Money talks and the gullible have bought the bluster about fusion
By Stéphane Lhomme
Competition is raging between the teams working in various countries on nuclear fusion. However, this rivalry does not play out on the scientific fields that now lie fallow, but merely at the public relations the level. It is all about announcing a “decisive advance” at the best moment to obtain large budgets and to be able to continue research that is certainly exciting for physicists, but completely useless as a practical reality.
Back on November 12, 1991, the daily Le Monde ran the headline “The Europeans take a decisive step in thermonuclear fusion”, before reporting on December 12, 1993 on the “counter-attack” by the USA (still just a war of words): “The Americans make a breakthrough in thermonuclear fusion”.
Thirty years later, the same publicity stunt was published in the same newspaper, which announced on December 13, 2022 “Nuclear fusion: a ‘major scientific breakthrough’ announced by an American laboratory”.
Similar rivalries between several teams erupted in 2021: on August 17, 2021, researchers at the NIF (National Ignition Facility, a research laser at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, USA) announced a “historic advance” towards nuclear fusion by inertial confinement.
This irked the physicists at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology who counter-attacked on September 8, barely three weeks later, by insisting they had succeeded in making a “major advance” in nuclear fusion.
Fearing humiliation, researchers at the international ITER project in Cadarache (Bouches-du-Rhône), France, now in total collapse, responded 5 days later, on September 13, 2021, bragging that their main magnet, according to them, would be “capable of hoisting an aircraft carrier”: a remarkable PR performance which was picked up by the majority of the world’s media.
But communication isn’t everything, and the ITER project continues to descend into the abyss of disappointment: part of the installation, painstakingly built, must now be dismantled in order to try to repair major defects, leading to additional years of delay — thus postponing the inevitable announcement of its total failure to a later date — and new billions in budget overruns.
To return to the thunderous announcement of this December 13, once again coming from NIF, it should be noted that it concerns an infinitesimal quantity of energy, generated with great flourish during… a few billionths of a second: global warming, which is supposed to be countered by the “clean” production of nuclear fusion, certainly has a very bright (and hot) future ahead.
It is also important to bear in mind that the Biden administration has just approved very large budgets toward further research. It is therefore no accident that the communications from Livermore NIF are so emphatic. No doubt they will soon be granted more significant funding for their exciting experiments, to the great displeasure of their American competitors from MIT and the lamentations of the hapless scientists at ITER.
However, both sides are already preparing for the next round of announcements that will fool a certain number of gullible people in the media and especially political leaders, who are the only ones able to release new billions of dollars that will be mercilessly obliterated if hydrogen atoms refuse to fuse.
Headline photo of NIF by Lawrence Livermore Laboratory/Wikimedia Commons.
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