Nuclear fusion triggers an overreaction

Technicians use a service system lift to access the target chamber interior for inspection and maintenance at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), a laser-based inertial confinement fusion research device, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory federal research facility in Livermore, California, United States in 2008. Philip Saltonstall/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory/Handout via REUTERS

NEW YORK, Dec 13 (Reuters Breakingviews) - A fusion breakthrough unveiled on Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Energy is a scientific tour de force, and a commercial irrelevancy.

It’s a notable feat that researchers produced more energy from fusing atoms together than they used to start the process. The development has been an elusive goal since the 1930s, promising essentially limitless power from cheap hydrogen found in seawater. One gram of hydrogen theoretically contains as much energy as burning about 10 tons of coal.

To be put into practical use, however, the process needs to be scaled up immensely. That probably will take years, if not decades. And even then, there’s a problem that undermines some of the breathless exuberance over the news.

Unless there are more breakthroughs, fusion probably would take place in massive facilities like today’s fission plants. The cost and time of construction is a bigger hurdle than the price to fuel them. The cost of power from a new nuclear plant runs about five times more expensive than a solar equivalent, Lazard analysts estimate. Meanwhile, if the price of uranium halved, the generating cost of a well-run reactor would only fall about 10%, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Making fusion cheaper and practical could be as big a challenge as fusion itself. (By Robert Cyran)

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(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are their own.)

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