This is the full transcript for season 4, episode 2 of the Quartz Obsession podcast on fusion power.
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Nalis: When I was little, like not even four, something really weird happened. A snake infestation. The adults said that other kids and I were not allowed to play outside until it was resolved, which took a while. It was the spring of 1986 in Europe, and as I didn’t learn until much later, there were no snakes. There was a huge fear of nuclear contamination: Chernobyl had exploded.
So when I hear the term nuclear power, that’s what I think about—Chernobyl, Fukushima, not to mention atomic bombs. Recently I read about a new breakthrough in the development of nuclear fusion power, and my first reaction was to be a little alarmed.
But I vaguely remember learning in school that there are two types of nuclear power. There’s fission, which is what we have been using for nuclear energy and atomic bombs and for international intimidation, and there’s fusion, the superhero fuel of the future. It’s hugely powerful, not radioactive, can exceed our energy needs… and we won’t have it for a long, long time. Or won’t we?
What if we are closer than we thought to achieving nuclear fusion? How does that change the conversation about power sources, climate change, and renewable energies? Does it mean we get to continue living as we do, only without harming the planet as much?
I’m Annalisa Merelli, Nalis for short. And I’m the host of this season of the Quartz Obsession. Today: nuclear fusion.
I have with me, ready to obsess about it, Aurora Almendral, a senior reporter for Quartz who covers the climate economy and sustainability. Ciao Aurora, welcome.
Aurora: Hi, Nalis. I’m happy to be here.
Nalis: So Aurora, what got you interested in fusion power?
Aurora: I would like to say that it’s a long-standing interest, but it’s definitely the latest development. So, for a long time, nuclear fusion was just some science fiction thing that was way far away from what I was paying attention to in terms of our immediate needs for energy and drawdowns of coal, oil, gas, and new technologies. Those are things that I paid attention to. Nuclear fusion was a little bit too far away until this breakthrough came through, and I thought, okay, maybe it’s worth having a look at what’s going on here and see what nuclear fusion might mean for the climate, might mean for the world. So I did a deep dive, got obsessed, and it’s fascinating.
Nalis: You mentioned that there was a recent breakthrough that sparked your interest. What was that, what happened?
Aurora: So, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, for the first time ever, achieved net energy gain, with a nuclear fusion reaction.
So at the reaction point, 192 lasers heated up a tiny sphere of fuel made out of diamonds and frozen hydrogen, gaseous hydrogen. And so those 192 lasers pointed at this one tiny sphere produced the heat and pressure conditions that exist in the sun.
And when it did that it joined two kinds of hydrogen atoms together and created helium plus another neutron, which, when it zooms out of the sort of collapsing sphere, produces huge amounts of energy. So that’s what’s happened! In previous experiments, the energy that the lasers put in was more than what ended up coming out of it. And for the first time ever, that reaction produced more energy than the lasers pointed at that sphere. So, net energy gain, it was a big deal. First time it’s ever happened.
Nalis: Uh, this sounds like an explosive discovery, but also kind of complicated. Can you give us a basic explanation of how fusion power works?
Aurora: So, nuclear fusion is kind of in the name right? It’s about joining two elements together and creating energy from that. It happens at the level of the nucleus, which is why it’s nuclear.
And nuclear fusion, its promise, it’s extremely tantalizing. If we’re to have a future of clean, limitless energy, that’s what it promises that is so far away from what we have available right now, so far away from our reality.
Nalis: And what is this sort of futuristic energy source going to look like? Is it anything like nuclear fission?
Aurora: Yeah, I mean, that’s part of the problem that we’re trying to solve now. But the difference between sort of nuclear fusion and nuclear fission, is, one joins them together, fuses them together, and the other one separates them.
And so nuclear fission is the one that we’re more familiar with. Now, this is the nuclear power that we’re using, in nuclear plants around the world. It produces radioactive waste. It is relatively low carbon, um, energy source. And it’s a controlled nuclear fission reaction, meaning that we’re able to harness the energy that’s coming out of this nuclear reaction and use it to power our homes.
And so the other kind of nuclear fission reaction is the uncontrolled kind, and this is your weapons of mass destruction. This is the bomb that was dropped in Hiroshima. And so this is uncontrolled nuclear fission. We’ve also solved or figured out uncontrolled nuclear fusion. And this is the H-bomb, uh, several magnitudes more powerful than the atomic bomb. And so the final nuclear reaction that we’re trying to solve now is this controlled nuclear fusion in which rather than just kind of letting that energy destroy things, we’re going to control it, contain it, and put it into our electricity grids.
Nalis: And with nuclear fusion, do we still have to worry about radioactive material?
