Climate change

Taking A Realistic View of Climate Change

R. Noel Longuemare


Motivation For and Objective of This Paper

Our global climate is both vitally important and incredibly complex.  The world’s best scientists have been studying it for decades and there are still many aspects we do not fully understand and behaviors we cannot accurately predict, even with today’s most powerful technology.  Because Climate affects every aspect of our lives, it’s also vitally important to continue this search for knowledge and truth.

I believe it’s no exaggeration to say that the average individual today is concerned about Climate Change, but has little real understanding of its causes, its consequences, and the severity of these effects. At the same time, we are bombarded almost daily with conflicting stories and views—many of which are either misleading or incorrect—which makes it very difficult for most of us to sort outwhere facts and truth really lie.

No objective individual can deny that Climate Change is real.  The world has been warming for well over a century and will continue to do so for many more years.  The thrust to move toward non-fossil fuel sources of energy is a very good thing for several reasons, and impressive progress has already been made.  As with many such important and complex issues, however, there is a considerable lack of understanding and appreciation of real-world realitiesamong many climate change activists, politicians, and much of the general public.  This has resulted in the advancement and enactment of policies and expectations that—although well intended—are doing major harm to our overall economy while failing to provide commensurate meaningful benefits. This paper is intended to shed light on some of this while also illuminating some futuretechnologies that hold great promise as long-term “game changers” in the quest for affordable clean energy.

Table of Contents

Note: This table contains hyperlinks. Clicking on a topic will take you to that page.

To return to this T of C, type “table of” in the search hourglass space in the upper right-hand corner.

Motivation For and Objective of This Paper1

Synopsis and Bottom-Line Up Front3

Meaningful Progress Has Been Made3

Some Misconceptions and Misplaced Priorities3

The Task of Achieving “Net Zero” Emissions9

So, what should we do?10

Looking to the Future11

Advanced Fission Reactors11

Expanding Interest and Multiple Proposals for SMR’s in the USA14

Thermonuclear Power Generation is Nearing Reality!!!16

Some Fusion Basics18

Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) and the SPARC Program19

General Atomics (GA) Magnets and the Fusion Pilot Program21

Global Fusion Activities22

Recent U. S. Government Fusion Activities22

What’s Possible Once Fusion Power is a Reality?22

Guarding Against Low Probability, Disastrous Consequence Events23


Appendix 1-Change in Global Surface Temperature, [taken from 2022 6th International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report]​24

Appendix 2-The Role of Trees in CO2 Sequestration​26

Appendix 3-2022 White House Summit on Climate Change​28

Appendix 4-Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable Webinar: Unlocking New Possibilities for Commercial Fusion​29


Synopsis and Bottom-Line Up Front

Amid all the hype and confusion, one incontrovertible fact emerges—Global Warming (GW) is already happening!  With already existing levels of Green House Gasses (GHG) in our atmosphere, sea levels are rising, the Arctic ice mass is melting, and climate extremes are increasing. Carbon Dioxide, once released into our atmosphere, takes several hundred years to dissipate.  Based on measured data and our best scientific methods, today’s degree of warming will only increase over the next several decades and will be with us for a long time.  Carbon reduction measures can certainly reduce both the rate at which GW effects occur and the ultimate temperature rise, but the die is largely cast based on where we already are.   It’s therefore imperative that we recognize this and place much more emphasis on dealing with theinevitable consequences of what is going to happen!Undesirable dislocations and changes to our current way of life are going to occur, but history shows we can adapt and flourish in spite of them.  

Our Country is currently embarked on a high priority strategy to minimize or eliminate use of fossil fuels. Oil production is now below pre-COVID pandemic levels, and numerous disincentives are in place to discourage both new production as well as distribution pipelines. The entire US GHG contribution represents only 17% of the global total, and despite commendable increases in non-fossil power generation, theirresulting actual impact on global warming is in factinsignificant!  Eliminating fossil fuel production and distribution in the USA ahead of the rest of the less developed world contributes little to the solution while doing serious damage to our economy and ability to deal with both GW and myriad other challenges. Our current approach of PREMATURELY abandoning fossil fuels is imposing very real and unnecessary hardships without actually resulting in a meaningful impact on Global Warming!  On a positive note, human ingenuity and the ever-accelerating advance of new technologies make it highly likely that new solutions will emerge and be implemented during the 2nd half of this century.

