Fusion breakthroughs: how capitalist profiteering impedes clean, unlimited energy

The future of our planet depends on the successful transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. We are in a race against time. Climate scientists estimate there is a 50 percent chance of global temperatures exceeding pre-industrial levels by 1.5C in the next five years. Recently, a flurry of major breakthroughs in fusion energy have demonstrated the viability of this technology as a limitless, zero-carbon source of energy, harnessing the same process that powers our sun. And yet, scandalously, investment in this technology has been throttled for the past 50 years. Why? Because it was deemed unprofitable.

Nuclear fusion is the process that powers the whole universe. At extreme temperatures, Hydrogen nuclei reach the kind of speeds necessary to overcome their mutual repulsion, and are capable of fusing. When they do so, they form heavier Helium nuclei, whilst releasing enormous amounts of energy, which can be used to generate electricity.

Unlike nuclear fission (the mechanism involved in conventional nuclear power plants) it does not produce long-lived radioactive waste. And unlike burning fossil fuels, no carbon is released into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the key ingredient needed to power fusion is all around us: the hydrogen isotopes needed are found in your everyday glass of water. It is estimated that a small cup of ‘heavy water’ (the Deuterium-rich fuel required by fusion reactors) could power an average household for more than 800 years. Should we prove capable of fully exploiting the possibilities of nuclear fusion, the world would have access to a cheap, limitless, clean energy source.

For decades, scientists have been trying to recreate fusion energy on Earth. A major challenge has been to develop a reactor capable of a net energy gain – i.e. producing more energy than it requires to run. But recent years have seen a number of breakthroughs in this direction. In 2021, the US government’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California came very close to net gain using a setup involving 192 lasers focussed on a tiny fuel pellet.

The Joint European Torus (JET) facility in Oxford uses a different method to achieve a contained fusion reaction. Instead of focusing huge amounts of energy in a tiny region using lasers, it confines the hot hydrogen plasma in a donut-shaped magnetic trap. In May 2022, it was able to sustain a fusion reaction for five seconds, which produced a record 59 MJ – that is enough energy to boil about 60 kettles.

Finally, in December 2022, scientists at the NIF achieved net energy gain – the first time in history that this has been achieved in a controlled fusion reaction. The fusion reaction produced about 3.15 MJ of energy, which is about 150 percent of the 2.05MJ of energy in the lasers. The race isn’t over though. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which would be the biggest ‘donut’ reactor ever built, is expected to be live in 2025.

Suddenly, breakthroughs are coming thick and fast. For decades, fusion technology has been dismissed as the stuff of science fiction. Now, in the words of the Financial Times, the question is “when, and not if” fusion energy will be commercially viable. But in the race against climate change, the answer to this “when” question is of some significance. Whilst this latest breakthrough has been described as a milestone, scientists estimate that to be commercially viable, fusion reactors must be able to generate between 30 and 100 times the energy they consume.

Still decades away?

These breakthroughs have proven that fusion works. If we do not already possess this marvellous technology, it is because it has been criminally and systematically deprived of funding for decades.

NIF laser view Image Lawrence Livermore National SecurityA view of the target fuel capsule through the laser entrance hole at the National Ignition Facility / Image: Lawrence Livermore National Security

In 1976, in the wake of the oil shock, the US Energy Research and Development Administration undertook a serious assessment of the prospects for developing commercially-viable fusion reactors based on certain assumptions about research funding. Based upon maximum effort, projections indicated that commercial viability would be achieved in 1990. Based on more moderate effort, 2005 would have been the turning point. Based upon maintaining levels of spending as they were (about $1 billion adjusted for inflation), it was thought that fusion might never be achieved.

And yet only half of that annual sum has been invested. Annual US government funding into fusion technology research has averaged a meagre $465 million USD from 2011 to 2021. Even that paltry amount only trickles in thanks to the other tasks that the likes of the National Ignition Facility are tasked with, such as maintaining the US government’s enormous stockpile of nuclear weapons. Clearly it is in spite of starvation of funding that we’ve seen these recent advances.

