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March 07, 2016


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Other possibility is they looked at the price and so "eh, I don't want to pay for that."

Even if they managed to get one working, how does this become a viable power source? Could the capital required to build a plant, amortized over the lifetime of the plant, possibly make it cheaper than any other way to generate electricity? It seems to me like it'd end up a lot like fission power only worse, except for the probably smaller chance of a failure becoming a regional catastrophe.



Fusion power doesn't work like fission whatsoever.

You cannot get a meltdown or contamination like a fission reactor. If the power goes off, the plasma would melt through and...disperse.

The total amount in the reactor? 250 kg. PER YEAR.

The environmental impact of this would be extremely small.

We will NEVER get the silly Cameron esque nuclear explody fusion reactors. Oy.

Looking at the graph above, folks, it was the cost that killed it. Consider the price for something that MAY work vs what NASA's budget. yeah.

Great point, Will. But I'd like to add two wrinkles.

(1) The running costs of a fusion plant were never going to be much lower than a comparable fission plant. Fuel makes up very little of a fission plant's expenses. Going to "free" (ok, not free, but $10,000/120 gigawatt-hours is close enough) from small does not change the world;

(2) The capital costs of an operating plant are likely very high. First, shielding. Second, decommissioning. It is true that the radioactive by-products will decay faster, but not so fast as to obviate the accounting problem. (Then again, given that we use on-site fission byproduct storage, maybe would have just let the old reactors sit for the century.) Third, absent breakthroughs not anticipated above, it's a massive heavy power plant that would need to be custom-designed for the site.

So you've got a technology that might work added to one that might be cost-effective at a time when global warming was a distant theoretical issue and building lots of domestic coal plants looked completely practical.

I.e., "Even back in 1978 nobody really thought that this unicorn would be found."

Remember, Will, I have the evil heart of an accountant. I once did a cost-benefit analysis of the Iraq War, I'm so evil. For me, the "unicorn" is cost-effective fusion power, not just energetically viable fusion power. Mwa hah.

I was thinking primarily about cost, not safety. And scale. A viable fusion plant would probably be a gigantic thing that would need to run for a long long time to pay for itself. This is already a problem with fission. It makes a technology not nimble. It's hard to roll out improvements as you learn things.

I agree they'd be safer than fission plants.

I was not addressing the costs. I was thinking of the environmental issues.

The fuel costs are enormous right now. Tritium costs lots and can't be kept long. Deuterium isn't bad though, but we're not doing D-D fusion for a while.

That said, just looking at the graph as an accountant, they 'noped' on the costs vs possible benefit.

And I totally get why. Even if I wish they'd gone ahead as the techie and environmentalist, I can see there were cheaper, far cheaper routes to go.

Economics win again, Lewis Therin, as I like to say.

PS. Orion starship technologically possible, totally impossible to afford. Fun growing up story was one of my Dad's friends actually did the design work for the shock absorbers on Orion. As a geek, LA was *THE* place to grow up to get stuff like this.

Tangential question: how much fusion research today is using technology that would have been completely unavailable before 1990? I'm thinking of the German Stellarator, which used some pretty advanced computer modeling for its freaky-looking design, and which also relies upon NbTi superconductors that could only have been built in this century. (NbTi goes back to the 1960s, but knowledge of how to use it on an industrial scale is much more recent.) And I'm sure there are many others -- materials, plasma physics, advanced maths, you name it.

To put it another way: even if you had tens of billions to burn, would it have been even possible to build a working fusion reactor in 1990, with a ~1975 POD? Or would it have been like trying to build a jet plane out of cast iron?

Doug M.


More on how fusion is always thirty years away.

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