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Our Opinion: A breakthrough on nuclear fusion, yet the hard work has just begun

The question being asked by pundits and environmentalists following the nuclear fusion breakthrough announced Tuesday is will fusion as a commercial energy source come soon enough to save the planet from the humans who inhabit it?

APTOPIX Energy Fusion Milestone Experiment

Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, center, joined from left by Arati Prabhakar, the president's science adviser, and National Nuclear Security Administration Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Marvin Adams, discusses a major scientific breakthrough in fusion research that was made at the lab in California, during a news conference Tuesday at the Department of Energy in Washington.

The answer is “probably not,” given the advance of climate change and the time needed to harness fusion. But the combination of serious environmental measures and a concerted worldwide effort on fusion could eventually lead to significant progress on energy and the health of Earth.

Nuclear fusion is the process that enables the Sun and stars to burn hot for many millennia. It is a clean energy source, unlike nuclear fission with its waste and hazards, and it makes use of hydrogen, the most plentiful substance on the globe.

The key to employing fusion for practical use is to create more energy than is expended in the fusion process. At 1:03 a.m. on Dec. 5, at the National Ignition Facility within the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, that feat was accomplished for the first time.

Employing 192 giant lasers focused on a small cylinder, scientists bombarded a hydrogen pellet the size of a BB. The two megajoules of energy unleashed on the pellet, the equivalent of about a pound of TNT according to the New York Times, stirred a barrage of neutrons, created by fusion, into releasing about three megajoules of energy. It took a infinitesimal fraction of a second, but for the first time in a laboratory setting, more energy was created than was unleashed by the lasers.

Photos and footage of the metallic pit where the container was vaporized as the hydrogen pellet was pummeled by the lasers, and the seeming miles of tubing leading to the lasers, demonstrate that science fact can be as impressive and imposing as science fiction. It is also satisfying to see science being celebrated after it was mocked and belittled during the intellectual vacuum of the Trump years.

The successful fusion experiment, however, also offered a reminder that science is expensive and requires patience. The ignition laboratory took 12 years to build at a cost of $3.5 billion in federal funds, and the first fusion experiments in 2009 were dismal failures. Modest progress wasn’t made until 2014, and it wasn’t until August of last year that the point at which the level of energy generated balances with the level created was approached in tests. The Times reports that adjustments to the lasers and to the shape of the containment vessel were made in the following months leading up to this month’s successful experiment.

All the time and money will have been worth it if nuclear fusion becomes a reliable, clean and essentially inexhaustible energy source. Reaching that goal, however, will require more time and money. Scientists at Livermore and elsewhere in the field tell reporters that lasers will have to become smaller and more consistent. And no scientist pretends to know at this point what a nuclear fusion plant would even look like.

President Biden has set a goal of establishing a working fusion plant within 10 years, which is typical Biden optimism. Kimberly S. Budil, the director of Lawrence Livermore, said Tuesday it would be decades, though less than five.

Most of the world’s governments have pledged to limit the rise of the world’s temperature to 1.5 degrees Centigrade (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2050. It has increased by nearly that much since the Dawn of the Industrial Age according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It’s highly unlikely that nuclear fusion will help in reaching that goal.

Reaching it will require replacing fossil fuels in energy production and transportation with green alternatives to the largest extent possible. Rising temperatures and increasing extreme weather events like wildfires and tornadoes tell us that climate change is already here thanks to global warming and reducing its future impact means taking action now.

The world can’t wait for nuclear fusion as an energy source but it can work to make it a reality as soon as possible. Government labs in other nations will build on Livermore’s work and if fusion appears practical private industry will jump in and accelerate the pace. If, or more likely when, nuclear fusion begins producing clean energy in the nation and world, Dec. 5, 2022, will be remembered as the day when it finally began to appear possible.

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