The Energy Department’s fusion breakthrough: It’s not really about generating electricity

“Because of how the Energy Department presented the breakthrough in a news conference headlined by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, news coverage has largely glossed over its implications for monitoring the country’s nuclear weapons stockpile. Instead, even many serious news outlets focused on the possibility of carbon-free, fusion-powered electricity generation—even though the NIF achievement has, at best, a distant and tangential connection to power production.

By John Mecklin, THE BULLETIN OF ATOMIC SCIENTISTS | December 16, 2022

This week’s headlines have been full of reports about a “major breakthrough” in nuclear fusion technology that, many of those reports misleadingly suggested, augurs a future of abundant clean energy produced by fusion nuclear power plants. To be sure, many of those reports lightly hedged their enthusiasm by noting that (as The Guardian put it) “major hurdles” to a fusion-powered world remain.

Indeed, they do.

The fusion achievement that the US Energy Department announced this week is scientifically significant, but the significance does not relate primarily to electricity generation. Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility, or NIF, focused the facility’s 192 lasers on a target containing a small capsule of deuterium–tritium fuel, compressing it and inducing what is known as ignition.

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