——————– 0 ———————-

Meaningful Progress Has Been Made

On a positive note, great strides have been made in developing and deploying non-fossil fuel sources of electrical power. In 2022, approximately 50% of electricity generation in the USA came from non-fossil sources.  Globally, the combination of hydro, nuclear, wind, and solar power came to around 39% in 2021 (2022 data not yet available).  Interestingly, wind energy is the most prevalent new technology so far, providing approximately 1.8 times more than solar.  Globally, the sum of both wind and solar is now around 2/3 that of the installed hydro base. This is all very encouraging.  However, coal remains the largest global source for electricity, providing some 35% of theworld’s growing consumption.

Some Misconceptions and Misplaced Priorities

The concentration level of Green House Gasses (GHG) isanalogous to the thermostat on a kitchen oven—not the ON-OFF switch. The higher their concentration, the warmer our earth gets.  What never seems to be covered in the media or elsewhere is the fact that the current concentration level is sufficient to cause the Artic to melt, sea levels to rise, etc., etc. The “global solar oven” is turned on and the existing “thermostat setting” ismaintaining this temperature.  Even if the world were to magically stop adding any further GHGthese effects will continue for a long time, since CO2 in the atmosphere takes hundreds of years to dissipate.  Few seem to understand this!Adding more GHG raises the thermostat setting so the GW effects are further accelerated.  Sea levels would rise a little faster and ice would melt more rapidly, but these impacts are already happening and will continue to do so!  Said another way, Global Warming is happening, so get used to it!  Given this very real fact, we therefore need to start seriously addressing ways to cope with the inevitable impacts that are going to happen regardless of when the world attains Carbon Neutral sometime in the future—hopefully later this century.To date I’ve seen scant evidence that this coping priority is a significant part of the Climate Change agenda, except for a few locally inspired, isolated and uncoordinated programs.  As with past major challenges, there will be dislocations and impacts toour present manner of living, but the time scale is slow, which will provide opportunities for society to cope with them.

Figure 1

As but one example, Figure 1 shows the historical record of sea level rise, which has been going on since the 1800s.  The trend is obvious, and there is no indication of its stopping, given where we are today.  Further rise is inevitable, and we need to accelerate plans to deal with it.  Countries like the Netherlands provide a template on how to successfully address thisboth affordably and effectively.

A number of prominent individuals have and are still pushing a narrative that cataclysmic consequences will result with just a few additional degrees of GW.  Concerns about “tipping points” have been raised, wherein an irreversible positive feedback cycle will occur, further accelerating warming trends.  No one can presently predict whether or not this will happen.  Thus far,scientific evidence to support this actually occurring at scale is lacking, but no one can totally refute it either.  Were it to occur, it would further accelerate GW trends, although this would still happen on a relatively long timescale (measured in decades). What does not exist is any real evidence that such an event would produce conditions society would be unable to cope with, much less an “existential threat”. The most recent United Nations Sixth Annual Assessment (2022) report on Climate Change has adjusted its worst-case scenarios compared to those of the fifth assessment and narrowed the uncertainty of their models. Absent some new technology, the more likely path appears to be a temperature increase of around 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.  We are certain to experience some consequent disruptions and changes from the status quo, but there is nothing I could find to suggest a global catastrophe is imminent.

The most prevalent and widely accepted misconception today is the notion that if only we were to immediately adopt measures to drastically shift to “clean” sources of energy, we could prevent “catastrophic Global Warming”. The cartoon below from the August 8, 2022 editorial page of the Washington Post sums this up well:

Figure 2.   [“The Inflation Reduction Act”, was enacted August 16, 2022]

This misguided thinking is embraced at the highest levels of the White House and over half of the Congress. Although this particular legislation contains some quite useful incentives thatencourage the use of clean energy, premature government-wide measures and policies have been imposed over the last two years aimed at doing everything possible to immediately transition the USA away from fossil fuels and become “carbon neutral” by or sooner than 2050. Pipeline construction has been shut down, permitting barriers imposed, and federal shipping regulations have made transport “prohibitively expensive”, to name but a few. Consequently, our country has descended from the energy independence achieved in 2020 to just the opposite—a shortage and need to import fossil fuel from countries whose extraction methods are far less “green” than ours.  This is not a coincidence, as a basic goal of these policies has indeed been achieved—the cost of conventional energy has skyrocketed, making “clean energy” more competitive. This would be a good result if only there were not such a huge associated downside.

