Nuclear Fusion Challenge

The one innovation that I believe would most meet the world’s energy challenge is the development of NUCLEAR FUSION (hot not cold!). However, unfortunately this is still far off. Part of the reason is that in the last decade most of the very costly investments, required by the international collaboration in this area, have become concentrated into ONE single experiment: the ITER project (the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). Besides recent revelations of the unrealistic costs of the project, which is estimated at 16 billion euros with many predicting it will increase significantly, a core problem of this unitary approach to the devlopment of a new technology is that the history of innovation teaches us that the exploration process that underpins innovation is most successful when distributed amongst a variety of different types of experiments, and settings, that allow the trial and error process of scientific discovery, and the serendipity which this embodies, to be let loose rather than restrained.

Thus while in the ‘cold war’ era, nuclear fusion was pursued in different corners of the globe (especially but not only in the two poles: the USA and the USSR), by different teams and types of reactors, with incremental but increasing progress of the sector, in the recent decades, the destruction of this varied approach in favour of a unitary approach has caused experimentation and progress to be set back. And the escalating costs of the project make this even more dangerous given the weakening of government budgets all over the world. Which brings us to another problem.

A general problem I would highlight for the energy challenge is what I regard as an exaggerated assumption that the green revolution will be or can be led by the private sector (not fusion of course as this is entirely funded by governments). The beginning of every technological revolution (e.g. the computer revolution) has always depended on strong government investments in the underlying knowledge base, especially the most uncertain and risky parts of the research which the private sector tends to shy away from. Venture capital for example, only entered the biotech industry when it was less ‘uncertain’, after 20 years of government investments in the most radical new discoveries.

Thus a major question that emerges is the degree to which different governments, during the new age of extreme ‘austerity’ and cuts to government budets, will be able to make the necessary investments in the green tech sector, which is still in the relatively early and ‘immature’ uncertain stage, when government investments are most important.

This article was first published on the Comment:VISIONS platform.

1 comment

I agree completel. I came to the same conclusion several years ago. It is a poject that the U.S. could fund. Unfortuately America is busy fighting thew wars. Perhaps if the U.S. could get of Afghaniston it might spend some time and money on this project