So why has research been starved? Under capitalism, research investment does not take place on the basis of need, but on whether the bosses can cash in. Capitalists and their governments have held back funding for fusion energy research because it makes no business sense. Building and testing prototype reactors costs billions, but should the technology get itself up and running, it would promise to produce energy cheaply and in abundance, squeezing the profits of the entire energy industry. As the former chair of the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority, Sir Walter Marshall would put it back in the 1980s:

“There will come a time when we get as much energy from a fusion reactor as we put in. Then there will come a time when we get more energy out than we put in. However, there will never come a time when we get as much money out as we have put in.”

The capitalists are disincentivised from investing by the massive upfront costs, which they weigh against the likelihood of very cheap energy thereafter. As Foreign Policy economics columnist Adam Tooze said in the podcast Ones and Tooze:

“Our experience both at the level of economics and at the level of politics with this particular set of technologies—those to do with nuclear power, fission, and fusion—over the last 50 years has been sobering. And on the whole, they appear at this point to be both massively unpopular technologies and, in some cases, hugely politicised technologies as well as incredibly expensive in terms of capital costs—not in terms of operating them but in terms of capital cost to build them. And so, a realistic energy strategy that addresses a crisis where we need to make huge strides in the next 20 to 30 years should not rule those technologies out, but it should realistically gauge how much contribution they can make. And in both Europe and the United States, there is evidently a case for maintaining the existing capacity, but it’s pretty difficult to see what the case is for investing in new capacity when the costs are as explosively uneconomic.”

The capitalists have other plans

Despite the past year’s successes, many still argue that fusion energy is unviable, and that we are better off investing in already existing renewable energy sources (although, not all of these are as ‘green’ as they are made out to be). But across the board, the fact is that renewable energy is not as profitable as fossil fuels.

Coal plant Image Adrem68 Wikimeda CommonsFar from transitioning to renewables, big business and governments are pouring more money into fossil fuels / Image: Adrem68, Wikimeda Commons

ExxonMobil and Chevron are expected to have amassed almost $100 billion in profits between them in 2022. The needs of the planet are the last thing on their agenda. Exxon’s long-term energy outlook predicts that demand for oil will continue to grow until at least the end of 2040, and that by 2050 the world will be consuming millions more barrels per day than it does today. They also predict that natural gas consumption will grow by nearly 50 percent over the same period. As Chevron’s chief executive Mike Wirth put it, fossil fuels will still “run the world… 20 years from now”.

Europe’s largest oil and gas companies – BP, Shell, TotalEnergies and Equinor – made more than £74 billion in pre-tax profits in the first six months of 2022. The energy crisis is, naturally, making fossil fuels even more profitable, and as such these four companies are of course investing more in fossil fuels than renewables and low carbon energy. BP, for instance, invested £3.8 billion in new oil and gas projects in 2022, compared to just £300 million in renewables and ‘low carbon’ energy.

And governments are backing the capitalists. Since 2015, The UK government has handed over £13.6 billion to the oil and gas industry in subsidies. Far from moving towards clean energy, the UK government has recently proposed opening up a coal mine in Cumbria, the first in 30 years.

The capitalist class are literally toying with our future. The technology and other necessary means to fight climate change are right there, at their fingertips. Yet all they have in mind are their own profit margins. The money is there to invest in fusion energy and, in short order, to make it a viable alternative for our energy needs. The money is there to rapidly phase out fossil fuels and replace them with already viable forms of renewable and clean energy. But that money is in the pockets of companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron.

If these companies were to be expropriated and put under democratic control by the working class, we could use their enormous resources to complete the green transition in a timescale that is being dictated to us by the need to prevent the collapse of our ecosystem. This is the only option if we are to successfully transform the energy system to work for the planet’s needs.

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