Aurora: There’s a little bit of radioactive material, but it’s not much more than what medical X-ray machines will produce and you can bury it in six inches of dirt. And it doesn’t have the same kind of danger as the radioactive waste of nuclear fission.
Nalis: We know about the dangers of a nuclear meltdown with our current technology. Are there similar dangers with nuclear fusion?
Aurora: Yeah, I mean, the, so a nuclear fusion plant with, which we have some, but they’re not really operating to the level that that’s generating electricity. So there’s some unknowns, but what’s certain is it requires super high temperatures in order to cause these nuclear reactions that produce energy. And as soon as something, in that sort of chain breaks and falls apart, it will simply stop working. There’s not a chain reaction situation, which you get in nuclear fission plants where things do get out of control and you can’t stop the spread of radioactive waste into the surrounding atmosphere.
So even in the worst case scenario, there’s not gonna be the situation where radioactive waste is spread over a wide radius with consequences down the line for the people who are within the affected area.
Nalis: How long have people been working on nuclear fusion technology?
Aurora: So it’s, it’s been a while. It’s the better part of a century. So in the 1930s was the first time, I believe a Russian scientist was able to create fusion reactions. And, the names that sort of are involved in it are people that have been long dead or are recently dead, but long out of power.
So, Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev were the, they sort of inked the first deal to create an international experimental nuclear fusion plant. And, from then on there had been milestones and milestones and efforts and efforts to really, to get this off the ground. And there’s just this eternal, “It’s going to happen. It’s about to happen! It’s about to happen!” And it just hasn’t happened. But one thing that I sort of enjoyed finding out about when doing the research for this nuclear fusion is how long people were saying that solar power was about to happen, and apparently the first solar cell was in 1883, and by 1891, the newspapers are saying, like, “Oh, it’s imminent. We’re so excited! We’re going to have solar power. This is how we’re gonna power our homes.”
1930 rolls around and they’re still saying, “Oh, God, it’s any minute now!” Um, and.. it took a long time. You know, it’s only been in the last 15, 20 years that it’s been truly viable and economically viable just in the last five years. So it takes a long time to get technologies like this kind of going and off the ground. And nuclear fusion is the biggest scientific challenge I think the science community has ever faced, you know. It’s harder than getting people to the moon.
Nalis: So I want to understand a bit more about this breakthrough at the Lawrence Livermore Lab. Where does it place it in terms of realizing the full potential of nuclear fusion?
Aurora: December’s breakthrough at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was called net energy gain. And basically this is one of several kinds of nuclear fusion reactors.
And on some level, this milestone is, it’s quite symbolic, right? They’ve finally proven that you can get more energy out than you can put in, but in the last few years, there’s been an industry that’s really been accelerating around nuclear fusion that already kind of assumes that that happens.
So the scientific proof happened, but you know, they were already operating under the impression that this could happen because we get sunlight, you know, we see the stars. They’re powering themselves. And, so what they’re trying to solve is the engineering problem, you know, like how do you build these magnets? How do you build the superconductor magnets that can contain this energy? With the density, the pressures and the heat necessary to create this, the fusion reaction. So they’re essentially working concurrently to make the science technology work as well as build the machines that are going to be able to produce this fusion reaction.
Nalis: I do love how perfectly sci-fi this all sounds when you think about the lasers pointed at the diamond encasing frozen hydrogen.
Aurora: I mean, not, it’s not just perfectly sci-fi. I think it is sci-fi because so 2004, Spider-Man 2, Dr. Octopus used this exact example as this sort of, like, villainous plan of his to, you know, harness more power than is wise for one evil baddie to have. So his you know, it’s not just science fiction, he… science fiction already is using this as an example of how villains kind of operate. So we’ve all probably absorbed it in the sort of Star Trek, Star Wars, Marvel, Spider-Man, Iron Man world, that nuclear fusion is something of the future.
Nalis: You mentioned Dr. Octopus. Is there anywhere else that nuclear fusion pops up in popular culture?
Aurora: When I looked into it, it seemed to be all over the place. You know, Back to the Future. This nuclear fusion home energy reactor is what Doc used to power the DeLorean to go back in time. So he uses trash as the fuel for that. So that’s one use.
It’s constantly being mentioned in Star Trek and Star Wars as the sort of energy that powers their spaceships to go warp speeds.
Iron Man uses it, and even I watched a scene of him building a tiny little nuclear reactor, out of various things in some weird workshop.
So it’s all over the place. And I think it’s part of most people’s kind of cultural imagination, but in a very vague way because, when was the last time most of us have taken a physics class or thought deeply about physics? But we just see it as this sort of futuristic, awesome thing.
