How hydrogen fusion will save us (or not)

10 min readDec 22, 2022

A recent breakthrough in an experimental fusion reactor has created a shock-wave of news rippling through mainstream media. Writers from all stripes waxed lyrical how this is a major step forward, and how it brings us closer to a ‘clean, safe, almost limitless’ energy source. Reality though is slightly more nuanced.

As always, that which is unsustainable, won’t be sustained. Physics, part of Nature’s rule book, works on simple principles like that. It’s not complicated: the system must produce more (much more) energy than what it needs to sustain itself in order to be useful as an energy source. It must produce surplus energy — no wonder that scientists pursuing fusion has made this their primary goal. The US National Ignition Facility (NIF) producing the outstanding result has reportedly achieved just that:

The facility used its set of 192 lasers to deliver 2.05 megajoules of energy onto a pea-sized gold cylinder containing a frozen pellet of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium. The laser’s pulse of energy caused the capsule to collapse, reaching temperatures only seen in stars and thermonuclear weapons, and the hydrogen isotopes fused into helium, releasing additional energy and creating a cascade of fusion reactions. The laboratory’s analysis suggests that the reaction released some 3.15 MJ of energy — roughly 54% more than went into the reaction, and more than double the previous record of 1.3 MJ.

Translated to human language: a bunch of folks used brute force to ignite a miniature hydrogen bomb in a test chamber (without using an atomic bomb as a fuse). Quite a feat! Did it produce surplus energy? Hell it did. Just like in that ominous experiment seventy years ago. For reference ask the inhabitants of Enewetak Atoll how high surplus energy of this kind can throw coral into the atmosphere.

Gee! Look how much surplus energy fusion can generate! Ivy Mike, 1952, Enewetak atoll

Is this a sustainable energy source? Can experiments performed at NIF produce a continuous flow of energy, instead of a miniature bang? Of course not. They were never intended to. If you read the article carefully you might discover what the real purpose of the experiment was:

But the results carry particular significance at NIF: the facility was designed to help nuclear-weapons scientists study the intense heat and pressures inside explosions, and that is possible only if the laboratory produces high-yield fusion reactions. […] the big question now is what the Department of Energy will do next: double down on weapons research at the NIF or pivot to a laser programme geared towards fusion-energy research.

I don’t know about you, Dear Reader, but the word ‘pivot’ suggest to me that this whole experiment was 100% military research in purpose, repackaged as a breakthrough in fusion energy… In other words: instead of finding a sustainable energy source NIF has found a new way to ignite an H-bomb.

In order to achieve a sustained fusion reaction you would need a vessel capable to contain plasma up to 150 million degrees in temperature. And this is where the scratching of heads begin. In the not so advertised world of engineering reality a fusion reactor is a turbo-charged energy hog on steroids. In order to keep the multi-million degrees hot plasma from burning through its casing, the reactor needs to generate an electromagnetic field strong enough to keep the extremely hot particles in the center of the reactor, away from its walls.

Plasma (in red) as seen in a fusion reactor (EAST, 2006). Image source

ITER the world’s biggest and most promising fusion reactor will also achieve this feat by superconducting magnets, requiring constant cooling to near absolute zero temperatures. Generating this magnetic field alone shoots one’s electric bill through the roof, not to mention the multitude of other equipment, all together equaling the electricity consumption of a midsize town:

Electricity requirements for the ITER plant and facilities will range from 110 MW to up to 620 MW for peak periods of 30 seconds during plasma operation.

This is not your grandma’s electric kettle: we are talking 365 MW of electricity consumed (on average) for a 30-second fireworks show. Out of this amount, however, only 50 MW will be used to ignite the plasma, the rest will be absorbed by the cooling water and cryogenic systems. According to the project’s website though, that not so insignificant part of the consumption will be completely left out of the target achievement:

ITER is designed to yield in its plasma a ten-fold return on power (Q=10), or 500 MW of fusion power from 50 MW of input heating power.