To be quite clear, transitioning to clean, renewable energy is in itself a very good thing!  That is not the issue.  The basicproblem is a total lack of realism in the time scale for achieving it in a meaningful and economically sound way.  When viewed from a global perspective, the current U.S. approach fails the simple common-sense test. To add credibility and better understanding to this statement, some well accepted numbers are helpful:

Figure 3

Figure 3 illustrates the significant improvements the USA and Europe have made, but also puts the remaining global emissions into perspective.  Note that India, China, and the rest of Asia dwarf thecontributions of the USA and Europe. Figure 4 shows a more detailed breakout.  The US and Europe are clearly going down, but the real heavy hitters—China and India—are growing at a significant pace. 

Figure 4

Today, although our country is the highest per-capita user of energy in the world, we contribute only 17% of the global GHG total.  This means that if ALL USA FOSSIL FUEL CONSUMPTION WERE TO BE TOTALLY STOPPED—a total impossibility—83% of the worlds GHG emissions would continue!  The GHG reductions we have so far made—though significant on their own—are far smaller than this, having but a minor impact on the status of our planet, given where the rest of the world is.

To make matters worse, both China and India—by far the largest GHG contributors—are INCREASING, not decreasing their emissions as they strive to improve their respective standards of living. China promises to start making large reductions by 2030.  However, because the overall energy demand of their vast population is actually accelerating, their significant efforts to expand non-fossil sources will slow the rateofincrease of GHGs, but their total contribution will still continue to grow!In spite of pledges, it’s totally unlikely they can achieve any net reductions in just 7 more years.  China is reportedly in the process of building over 40 new coal-burning power plants! Does anyone really think they will abandon them 7 years from now?

India—whose population is growing and set to surpass China’s—is far behind China, and it will take decades before they will be able to achieve their desired level of modernization.  As a developing nation, India needs to provide electricity to huge sections of the country that don’t have reliable power. About 200 million of the country’s 1.3 billion (and growing) population have none.  In a terribly misguided decision in 2017, India abandoned 2/3rds of its planned nuclear power plant construction projects and is replacing them with coal-fired plants.  Although their government has repeatedly pledged to abide by the Paris Climate Agreement, they have instead increased their GHG emissions year over year.  India has over 6% of the worlds coal reservesGiven the magnitude of their future energy needs and economic realities, it’s clear that they will continue as an ever-increasing GHG emitter for many more decadesdespite meaningless pledges.

Lurking in the shadows are contributions from other underdeveloped nations (especially in Asia and Africa) that represent some 83% (and growing) of the world’s population.  These nations are all striving to improve their standards of living (and hence their energy consumption), and their only rational path is to use the cheapest and most available sources possible—i.e., fossil fuels. There are ongoing discussions that developed nations should subsidize energy development in these disadvantaged countries, but the political realities and economic scale of this problem makes such an approach appear extremely unlikely.  

Thus, it is totally unrealistic that currently desired GHG reductions can be achieved by 2050 regardless of what we in the USA do in the near term!  We should therefore recognize this and pace our own energy transition away from fossil fuelsaccordingly.  While continuing development of green sources, we should abandon the existing policy of immediately phasing out fossil fuels and instead emphasize methods that make their use more efficient and “greener” while restoring our own energy independence!

As a further illustration of this problem, we now have empirical evidence.  In 2010, Germany under Angela Merkel embarked on a plan to reduce carbon emissions by 65% from 1990 levels by 2030, and by 88% by 2040.  Cumulative investment on renewable sources is on track to hit $580 Billion by 2025.  This has resulted in an impressive reduction in GHG emissions of 38.7% compared to 1990 levels. Irrationally, they also misguidedly decided to abandon nuclear power—their one truly green and consistently available form of energy—by 2022, as an emotional reaction to the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents.  These combined decisions have caused their cost of energy to more than double, and for what purpose? The resulting impact on GHG concentrations from this will be difficult to even measure, yet the economic costs of these prematurely accelerated actions are real, severe, and are being felt now! Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting natural gas shortage has only exacerbated this problem.

