Lockheed Martin’s compact nuclear reactor? Yet more fusion fantasy!

Nuclear fusion is a Mickey Mouse climate solution

Clean, abundant, sustainable and commercially viable energy from nuclear fusion is the stuff of science fiction. Lockheed Martin’s announcement this week that it plans to produce a fusion reactor that will fit on the back of a truck in just ten years is yet more fantasy.

The joke about commercial nuclear fusion is that it’s 50 years away. Always 50 years away. The joke is very old because scientists have been trying, unsuccessfully, to get nuclear fusion to work for a very long time. It’s a cliché because it’s true.

So weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin’s recent announcement sounds like little more than a wild boast that will embarrass them later down the line. It says it can build a compact fusion reactor (CFR) 90 percent smaller – small enough to fit on a truck – than other prototypes and in just ten years.

How will Lockheed Martin succeed where everybody else has failed? There’s a suspicious lack of detail in its press release.

“The smaller size will allow us to design, build and test the CFR in less than a year.”

The CFR concept isn’t even off the drawing board yet. They say it’s going to take five years to build the prototype and if Lockheed Martin succeeds where all others have failed, the CFR will be “deployed in as little as ten years.”

“As little as ten years”. One thing we’ve learned about the nuclear industry is that you never believe any deadlines or timetables. Everything nuclear is nearly always late. Nuclear fusion is permanently late.

Research into nuclear fusion has been ongoing for more than 60 years and history is littered with its failures. Take a look at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France. Construction began in 2008 and is expected to be finished in 2019.

The reactor won’t begin operation until 2027 at the earliest and only if some huge scientific barriers can be broken. By 2027 ITER will be 11 years late. At $50 billion, its cost is already ten times the initial budget.

As for Lockheed Martin, its own timetable is already slipping. It made the exact same announcement in February 2013 that its CFR is just ten years away. It’s now 18 months later and the CFR is still ten years away.

It’s nuclear fusion history repeating. In his book, Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking, Charles Seife calls fusion research “a tragic and comic pursuit that has left scores of scientists battered and disgraced.”

Not only that, but Lockheed Martin is bringing new problems to the party. The idea of a reactor on the back of a truck may look good in a press release but the reality would be a nuclear safety and security nightmare. Which means the CFR is not exactly the basis for a credible global energy solution.

Doesn’t Lockheed Martin know we’re in a race against time with climate change? It’s planning to waste years of research, resources and money that must instead be devoted to clean, affordable and sustainable energy sources like wind and solar whose large scale deployment already underway today needs to move to an even greater scale if rapid carbon reductions are to be achieved. 

Justin McKeating is a nuclear blogger for Greenpeace International, based in the UK.

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