If you define success as the designers of ITER did focusing on the 50 MW heating input to the test chamber (excluding the gross consumption of ALL the equipment providing life support to the chamber), then yes you could probably call it a day and grab the money. Calculated honestly however the ITER will achieve a mere 1.37:1 return on energy invested — barely above breakeven level — at best. This is not even considering the energy needed to build a similar structure.

The problem is, physics is not interested in the slightest what we measure: it’s either the whole system which is sustainable, or nothing.

If we were truly serious about saving this civilization, instead of acting like we had all the time in the world while happily collecting grands from governments and orders from the arms industry, then we would be making gross input vs output calculations. Then we would realize that a one to ten goal of heat in vs heat out will definitely won’t be enough here. Using the metric provided by current experiments we would need to be aiming at a net 500:1 target (or 70:1 gross), to prove that we can at least match current nuclear reactor performance. If this sounds impossible, then maybe it is — but then we shouldn’t waste our time on it either.

Add in the facts, that a) we don’t have a clue if we can sustain fusion for an hour let alone a day without completely ruining the equipment (probably not), and b) ITER will not produce electricity (that will be someone else’s problem (1)), and you see that this experiment is really a bridge to nowhere.

This is where the inability of mankind to grasp the finite nature of our civilization really hits me. The days of high-tech are numbered. At current consumption rates we would need to mine as much minerals in the next twenty to thirty years than in the past ten millennia — such is the nature of exponential growth.

Problem is, we don’t have that much resources left, but we will try nevertheless. Present day shortages are nothing compared to what we will be experiencing ten, fifteen years from now… Just watch. ITER will be still initializing then (scheduled to start in 2035). Starting it up will be our least problem…. Other issues notwithstanding, let’s take tritium for example, an extremely rare isotope of hydrogen:

Today tritium is generated by 19 Canadian CANDU fission reactors, half of them slated to shut down. […] This means the tritium stockpile of about 25 kilograms will peak by 2030 and begin a steady decline as it is sold off and decays.

And why is this important? Sure, fusion could run on much more abundant isotopes once up and humming along… For firing it up though, you will always need a small amount of this really rare stuff.

Researchers realized more than 20 years ago that fusion’s “tritium window” would eventually slam shut, and things have only got worse since then. ITER won’t burn D-T until 2035 at the earliest, when the tritium supply will have shriveled. Once ITER finishes work in the 2050s – if there are no more delays — only 5 kilograms or less of tritium will remain.

Read the entire article on the topic here — I’ve found it extremely insightful and well sourced. Fusion, in a certain sense, is a by-product of humanity’s once in a lifetime attempt to build out a nuclear powered civilization… All based on non-renewable metals, fossil fuels and sand — materials we are destined to run out of in the coming decades.

While we keep dreaming about infinite energy, whether captured by solar panels or created here on Earth via fusion, we are willfully forgetting about the amount of non-renewable materials needed to be built into — and eventually consumed — by these intricate technologies.

For a prime example take a look at the six poloidal field coils (generating the strong magnetic field — got to love their name by the way), made out of Niobium-Titanium wires. These are not something you buy in Home Depot:

Ranging in diameter from 17 to 24 metres and weighing 200 to 400 tonnes, coils PF2, PF3, PF4, and PF5 are simply too big to be manufactured off site and shipped to ITER.

The not-so-sexy side of our Technutopian future. Photo by Albert Hyseni on Unsplash

People at ITER absolutely make no secret of the fact how a totally unscalable unicorn their project is. Just try and imagine the entire supply chain behind the operation, starting with the rare earth mines in China: extracting a finite reserve of Niobium by dumper trucks and excavators burning gallons of diesel by the minute, and refineries leaving a toxic and highly radioactive tail-pond behind. Then imagine the amount of coal and natural gas burned in the smelters to melt these exotic metals and to make this special alloy… The amount of diesel (again) burned in ships and trucks carrying hundreds of tons of it on site, the electricity used up the manufacturing assembly process and so on… Now, you start to get a sense what sort of energy and finite material inputs I’m talking about, needed to build, maintain and run a fusion reactor. Again, a one to ten ratio measuring only the heat in vs heat out (the official target by project finish at 2050) will definitely won’t be enough to cover all this… A one to ten thousand maybe.

