As part of Wired‘s latest cover package, I’ve got a short piece up about why, exactly, our dreams of nuclear fusion power have never come to fruition. In a nutshell, the problem is that plasma is really devious—we can get it plenty hot enough to produce fusion, in the style of the Sun and other stars, but we can never quite seem to keep it where we want it. Our only reliable means of doing so is to build bigger and bigger containment facilities, though that strategy has obvious limits. Unless we figure out how to build a Death Star-sized tokamak that can orbit the earth and beam energy to our homes, the bigger-is-better method will only work in the realm of the experimental.
But the question is, are those experiments worth the massive investment they require? In the piece, I mention ITER, the international research center that is set to host the world’s biggest tokamak. To absolutely no one’s surprise, the project is now costing a wee bit more than initially anticipated—the price tag for construction alone is now 15 billion euros and counting. And even in a best-case scenario, ITER won’t be fully operational ’til 2026, at which point it’s goal will be exceedingly modest: the production of 500 megawatts of power for a few minutes.
In other words, there will be no straight shot from a theoretical ITER success to commercialized nuclear fusion. Even the greatest optimists admit that it will take generations for any positive ITER results to lead to energy for the masses. So, is the investment worth it, given the high odds of total failure? The Financial Times says yes:
The question is, can Europe really afford not to pursue one of its most ambitious technological and scientific ventures – even if it ultimately fails? After all, its €6.6bn share of the total construction costs is a small price to pay for a potentially revolutionary solution to resolve the EU’s gaping trade deficit in energy of about €400bn a year.
I’m a bit more skeptical, perhaps because I just spent so much time researching fusion’s legacy of failure. But the real issue here isn’t the odds that we can someday mimic the Sun, but rather how we calculate the value of pursuing a line of scientific inquiry when the hypothetical rewards are decades, even centuries away. It’s not very often that we engage in expensive research that will not benefit those who are alive when the research begins. Such projects are tough political sells, and require a special kind of commitment from the researchers themselves—they know they will probably only be historical footnotes. But just because some research is farsighted doesn’t necessarily make it smart.