Nuclear Fusion: Meet the world’s first fuel crisis before the reactor is even invented

After decades of research, nuclear fusion is poised for a breakthrough that promises to solve Earth’s energy problems forever, but some experts are already claiming we have run out of important fuel source before the reactors are even online.  Thomas Malthus first proposed the modern concept of scarcity in 1798.  He has been proven wrong time and time again, but some dreadful ideas simply won’t die.

Progressives are obsessed with scarcity.  Since the start of the movement in the late 1800’s, the fear that there can never be enough of anything and there will be an imminent shortage of everything has dominated leftist thinking.  The initial seeds of this damaging idea were planted by Thomas Robert Malthus in his 1798 book, An Essay on the Principle of Population.  Malthus proposed a vicious cycle:  An increase in the production of food soon increased the size of the population, meaning the per capita quantity of food never increased over time.  Rather than use an abundance of resources to improve the standard of living, any excess fueled an unsustainable population growth.  He concluded that the “power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man,” an idea that lives on to this day, mutating over time in various pernicious forms.  Some simply recycle Malthus’ original concept, providing a more pseudo-scientific gloss to the fear that human population growth is necessarily unsustainable because of various scarcities. 

Paul R. Ehrlich encapsulated it best in his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, where he argued that the world would experience massive famines by the 1970s.  “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate,” he claimed.  Of course, the human population, average life expectancy, and standard of living all increased rapidly over that period.  The complete failure of his predictions, however, didn’t prevent Mr. Ehrlich from claiming as late as 2009 that “perhaps the most serious flaw in The Bomb was that it was much too optimistic about the future.”  In his mind, the book achieved its goals because “it alerted people to the importance of environmental issues and brought human numbers into the debate on the human future.”  This would prove to be a common tactic among proponents of quasi-Malthusian thinking:  That they are proven completely wrong time and time again, doesn’t prevent them from continuing to make similar predictions, nor should the public question their credibility in any way, shape, or form.

At the time, Mr. Ehrlich was particularly concerned about food scarcity, but others in the same era focused on energy and other essential resources for the modern world, and so the human race has been waiting on “peak oil” for half a century.  M. King Hubbert was an American geologist and geophysicist frequently credited with introducing the concept in a 1956 paper.  He developed a theory that predicted the extraction peak, that is the point after which our oil supply will continually decrease, between 1965 and 1971 in the United States and a half century later worldwide.  Mr. Hubbert based his peak on the familiar notion of a bell curve, assuming that the extraction of fossil fuels increases exponentially after their discovery, then plateaus briefly before declining in the same manner.  Technological advances refused to be so neatly constrained, however, and though United States oil production did decline briefly in the 1980s and 1990s, new technologies unleashed American fossil fuels in short order.  Today, we remain one of the world’s leading producers in defiance of Mr. Hubbert’s theory, but the experts are still at it.  Peak oil is now expected to arrive by 2040.

Nor did the complete failure of Mr. Hubbert’s theory to accurately predict the future prevented similar ideas from being adopted in other fields.  We have peak uranium, peak phosphorus, and peak just about every other kind of mineral.  For example, “scientists” have been claiming for some time now that the future will no longer feature smart phones with touch screens because of a looming shortage of rare earth minerals.  The first report I read on the issue followed almost immediately after the iPhone’s success, another common pattern, complete with predictions that we would run out of these metals by 2016.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t locate that original article, but sure enough the theme has been revisited periodically over the years.  In 2019, The Independent reported that “‘Endangered’ elements used to make mobile phones are running out quickly, scientists warn” urging users to “avoid changing their phones every few years.”  “Scientists have warned some of the substances used to make phones are becoming increasingly scarce due to limited supplies, their location in conflict zones and the lack of recycling.  To tackle this problem, they say people should avoid changing their phones every few years.”  They quoted Professor David Cole-Hamilton of the University of St. Andrews.  “We are using some so fast that they will be dissipated around the world in less than 100 years.  Many of these elements are endangered, so should you really change your phone every two years?”  By 2021, however, more optimistic scientists were reporting that they had developed a replacement for some of these rare earth metals using breakthrough plasma technology.  This should not be surprising:  Throughout human history, scarcity begets innovation.  We innovate both because we want to and because we need to.  Almost nothing spurs new inventions better than a pressing need, and given the size of the mobile phone market, there are few more pressing needs for the industry than touch screens.