Whats clearly missing is a balance between desired goals, the cost of achieving them, and the actual time scale for accomplishing them.  Our current approach of PREMATURELY abandoning fossil fuels is imposing very real and unnecessary hardships without actually resulting in a meaningful impact on Global Warming!  Does this really make any sense???

The Task of Achieving “Net Zero” Emissions

The current goal is to achieve “net zero” emissions by 2050. This literally means that whatever GHG emissions exist then will be counterbalanced by an equal amount being either removed from or captured before reaching the atmosphere!  Few people seem to appreciate the enormity of such a feat!  

There are three ways of attacking this problem:

1. Stop generating GHG by using non-fossil sources of energy

2. Capture and sequester the GHG emissions that are generated

3. Find a practical way to remove GHG from the atmosphere

Underground sequestration is a feasible scientific approach, and geological studies have shown that there is sufficient capacity in the earth’s interior to sequester all the GHG emissions produced.  However, actually making this happen presents an enormous economic problem (not to mention associated environmental issues).  According to the latest Environmental Protection Agency 2022 report, some 44 Million tons of CO2 are now annually being captured from industrial processes, etc.  As Figure 4 shows, around 5 Billion tons are being generatedannually in the USA—3 orders of magnitude greater. I’ve been unable to find any global sequestration numbers, but it’s reasonable to believe that the USA is among the leaders in this area, and that overall global sequestration is a relatively small number. The most promising concept is to use captured CO2 to stimulate oil recovery from older wells, since there is an associated economic benefit that helps pay for the cost.  This can work to a degree for a limited number of oil-producing nations but implementing sequestration on a global scale will require major non-recoverable investments. The chances of this happening in a mere 27 years appear vanishingly slim at best!

Even planting enormous numbers of trees in arid areas and providing them water hardly puts a dent in this problem.  As shown in Appendix-4, to remove 1/100th of the yearly U.S. emissions would require adding trees covering an area roughly 230 times the size of New Mexico each year, and we are only 17% of the worlds total! .  Removing meaningful amounts of GHG from the atmosphere will clearly require the development of yet-to-be devised new methods.  The sheermagnitude of this problem is quite daunting.  To be meaningful, Billions of Tons of CO2 must be removed annually (the world is currently adding some 40B Tons CO2/year)!  The amount of energy required along with the associated investments make removal a true long shot, and one that will not be possible for many more decades at best.  The advent of new sources of clean energy as discussed in later paragraphs will undoubtedlybecome a critical part of making this feasible later this century, if then.

The central aim of the 12Dec2015 Paris Agreement is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.  

Given the current status of the world and practical realities, it is highly unlikely that this goal can be met without additional technical breakthroughs later in this century.

So, what should we do?

Given the enormous obstacles associated with achieving “net zero emissions”, the most probable scenario—given the path we are currently on—is that we will indeed see a likely 30C global temperature increase with a range of 2.50C to 40C by the end of the century.  We are currently on a path to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move to more sustainable forms of energy, which is a good thing, but this transition should be accomplishedat a measured, economically viable pace. Specifically, given that the USA contributes only 17% of the world’s GHG emissions, adopting heroic measures ahead of the rest of the world contributes little to the solution while doing serious damage to our economy and competitive position in the world.

We should therefore abandon the existing policy of immediately phasing out fossil fuels and instead emphasize methods that make their use more efficient and “greener” while restoring our own energy independence! Again, abalanced approach is needed.  

As previously stated, we should also accelerate steps to cope with the inevitable dislocations and issues these increased global temperatures will cause.  Finally, we should greatly increase our investments in game-changing new technologiesas discussed in the next section.

Looking to the Future

Clearly, more emphasis should be placed on finding means to cope with the consequences of the inevitable level of GW we are likely to experience this century.  Fortunately, historyindicates that promising technological developments in the next several decades will spawn new approaches for dealing with this, as discussed in the following sections.