Nalis: Why do you think that we think of nuclear fusion as the future versus, say, solar or wind power?
Aurora: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s, just so much more of an unknown, right? We know that wind can only very minimally hurt us. Same as the sun. You know, you might get a sunburn, but it’s not, it’s not anything that’s frightening. So it doesn’t have this kind of, like, deep emotional reaction that we have to nuclear power. Right? Which a lot of that comes from, you know, like our generations before us having nuclear test drills, you know, duck and cover under the tables and things like that. The fear that you talked about earlier from Chernobyl. So it has a lot of these deeply emotional associations with it. And a lot of it is, is kind of like elliding the problems of nuclear fission with nuclear fusion and elliding the problems of uncontrolled weapons of mass destruction with controlled power generation.
But there’s no doubt that nuclear, for better or for worse, has a really strong emotional hold on most of humanity—part of it because of just how powerful it is and how it’s shown its power far, so, that’s part of what it is.
Nalis: The scientists working on this must be feeling like if they’re working on a future paradigm, so like there’s no way that they’re sitting there and thinking, “Yep! This is normal science.”
Aurora: Yeah, no, I’m sure. I think, you know, I think that there’s a feeling that you’re creating something very far into the future. So I talked to, uh, the head of the Fusion Industry Association, a man named Andrew Holland, and he says that he does not want to overly hype up the science fiction part of nuclear fusion. He wants us to think of it as something that’s in the horizon and about to come. And this is one of the big sticking points of nuclear fusion is everyone says that it’s coming, you know, there are companies that promised that they’d have fusion electricity to the grid in 2019. I didn’t see that happening. Didn’t happen in 2022 just now. And it’s probably not going to happen in 2023, like some companies have said.
And that’s sort of the problem with fusion is that the sort of joke among scientists is it’s the energy of the future and it always will be because it’s just taking so long to become a reality.
Nalis: I love how the scientists are very sobering about this, but I feel like definitely the hype is happening. You mentioned that there’s even a whole industry that’s sort of, like, building up with the expectations that the science will eventually catch up.
Aurora: Yeah. It’s concurrently developing even as we’re trying to work out the science, they’re already developing the industry.
Nalis: Who are the main actors in the industry?
Aurora: Yeah. So, I’ll dial back just a tiny bit. So, for a really long time, the main actors were governments. It was, you know, the US, the UK, France, Russia, India, South Korea. They either built their own systems, or sort of contributed to, um, an international project to experiment in nuclear fusion.
And then in the last couple of decades, private companies, startups basically, have decided that they want to get into the game. They feel like they can do it better, faster, more nimbly, smaller than the government facilities. And so, in about 2015, there were a dozen of these private companies who are trying to build nuclear fusion reactors, and now there are over 30.
So it’s growing pretty quickly. According to the sort of numbers of the Fusion Industry Association, there’s about $5 billion that have been invested in these various startup fusion companies. And the last 3 billion of that in just the last two years.
So there’s an acceleration of interest in private companies to start trying to solve this fusion problem. And, you know, the names are familiar. They’re the Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos of the world. Um, there’s a Saudi prince who’s invested into it, a couple of minor celebrities, and so people are putting money into this.
And so the idea is that if your company is either the first to have it or just has a very sort of marketable version of a nuclear fusion power plant, then, you know, the returns come rolling in. And these power plants, as envisioned by the private companies, are fairly small.
So the multi-government project in France is the size of 60 football fields. The ones that the private companies are imagining are no bigger than a natural gas plant. So it’s going to look a lot like that. And then they’re just going to be feeding power into the electrical grid.
So, Andrew Holland of the Fusion Industry Association says, you know, in the first 20 or 30 years of when fusion power comes online and people aren’t really going to notice a big difference in their lives, right? You’re getting energy in the same way that you’re getting it now, but it’s being fed by nuclear fusion energy, which is kind of similar. You know, I get most of my energy apparently from wind and solar here in London where I am right now, but I don’t notice the difference from when I was getting it from coal.
Nalis: There is growing acknowledgement that our current consumption patterns are unsustainable, but at the same time, now we have the promise of boundless energy with no downsides. Is there a bit of a tension there?
Aurora: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s one of the big criticisms of fusion power is that it’s going to distract from the major challenge we have at hand of producing far less CO2 as we sort of run our industries and drive our cars and all of that. So people are worried that they’re going, that the powers that be, the people who hold the money, that hold the resources for solving climate change will just become distracted and suddenly focus on fusion.