Why shall we aim for building a practically limitless fusion power plant on Earth anyway, when it was exactly that, the use of limitless energy (in form of fossil fuels) that has lead to the 6th mass extinction we are witnessing at the moment? Whom do we want to impress with all this?

Our descendants, inheriting a half-dead biosphere, littered with radioactive waste, forever chemicals, used batteries and inundated metropolises in between empty deserts certainly won’t be even slightly amused. With every increase in energy consumption — as we have seen — comes an increase in ecocidal activities from mining, to manufacturing, from deforestation to desertification and ultimately wasting — and if you think that this time it will be different… Well, then I have a bridge to sell you. Corporations, armed with such a “clean and abundant” energy source, would certainly destroy what little is left of planet Earth in a matter of decades in search for resources, and ultimately, profit.

Folks, this is nonsense. We are demonstrably at the precipice of the long decline in oil and gas production, on an overheated planet with a slowly dying ecosystem. And our best hope is, that we can manage to hold up this truly suicidal rate of resource extraction for many decades more till our finest and brightest figure out fusion? Really? Only to realize that we will have run out of ignition fuel by then, and our magnificent unicorn will be nothing more than a multi-billion dollar heap of radioactive (2) scrap metal, unable to power itself, let alone the production of new reactors of its kind? Has someone, anyone, thought this through seriously? Who in their sane minds approved the budget for all this?!

Seriously, knowing the dire predicament we are in, we should be busy learning and re-learning how to produce food, clothing and housing on a planet transitioning into a radically different climate. We desperately need a plan how to scale back on technology use, in tandem with the natural decline in resource and energy availability. We should take a look at how people lived before our age, and see what technologies and scientific knowledge can be made useful in a severely depleted world both in terms of mineral resources/energy and life itself.

Fossil fuels and minerals will leave us sooner due to depletion, than we could leave them. Industrial civilization will fade away as a result in the course of the next hundred years or so, no matter what we do. However, presuming that we don’t nuke ourselves into oblivion as the story unfolds, we might learn something in the process… The decline of high-tech will also give a chance for Nature to recover and us to become wiser and much, much more, sustainable. Fusion, despite this major ‘success’, will remain a pie in the sky forever. It will always be 25 years from now, just as it was half a century ago… till people finally forget about it. Some hundred years into the future folks will not even be able to explain to their children what it was meant to do.

For the here and now though, fusion is a waste of time money and resources on a gargantuan scale. It detracts and prevents us from doing the many other things which could actually make perfect sense in our situation and could see us through the bottleneck ahead. Let’s focus on those then, and leave fusion powered technutopia where it belongs: for the pages of history books yet to be written.

Until next time,



(1) At the moment we can only guess how to tap into the immense energy released during fusion. Most of it comes in the form of heat and electromagnetic radiation plus some high energy particles. What shall we do with that? Boil water and spin a steam-turbine? What would be energy conversion rate? 30% at best? Wait, are we planning to use this in 30 second bursts? Just image a nuclear power plant which had to be cooled down, disassembled and repaired every 30 seconds — it simply won’t work.

(2) Neutrons are generated and hurdled into the walls of the reaction chamber during fusion. Being neutral in charge, electromagnetic fields can do nothing to stop them from doing structural damage to the walls of the chamber itself, turning it into a brittle piece of radioactive scrap metal over time. A dangerous waste, needed to be buried alongside spent uranium fuel rods, with no hope of recycling. Good luck finding a safe place for both.




A critic of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation. Also on Substack: https://thehonestsorcerer.substack.com/