The Failure of Fusion Power

Gregory Paul

As a young Royal Air Force officer, Arthur C. Clarke helped develop a radar landing system as part of a team with Louis Alvarez, who then aided the Manhattan project, later helped determine when the three shots were fired at president Kennedy, and then  proposed that a meteor impact wiped out the dinosaurs. Shortly after World War II, Clarke explained how satellites in geosynchronous orbit could be used for global communications. One of the most prominent hardcore science-fiction authors of the era, and always my favorite—I was lucky enough to have limited communication with him around the turn of the century—Clarke cocreated 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In the fifties and sixties, Clarke wrote a number of novels set on Earth during the late twentieth and/or twenty-first centuries, including Childhood’s End, The Deep Range, and Dolphin Island, that shared a common premise. A rational atheist, Clarke assumed that as modernity and middle-class prosperity at long last pervaded a peaceful world, deeply supernaturalistic faiths such as Abrahamism and Hinduism would finally fade away, leaving only atheism, along perhaps with the philosophical Buddhism for which Clarke maintained a fondness until the virulent strife that afflicted his beloved Sri Lanka.

Obviously that didn’t happen, although secularism has made remarkable strides and continues to do so in our time. Why is that?

Clarke similarly casually assumed that fusion power would solve the planet’s energy problems and thereby create a quasi-utopia. An engineer, Clarke thought that much as producing power via fairly risky and crude heavy-metal atom-splitting fission had been solved by science and engineering, it was only a matter of time before the more difficult but very safe, effectively infinite power source of fusion came online. That would effectively eliminate the need to tap into any other major energy sources, while aborting global warming and pollution. Had elegant hydrogen-to-helium-fusing reactors gone commercial in the final quarter of the 1900s, such low-cost, high-benefit energy could have laid the foundations for a much more prosperous, peaceful, and, yes, atheistic planet than the one we are stuck with.

That has not happened because while fission is pretty easy to achieve on planet Earth, fusion is extremely difficult. Blame the laws of physics. Controlled fission is so easy to achieve at normal surface conditions that back in the Precambrian, when uranium was more highly enriched, natural reactors spontaneously formed in concentrated uranium ores. Because once-abundant uranium 235 has mostly decayed over the hundreds of millions of years since then, the uranium that is left over has to go through intensive processing to enrich the metal until it has a high enough percentage of U-235 to be fissible in reactors. Although that is a quite difficult physical process, it was feasible enough that U-235 could be produced in the large amounts to power reactors starting in the 1950s and ’60s, when slide rules were still in common use. Once sufficiently enriched uranium is on hand, it is pretty easy to get it to undergo a chain reaction in a reactor. The tricky part is keeping the reaction from going haywire when things go bad, as they did at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.

One of the reasons fusion is so safe is because far from it being possible for it to go wild in a reactor, it is incredibly difficult to get fusion going in the first place. Sustained thermonuclear reactions so far occur only under the fantastic pressure-temperature conditions at the centers of stars. Getting such reactions to happen elsewhere to the degree that one obtains more energy out than is put in—and to do so on a sustained, commercially viable basis—may not be feasible. Major government-funded projects, largely centered on using hypermagnetic fields to squeeze hydrogen into helium, have been creeping along for decades. Some private projects have been initiated in the hope of jump-starting the effort, in some cases by using lasers to shoot hydrogen pellets into fusion, but who knows whether they will succeed.

Lacking fusion reactors, we have had to continue to rely mainly on fossil fuels that are largely located in regions of ill repute—such as Texas and Oklahoma, where in my last column I noted that oil money has literally helped pay for the power and influence of the Christian version of the religious Right, and the Middle Eastern Gulf regions where it ended up funding virulent Wahhabist mosques and schools around much of the world that helped spread hyper-violent forms of Islam. It has further become apparent that a nation rich in oil almost always falls into massive corruption that seriously damages the development of the overall economy and democracy in favor of nationalist, ethnic, and religious strife.

Even worse, the absence of cheap fusion power has probably seriously hindered the development of economies around the world. A major body of research in which I have participated has established that mass religiosity is a psychological means by which the individuals within a population cope with the stresses and anxieties that occur when most live in a dysfunctional society that does not deliver secure prosperity. Whenever a nation is sufficiently well-run that the majority of inhabitants enjoy secure, middle-class lives, then religiosity implodes, as it already has in Western nations. There are no exceptions to the pattern in which socioeconomic success consistently leads to a rise in atheism at the expense of theism. Nor is it likely to be a coincidence that the rise of the nonreligious around the planet from 30 to 40 percent over a dozen years closely tracks the rise of the middle class. Ergo, a fusion-fueled world economy, expanding faster than it does today and with less environmental degradation than we are suffering, should have inspired even more spectacular decreases in theism than the world has enjoyed.

The failure of fusion power has had lethal consequences. Since the end of the Cold War drastically reduced mass lethal violence from atheistic Communists, a few million have died in war-level conflicts that generally share a strong religious component tied to bad economic circumstances. Defective socioeconomics aggravated by drought contributed to the Syrian Shiite-vs.-Sunni strife that has in turn destabilized Europe with the influx of refugees. Christians are going after Muslims, and vice-versa, across poverty stricken sub-Saharan Africa. In Russia, the Orthodox Church backs dictator Putin as the economy stagnates. Buddhists target Muslims in an economically moribund Burma.

Clarke lived long enough to be distressed when his dream of thermonuclear power was not coming to pass and the unpleasant theo-social consequences were becoming all too clear. It is a lost opportunity that can never be fully recovered. Even if efficient hydrogen-fusing plants can be made practical in the fairly near future, it will take decades for enough reactors to be constructed to make a big difference in terms of rational rather than faith-based socioeconomics and the environment.

Gregory Paul

Gregory S. Paul is an independent researcher, analyst, and author. His latest book is The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs (Princeton University Press, 2010).