Have we spent too much on fusion?

Posted by Rezwan Razani on Mar 10, 2012 at 07:51 PM
What do you think about this? Let us know in the comments below!

The Jacket of Charles Seife’s book, Sun in a Bottle, states:  “Scientists and governments have spent almost unfathomable wealth trying to fulfill the dream of fusion.”  Is it unfathomable?

Hardly.  And certainly not in proportion to fusion’s colossal upside.

How much have we spent?

Since 1953, when the fusion program started, the TOTAL spent on fusion energy in the US, both Magnetic and Inertial is $24.1 Billion dollars (adjusted to 29.1BN) - Source: FPA


That’s an average of $393 Million a year - adjusted to $510 million per year in the US.  This total includes NIF as well as Tokamaks and alternatives. 

Does that seem like a lot to you?

That depends on what you compare it to.

It’s a little bit more than we spend on Halloween pet costumes every year - but not much.

Where is fusion on the billion dollar gram?  The present budget, at less than a billion a year, doesn’t even get a square on the billion dollar gram. With ASP’s expanded budget (see sidebar), it starts to be visible, but is apparently half what the country spends on erectile dysfunction. 

Compare fusion expenditure to oil subsidies: 
US Oil subsidies:  $409Bn last year.  Fusion is almost 1000 times less. 

Note also that the BP oil spill is estimated to have cost ~ $40BN.  One oil spill, one summer, dwarfs the entire fusion program to date.  And yet BP does not fund fusion. (Not yet.  Come on, BP.)

Where did we get the $409B number?  Don’t recall.  Here’s an infographic that has oil subsidies at $70B.  Still puts fusion at 100 times less.  We’d like to get to some solid numbers on the topic.  See the Cinderella Project.

Compare to the rest of the new energy sector:
  As noted in several speeches given at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit, seven years ago, spending in the Clean Energy Sector was $50 Billion/year. By 2011 it had increased to $260Bn, for a total of a Trillion over the past 7 years. (Granted, $146Bn of that is asset finance.)

Going forward, BNEF attendees were unanimous about the need to increase that amount.  In any case, at present, US spending in fusion is a few thousandths of what is spent in clean energy. Comparisons that include international fusion expenditure might take that up to at most 1%.

What do we have to show for it?

If you focus on the prize of net energy, which has not yet been achieved, you may be inclined to dismiss fusion.  You should note, however, that fusion gain has been growing faster than Moore’s Law. The knowledge being accumulated in this field will all be part of the ultimate solutions that emerge.  Progress happens gradually, and then suddenly, one experiment at a time.  Per Mike Dunne, “it’s a cliff edge phenomenon”.

Until that happens, there are other benefits to fusion research that offset the costs.  In his 1995 paper, “Applications of Plasma and Fusion Research,” (J.of Fusion Energy, June 1995) Steve Dean went through the spinoffs and estimated the spinoff market as $200 billion per year.  [He has not revisited that number. If anyone has an updated estimate quantifying commercial value of spinoff technologies, let us know].

In sum, in addition to the intrinsic value of the pursuit of knowledge, the study of fusion has been accompanied by major scientific and engineering achievements which include advances in superconductors, compact super-power lasers and supercomputing and modeling and have commercial value. 


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Note to Seife:  Update your book to put the spending in perspective.  In what universe is fusion spending “unfathomable?”

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