The one prediction that can be made with almost absolute certainty is that we are totally unable to accurately forecast future technological developments and the changes they engender. No one today can really imagine with any fidelity what things will be like by the year 2100. This adds an additional degree of optimism that society will indeed be able to cope with whatever effects global warming has in the future—as has repeatedly occurred in similar situations in the past.

Not everything in the future is uncertain.  There are two emerging capabilities that are on track to revolutionize generation of “green power”:

• Compact, Passively Safe, Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) using Nuclear Fission

• Thermonuclear Power

As renewable energy sources (primarily wind and solar) continue to satisfy a larger fraction of global demand, the need for large, 24/7 sources of reliable power will also increase to cover the intermittent gaps inherent in these two technologies.  Storage batteries will shoulder part of this load (especially for dispersed home-size clean-power generation), but affordable, large-scale, non-intermittent nuclear power is an excellent and viable match for this task.  Even Climate Czar John Kerry recently stated: “I don’t think we can get there without it”.

Advanced Fission Reactors

The 1979 Three Mile Island power station accident followed by the Russian Chernobyl reactor meltdown of 1986 created an enormous emotional response from both the general public and political leaders, resulting in a virtual halt to the expansion of nuclear power and a major curtailment of R&D investments, especially in the USA and some other parts of the world.  Despite this, a much-reduced R&D effort has nevertheless continued, aimed at improved, safer fission reactor technology, and is about to bear fruit. (Another major development is a gradual shift in public/political sentiment toward acceptance of nuclear power as a viable green alternative.) 

The salient change from existing designs is a focus on much smaller, modular reactors with inherent fail-safe features.  These are not only safer and more affordable but also have the potential of reducing the time to construct and license new installations due to their smaller size and repeatable, modular nature. Provided some archaic regulations are changed, permitting delays should be significantly reduced through repetitive use of a proven design.  Typically, some 90% of the actual construction is performed at the factory instead of on-site, enabling learning-curve savings as quantities increase.  Capacity is scalable by building multiple, proven modular reactors instead of large, one-of-a-kind installations.  By far the greatest impediments are the voluminous regulatory processes that currently exist—especially in the USA.  These processes were formulated to deal with the very large scale (Gigawatt size) conventional plants, and many of these requirements no longer apply to the new, smaller reactor technology.

Unfortunately for us, China has continued significant investments in all types of nuclear power generation, and now demonstrably has a multi-year lead in this area.  Two Small Modular Reactor stations are currently under construction, with plans for many more once these initial units are proven.  As a further indication of our backward position, Argentina also has one SMR under construction. Who would have thought Argentina would be ahead of us in such a high-tech area!

China also has a comprehensive R&D effort underway exploring additional nuclear fission technologies.  In August 2021, China started testing a 2 MW Molten Salt Thorium-based reactorsponsored by their Chinese Academy of Science, which if successful will open a new field of safer and potentially less expensive nuclear fission power generation.  The first commercial scale unit is scheduled to begin operation in 2030.  Nuclear Power technology export is seen as a key part of their “Belt and Road” initiative. China is also building a large-scale particle accelerator with which to re-process spent nuclear fuel.  The United States has a lot of catching up to do!

Fortunately, private Industry has made significant progress in promising SMR designs. In the United Kingdom, Rolls Royce is well along with the detailed design of a somewhat larger SMR (470 MW) and has received financial support from the UK government.   A key feature is that 90% of the reactor fabrication will be done in the Rolls Royce factory and delivered to the site, as opposed to doing all construction and assemblyon-site.  This will provide major reductions in cost and completion time—£1.8 billion once in full production compared with £22 billion for a full-sized nuclear power station such as the planned 3,300 Mwe Sizewell C project. A dozen or more similar efforts are underway across the globe.

The USA continues to plod along, but the DoE has finally approved initial phases of a SMR to be developed by NuScale/Fluor, with a target completion date of 2029.   A schematic drawing of the planned reactor is shown in Figure 5, along with a detailed scale drawing in Figure 6.

Figure 5—Small Modular Reactor Schematic Showing Size Comparison

The key features listed below highlight safety and reduced cost advantages of this new design that represent a major step toward more widespread acceptance of Nuclear Power:

• No AC or DC power for safe shutdown and cooling: Modules safely shut down and self-cool, indefinitely, with no need for AC or DC power, operator or computer action, or additional water. This provides what is called an unlimited coping period—a first for light water reactor technology.