Unfortunately, energy innovation, particularly nuclear energy innovation has been at something of a standstill for decades.  In principle, everyone seems to understand that fusion technology, literally harnessing the power of the sun and staple of science fiction for generations, is the optimal answer to our energy needs.  It’s clean compared to alternatives like fossil fuels or nuclear fission.  It relies on one of the most abundant fuels in the universe, hydrogen, and it produces borderline ridiculous amounts of energy, especially compared to wind and solar.  In practice, we’ve funneled billions of dollars into just about everything else.  Solar is a perfect example.  President Joe Biden recently invoked the normally war-time only Defense Production Act to spur the production of solar panels.  The goal is to generate 45% of electricity in the United States from solar by the middle of this century.  Much of the media pretended this was some new breakthrough; a radical advance in technology and policy with some hope of succeeding.  In reality, President Jimmy Carter made much the same promise over 40 years ago.  The goal in 1979 was to produce 20% of our energy from renewable resources by the year 2000, an objective defined while unveiling solar panels on the White House roof.  “In the year 2000, this solar water heater behind me, which is being dedicated today, will still be here supplying cheap, efficient energy,” the President claimed.  “A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people.”  The actual share of energy generated by renewables in 2000 was 3.77%.  It wasn’t even 10% by 2020.  In other words, we missed the goal by orders of magnitude, but that’s not going to prevent us from trying once again, wasting billions of dollars after billions of dollars in a never ending quest.

In the meantime, fusion technology has quietly advanced and appears on the verge of a significant breakthrough.  Last month, CNN reported that “we’re now closer than ever” to “bottling the sun.”  “From a small hill in the southern French region of Provence, you can see two suns. One has been blazing for four-and-a-half billion years and is setting. The other is being built by thousands of human minds and hands, and is — far more slowly — rising.”  Saint-Paul-lez-Durance is the center of an effort by 35 countries to bring workable nuclear fusion to fruition, through development of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, better known as ITER.  Earlier this year, scientists in England working on a smaller project generated 59 megajoules of energy in just five seconds, about enough to power a house for a single day.  It doesn’t sound like much, but it was the first time we were able to sustain a reaction and that has always been the primary challenge.  The raw power of fusion was unleashed shortly after World War II with the development of the hydrogen bomb, but the technology to contain the reaction overtime and harness the energy has eluded us ever since.  Our earliest efforts were doomed by magnets made of copper that quickly melted under the intense heat.  New advances in technology, however, finally hold the promise of building a containment mechanism sufficiently strong to keep the reaction going.  The next step is to go beyond the work in the UK by producing a 10-fold return on energy, generating 500 megawatts from a mere 50 megawatts.  The timeline remains a little unclear, but it seems likely this goal can be achieved in the next decade, especially as other scientists are working on other approaches.  The hope is that ITER is fully online by 2035 and sometime in the next 20-30 years the first true reactors can be built.

