By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D. | 12/26/2022
On December 13, U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm announced that scientists in California achieved a major breakthrough in the long search for nuclear fusion, which made headlines all over the world. The search for this form of nuclear energy production has captured the imagination of scientists and policymakers for many decades. Nuclear fusion would permit clean energy production, and it has the potential to solve many environmental problems such as air pollution and ocean acidification
According to BBC News, some commentators estimate that nuclear fusion will become commercial in 20 to 50 years. However, now is an opportunity to think about how alternative modes of energy will impact governments and international relations in the coming decades.
Why Nuclear Fusion Is Important
Since the 1950s, nuclear scientists have wondered if there was a way to create electricity in a safe way using nuclear fusion. For decades, the amount of energy used in the process was larger than the amount of energy produced by nuclear fusion.
But on December 5, researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in Livermore, California, were finally able to initiate a fusion of hydrogen atoms in the National Ignition Facility using lasers. The process resulted in a greater output of energy than it took to conduct the experiment.
At a news conference, White House science adviser Dr. Arati Prabhakar said, “This is such a wonderful example of a possibility realized, a scientific milestone achieved, and a road ahead to the possibilities for clean energy.”
More Government Investment in Nuclear Fusion Will Be Needed
Although the achievement of nuclear fusion is a major breakthrough, there still is much more that needs to be done. Clearly, more investment will be necessary.
Through the years, there has been constant criticism of nuclear fusion and the resources it demands. According to The Business Times, this “successful experiment finally delivers the ignition goal that was promised when construction of the National Ignition Facility started in 1997. When operations began in 2009, however, the facility hardly generated any fusion at all, an embarrassing disappointment after a $3.5 billion investment from the federal government.”
In a 2019 report, “Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System,” the International Energy Agency (IEA) made it clear that when policy makers overcome their natural fear of nuclear energy, nuclear fusion – which has the added benefit of being a form of low-carbon energy production – will grow at a fast rate. We will see a real move towards zero emissions.
The IEA’s report also emphasizes the need for future investment, stating, “A collapse in investment in existing and new nuclear plants in advanced economies would have implications for emissions, costs and energy security. In the case where no further investments are made in advanced economies to extend the operating lifetime of existing nuclear power plants or to develop new projects, nuclear power capacity in those countries would decline by around two-thirds by 2040.
“Under the current policy ambitions of governments, while renewable investment would continue to grow, gas and, to a lesser extent, coal would play significant roles in replacing nuclear. This would further increase the importance of gas for countries’ electricity security. Cumulative CO2 emissions would rise by 4 billion tons by 2040, adding to the already considerable difficulties of reaching emissions targets. Investment needs would increase by almost USD 340 billion as new power generation capacity and supporting grid infrastructure is built to offset retiring nuclear plants.”
However, elected officials are not comfortable with committing large sums of money to science when there are no clear results. But even with additional investment, it will be a long time before nuclear fusion has commercial applications.
According to Tennessee Lookout, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Director, Kimberly S. Budil, was even willing to chart a timetable for nuclear fusion’s future, saying, “Not six decades, I don’t think. I think not five decades, which is what we used to say. I think it’s moving into the foreground and probably, with concerted effort and investment, a few decades of research on the underlying technologies could put us in a position to build a power plant.”
Other Countries Could See Their Political and Economic Power Decline
If Budil’s prediction is correct and we are four to six decades away from the goal of large-scale nuclear fusion, it is worthwhile to pay attention to how it will affect the global arena. Once nuclear fusion production gains momentum – and many believe it is a question of “when” not “if” – there would be a decline in the need for oil.
Consequently, oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, Russia, Nigeria and China will have a rude awakening. Their economies rely on natural resources, and once their oil markets decline, they will lose a significant source of income. For Saudi Arabia, losing its market for oil could have a particularly devastating effect on its entire economy.
In addition, the political and economic power of these oil-producing nations would be more limited, especially in their own regions. That could have a chilling effect on future aggressive actions by those countries
Cheap energy from nuclear fusion will create a new playing field in world economies and change the most basic frameworks in the global arena. If the predictions are correct, we could see this change in our lifetime.