• Helical Coil Steam Generators (HCSG): The use of compact HCSGs provides a large heat transfer surface area in a small volume. The HCSG geometry has a very low pressure drop that serves to maximize natural circulation flow in the primary loop. The once through counter-flow design enables the generation of superheated steam and good thermal efficiency using natural circulation flow—no pumps.

• High strength steel containment immersed in the cooling pool: Acts as a heat exchanger to provide the means to transfer reactor heat to the reactor pool water to limit containment pressure, eliminating the requirement for containment spray systems for cooling. The containment vessel is submerged in the reactor pool, which provides a passive heat sink for heat removal under loss-of coolant accident (LOCA) conditions.

• Maintaining containment in a vacuum limits heatexchange during normal operation: Minimizes reactor vessel heat loss, limits oxygen content, prevents component corrosion and eliminates the requirement for physical reactor vessel insulation.

• Small, efficient core design has 1/20 of the nuclear fuel of a large-scale reactor. Its small decay heat, inherent stability, and reactor physics eliminates fuel damage in all postulated design basis events, including those with failure of all control rods to insert. For postulated beyond-design basis events, radiation from fuel damage is well below regulatory limits at the plant site boundary.

• Digital Instrumentation & Control (I&C) provides comprehensive monitoring and control of all plant systems in a single control room. Control room layout and panel displays were designed using a state-of-the-art simulator and a comprehensive human factors engineering and human system interface evaluation program.

Expanding Interest and Multiple Proposals for SMR’s in the USA

Recently there has been a significant upswell across the country to increase availability of nuclear power by investing in and building Small Nuclear Reactor stations similar in size to the propulsion systems used by the U. S. Navy to power submarines and ships.  West Virginia in particular is hoping to repurpose abandoned coal-fired plants and mined coal sites to reclaim prominence in the energy economy.  There are more than 300 retired and still operating coal fired plants in the USA that are good candidates for a nuclear conversion. “Communities that previously rejected nuclear power as unsafe or a threat to the coal industry are now clamoring to be a part of what might be branded “nuclear 2.0” .  Over the past few years, several states have lifted legal bans and or passed a law encouraging development of SMRs.  Virginia has developed a plan to build the nation’s first commercial Small Modular Reactor, likely at an abandoned mine site.  All of this bodes well for a resurgence of nuclear power in the USA.

Hopefully, as these new systems are brought online, there will be increased recognition of and confidence in their multiple advantages to fill the increasing power generation gap that occurs when the wind stops blowing and the sun isn’t shining.

Figure 6

Detailed Small Modular Reactor Cutaway

Thermonuclear Power Generation is Nearing Reality!!!

Energy derived from nuclear fusion is a long sought-after technology that appears to have finally “turned the corner”, and if successful, will be an absolute “game changer” —to a degree unlike almost anything yet developed!  Ever since the advent of the Hydrogen Bomb in the 1950s, the mirage of thermonuclear power has been seen on the horizon, but never closer.  Initial predictions of its mastery were overhyped, and the journey has been far more difficult than first imagined, to the point that this topic virtually dropped from view for many years.  Nonetheless, scientific experiments and developmental work has been steadily progressing in the background.  The “proof of concept” initiation of thermonuclear fusion has now been achieved in the laboratory but until recently the required “energy in” has exceeded the “energy out”.  In 2021, scientists from the EUROfusion Consortium working at the JET-Joint European Torus located in  Yorkfordshire, England, produced a sustained, 5 second burst of 59 Megajoules (MJ)  of fusion energy .  Although the energy out was less than energy in, this nevertheless conclusively proved the validity of the Physics theory, removing any doubts that harnessing fusion energy is indeed possible.  Scaling it up to achieve a net energy gain is now primarily a huge engineering problem.