And you know, I think it would be a massive folly to take the risk that fusion is going to come and step in in 2049 or even in 2051 to solve the problems that we have now. I think there’s very few people who believe that will happen. I think that, you know, there are those who are giving timelines, like maybe 2040 is going to be the decade of nuclear fusion. But I think a lot of scientists and a lot of people who work in the industry are thinking, “Oh, it’s going to be towards the second half of the century and it might not be until the end of the century itself.” So I think that it’s not going to solve our climate problems now, unfortunately. It would be a gamble to say that it will.
And so, the way to think about it is that the problems we’ve created for ourselves with our fossil fuel economy will continue to hold. We will have to solve those in the next coming decades. And then as we limp into the second half of this century, hopefully, something like nuclear fusion will become a reality and produce a different kind of world, not one of pollution and scarcity and catastrophe like the one we’re living in now…for future generations.
You know, I don’t… it’s highly possible it’s not going to happen in my lifetime. Or anyone else’s here, depending on how young you are and how long you plan to live, but it’s pretty far away. And I think that, um, so I think that most people should think of it as something that’s going to change the lives of future generations while having very little impact on our problems now.
Nalis: I mean, I’ll say that in a moral sense. It does feel like nuclear fusion is a little bit of a technological cop out, right? Like, maybe humanity needs a lesson or two.
Aurora: Yeah. And I think.. I mean, unfortunately, I think we’re going to have to do that. I mean, the lessons are upon us, right? You know, I’m from California. I’ve covered climate change all over the world. This is… the lessons are already upon us. It’s already going to get worse. And yeah, we’ll have to fix it. I mean, we might be the generation sandwiched between the industrial revolution and the nuclear fusion revolution, where it’s all scarcity and consequences from here on out until one or two seconds before we die. So that might be it, but I don’t think there’s any reason to think that we have to stop rethinking our sort of energy economy yet, and the way that we demand electricity, how we use it, it’s just too far away.
Nalis: Now let’s slip to a time far, far away. When we have nuclear fusion, it’s all sorted out. It runs the world. What kind of potential do you think that could unlock?
Aurora: Yeah, I mean, I love the question and I wish I had a more imaginative answer. So like I said, I cover climate change and a lot of it is a bit dark. The subject is a bit dark, and it has a lot to do with scarcity. And I think of the energy world in terms of scarcity and consequences. And so the opportunity to sort of imagine a world where energy is clean and limitless and the consequences are limited. It’s hard for me to imagine. But, you know, I think that as we go into the second half of the century with all of the problems that we’re bringing from the fossil fuel age, like all of the CO2 in the air, water issues, and things like that, you know, the solutions for those are quite energy intensive.
So desalination, you know that that might be a big deal in all of these water stress places. And that’s very energy intensive. So, a clean version of desalinating water sounds pretty fun. Maybe not fun, but it sounds extremely useful. CO2 removal also sounds very useful because most estimates expect that we’re, in addition to reducing the amount of CO2 we’re putting in there air, we’re going to have to take some out. And there’s no good way to do that now, but perhaps further down the line there will be and we have the energy to do that.
And then we can sort of dial back the consequences that we’re suffering now and we will be suffering in the future. And then after that, you know, super fast air travel, maybe we can get to Mars faster. Then it starts to tip into the Star Wars, Star Trek, kind of world. Maybe the Jetsons, like flying cars. Who knows? But I think that, you know, like just in the same way that oil and gas transformed the world, from, you know, horse and buggies, and steam ships and sail ships and things like that into what we have now, with that new technology, I think there’s probably going to be a massive leap in what future generations are going to be able to have if we were to have near limitless energy.
Nalis: This topic has led me feeling quite optimistic about the future of the world, which is not really something that you encounter often in climate-related conversations.
Aurora: Yeah. And I think that’s why it’s so exciting. So even if it’s so far off, people like to think about it and talk about it because it’s a relief from the darkness that we’re in right now.
So yeah, it’s nice to think it might happen.
Nalis: Thank you Aurora, for coming and obsessing with us about fusion power.
Aurora: Thank you so much, Nalis.
Nalis: And that’s our Obsession. The Quartz Obsession is a podcast hosted by me, Nalis Merelli, Katie Jane Fernelius is our producer, and George Drake mixes and does sound design. Music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira.
Additional production support provided by multi-platform editor extraordinaire, Susan Howson, research wizard Julia Malleck, and audience insight genius Ashley Webster. Shivank Taksali and Diego Lasarte are our natural born sound engineers. Special thanks to our wonderful guest, senior reporter Aurora Almendral, who was surprised we did not know the difference between fusion and fission.
If you like what you heard, please review this on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Tell your friends about us, then head to qz.com/obsession to sign up for Quartz’s Weekly Obsession email and browse hundreds of interesting backstories.
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