In any rational world, this would be treated as the best possible news, especially if you believe global warming is an existential threat to humanity.   Fusion is the sustainable, potentially limitless answer to all of our problems.  Even if you remain skeptical of the environmentalists’ claims, the excitement of humanity advancing to the point where we can harness the power of the stars should be palpable.  This is the stuff of science fiction.  What problem can’t be solved if we can succeed in unleashing the sun on Earth?  Instead, the geniuses at Wired are busy reporting on a pending nuclear fusion fuel shortage at least a decade before an actual reactor is online.  In their view, “The problem—the white elephant in the room—is that by the time ITER is ready, there might not be enough fuel left to run it.”  Their concerns center around an isotope of hydrogen, tritium.  The nucleus of a tritium atom contains one proton and two neutrons, making it far heavier (atomically) speaking than regular hydrogen or the other common isotope deuterium which contains one proton and one neutron.  Tritium is radioactive and can be produced by a fission reaction of specific kind, known as a “heavy-water moderated reactor” but those are “reaching the end of their working life” and there are only 30 left in the world.  It was present in the atmosphere following nuclear bomb testing in the 40s and 50s, but has declined since then.  Scientists estimate there are only 44 pounds of it on the planet and even that small supply is “slowly disappearing” according to Wired.  Further, because tritium is radioactive, it decays with a half life of 12.3 years, meaning every 12 years half the supply is gone.

Recent investments in fusion technology along with its usage in nuclear weapons programs have driven the price of tritium to $30,000 per gram, and it is estimated a single reactor will need some 440 pounds per year, about ten times the believed amount on the entire planet.  Perhaps needless to say, someone has already predicted “peak tritium.”  Paul Rutherford, a researcher at Princeton’s Plasma Physics Laboratory, defined a “tritium window” in 1999, a short period where there might be sufficient supply.  The windows appear to have passed, even according to scientists working in France.  “If ITER had been doing deuterium-tritium plasma like we planned about three years ago, everything kind of would have worked out fine,” explained Scott Willms, the fuel cycle division leader at ITER. “We’re hitting the peak of this tritium window roughly now.”  Sadly, skepticism about the scarcity appears to reign supreme as usual, even as other scientists plan new technologies to solve the problem.  One of them is to produce tritium directly in the fusion reaction itself.  Another, is to retrofit other fusion reactions to produce it.  Yet another is to not rely on tritium at all.  The naysayers claim none of these are workable, however.  They will take too long, cost too much, or whatever.  “After 2035 we have to construct a new machine that will take another 20 or 30 years for testing a crucial task like how to produce the tritium, so how are we going to block and stop global warming with fusion reactors if we will not be ready until the end of this century?” questions Ernesto Mazzucato, a retired physicist and outspoken critic of ITER.  Mr. Willms from ITER itself is no more optimistic about alternatives, claiming “Fusion is really, really difficult, and anything other than deuterium-tritium is going to be 100 times more difficult.  A century from now maybe we can talk about something else.”

Taken altogether, the overwhelmingly obvious point of the Wired article is to downplay the potential before the technology even exists, making this the first of its kind in a long line of similar, almost entirely false concerns that generally came after the fact.  It’s too hard.  There’s too little.  We can’t do it.  Ultimately, it’s the 1798 thinking of Thomas Malthus applied to the challenges of 2022, driven by a paralyzing doubt about humanity’s ability to innovate and advance.  In Malthus’ defense, he had a limited history of innovation and growth to rely upon at the tail end of the 18th century.  The industrial age had not yet arrived.  The average person barely had enough food to eat and looked forward to a short, brutish life.  Modern medicine and the computer weren’t even dreams, and yet Malthus himself was one of the few skeptics, a lone naysayer.  Despite challenges that dwarf those we face today, it was the age of Enlightenment and most claimed the future had limitless potential. Over two hundred years after more of that potential has been realized than anyone dared imagine, the expert class is composed almost entirely of Malthusians.  Something deep within them refuses to believe we can overcome any challenge or solve any problem via the power of the human mind and free markets.  They panic over everything, sometimes as if it was literally the end of the world.  It’s an idea like Plato’s fears of democracy that simply will not die, however many times its proven false.

As I have said from time to time, there’s not an issue anywhere on the planet that an expert has studied, only to report they were wrong.  There is no problem here.  Carry on and enjoy.  Instead, it’s all doom and gloom all the time, and the future is dark, scary, worse than the present.  In the meantime, I don’t know about you, but I have no doubt at all that the tritium problem will be solved, the same as every other scarcity concern in the history of the world. History has proven me right a hundred if not a thousand times over.

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