role in our environmental crisis while also calling for bold, creative, and innovative solutions.”
Financing will, to many, be the weighty argument against such a project. Still, today the annual worldwide investment in the fossil fuel industry counts almost 500 billion dollars (10) — imagine even making half of that investment available to a fusion energy program. If a nuclear fusion project was conceived from a similar sense of urgency as seen back in the 1940s and 1960s — adopting a similar financial, scientific and operational structure as the Moonshot and Manhattan programs: Then reality can replace dreams. Then fusion energy can indeed replace fossil fuels.
This is the eighth chapter of my book “Atmosphere, CO₂ on my mind”. You can find more information and references on my website.
You can continue by reading the next chapter (How to phase out fossil fuels) here.