All this is scheduled to change this decade when at least two major experiments come to fruition.  The most advanced is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)located in Saint-Paul-lez-Durance, France. It is scheduled for completion and “first plasma” initial operation this decade.  This enormous undertaking—involving 35 nations and funded by the European Union and 6 other nations including the USA—is designed to demonstrate a net energy gain and do so at power station scale by 2035. If this is successful—and there is every reason to expect it will be—the remaining task will be to commercialize the process so that it is economically viable for wide-scale adoption.  Given modern engineering capabilities, there appear to be no “show-stoppers” in the way.  Its entirely reasonable to expect that sufficient progress will be made in the remaining decades prior to 2100 to make this a viable new source of virtually unlimited, affordable clean power in the second half of this century!

ITER Primary Reaction Chamber (note scale compared to humans)

Figure 7

ITER Construction Site in 2018

Figure 8

Unlike the existing “fission” reactors in wide scale use today, nuclear “fusion” is extremely attractive for several fundamental reasons which include:

• The fuel for fusion — light elements like hydrogen — is sufficient on Earth to meet all of mankind’s needs for millions of years. Its fuel ingredients (Deuterium, Tritium and Lithium) are all obtained from sea water (Lithium is also extracted from mines on land, especially Afghanistan), and an essentially inexhaustible supply is available at relatively low extraction cost.

• Fusion emits no pollutants or greenhouse gases. The only byproducts of the fusion process are helium and a fast neutron, which carries the heat to make steam, meaning there is none of the long-lived radioactive waste produced by conventional nuclear fission reactors.

• Unlike renewables such as Solar and Wind energy, a Thermonuclear plant can operate 24/7 while generating zero greenhouse gas emissions

• Being similar in size to fossil plants, a Fusion Plant requires far less acreage than either solar or wind and poses no environmental hazard to wildlife or birds.

ITER is now in the assembly stage and is scheduled to commence operation in the mid-late 2020s, with full-scale demonstrations in the mid to late 2030s.  Even if this schedule slips a few years (which for a project of this magnitude and audacity is almost to be expected), the very real possibility that power station levels of fusion energy can be harnessed within the next decade is unbelievably exciting! Given the ever-advancing pace of technology, it now seems quite reasonable to expect Fusion Power on a large scale well before the end of this century!

Some Fusion Basics

Fusion is the process by which light elements, like hydrogen, combine to form heavier elements, like helium, releasing enormous amounts of energy. It is the source of energy for the sun and all the stars. To fuel this process, matter must be heated to extremely high temperatures – roughly 100 million degrees.Matter in that state is called a plasma – where the particles have net electric charge. To be kept hot, this plasma must be very well insulated from ordinary matter. The most advanced fusion devices use magnetic fields to provide the thermal insulation that is required. The stronger the magnetic field, the stronger the confining force on the charged particles in the plasma, the better the insulation, which enables a much smaller, better performing fusion device.

Fusion performance increases with the size of an experiment, but so does cost and timeline. Until recently, the limitations of magnet technology required a coalition of almost all industrialized nations to fund producing a net energy fusion device at scale. It took several decades for these nations to reach a consensus, commit the necessary funds, and begin construction of ITER in southern France. High Temperature Superconducting (HTS) technology was not available during the time when ITER was designed—from roughly 1985 to 2005. ITER construction is now too far along to allow for such a significant change of course.  None the less, ITER is on track to pave the way for further developments and commercialization of this exciting capability.

Fusion Fuel

Tritium and deuterium are two isotopes of hydrogen that will be used to fuel the fusion reaction in ITER. While deuterium can be extracted from seawater in virtually boundless quantities, the supply of available tritium is limited, estimated currently at twenty kilos. (To put this in perspective for a commercial size power plant, about 300 grams or 11 ounces of tritium will be required per day to produce 800 MW of electrical power!)Breeding tritium is an integral part of ITER. The project will experiment with tritium production within the vacuum vessel by way of test blanket modules (TBMs). The research activity runs in parallel to the ITER research plan and is considered “a project within the project.” Once this well understood process is perfected, future fusion power plants will produce their own tritium fuel from lithium blankets that are bombarded by plentiful neutrons generated in the fusion process.

Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) and the SPARC Program

Around 2015, MIT lost federal funding from the Department of Energy for its Fusion research and shut down its Plasma Science and Fusion Center experiment.  As often happens, the scientists and graduate students strongly believed in the work they were doing, and on their own started a self-funded effort to keep the effort alive.  This resulted in the formation of Commonwealth Fusion Systems in 2018, a private LLC created by former MIT staff and former students to commercialize fusion energy and related technologies. CFS combines the decades of research experience of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center with the innovation and speed of the private sector. CFS has attracted over $2B in investments from several companies, venture capital firms, and individuals to support its work. In 2020 their effortsresulted in demonstrating a High Temperature Superconducting (HTSC) Magnet with a strength of 20 Tesla—an enormous breakthrough.

The MIT Plasma Science & Fusion Center in collaboration with private fusion startup Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS). is developing a conceptual design for SPARC, a compact, high-field, net fusion energy device. SPARC will be the size of existing mid-sized fusion devices, but with a much stronger magnetic field. Based on established physics, the device is predicted to produce 50-100 MW of fusion power, achieving fusion gain, Q, greater than 10. This experiment aims atvalidating the promise of high-field devices built with new superconducting technology. SPARC fits into an overall strategy of speeding up fusion development by using new high-field, high-temperature superconducting (HTS) magnets. Now that the basic engineering of HTS fusion magnets is established, the next step will now be to use that technology to build SPARC. 

Rendering of SPARC Assembly (note size contrast with ITER)

SPARC is designed with a 1.85m major radius and 0.57m minor radius operating at a toroidal field of 12.2T and plasma current of 8.7MA, producing 50-100 MW of fusion power. It is roughly 10 times smaller than ITER.  Its mission will be to demonstrate break-even fusion production and to demonstrate the integrated engineering of fusion-relevant HTS magnets at scale. SPARC leverages decades of international experience with tokamak physics and is a logical follow-on to the series of high-field fusion experiments built and operated at MIT. The long-termgoal is to introduce fusion power into the energy market in time to help combat global warming!

The SPARC approach uses a newly available superconducting material that allows operation at much higher magnetic fields than the previous state-of-the-art. The high magnet fields are critical because they dramatically reduce the volume of the plasma at a fixed fusion power output. This combination makes a net-energy fusion device, such as SPARC, much smaller and less expensive than if it were built with the previous magnet technology. This makes it feasible for smaller and much more streamlined organizations—such as MIT and CFS—to pursue net energy fusion devices. Perhaps most importantly, the cost and timescale to retire key technical risks has become acceptable to private-sector investors.

Unlike ITER—which is funded and managed by a huge consortium of 35 nations—SPARC is privately funded, with a comparatively lean management structure guiding its development. Being a commercial venture, decisions can be made quickly and plans rapidly modified as more is learned.  As a real-world example of this, the spectacular success of Elon Musk’s Space-X is vivid proof of this approach.  The US government has been developing satellites for many years at enormous expense, but it took the commercial sector to both recognize the importance of and then successfully develop the ability to return rocket boosters from space and reuse them.  The same process will hopefully occur in this case, making it likely that commercial projects will eventually overtake and surpass government sponsored programs. This bodes well for the USA!

The SPARC facility is under construction in Devens, MA, at theCFS fusion energy campus which officially opened on February10, 2023 and includes the company’s offices and a manufacturing facility. The SPARC project will be parallel and complementary to other international fusion efforts, including ITER, as well as other ongoing private-sector fusion endeavors. Decades of research worldwide in fusion science and technology, including that carried out in support of ITER, have already paved the way for much of the SPARC work. The science behind the two projects is different in that ITER is a moderate-field, moderate-density device, while SPARC is a high-field, high-density device. The SPARC plan is driven by a focus on short-term commercialization, while U.S. interest in ITER currently lies in basic science. Right now—given the relatively small funding being provided—the U.S. government has a fusion science program, but it does not have a fusion energy program.

MIT scientists and their collaborators are quite confident that once the magnet technology has been refined, the SPARC device can achieve the desired level of performance—namely, net fusion energy. They are confident because the assumptions used to predict the level of fusion power produced by SPARC are conservative – and based on an enormous worldwide database from a variety of fusion experiments. In October 2020 the MIT team published a series of papers in a special issue of the Journal of Plasma Physics on the physics basis of SPARC which showed that “if the magnets work, SPARC will work”.

General Atomics (GA) Magnets and the Fusion Pilot Program

General Atomics—one of the pioneering companies in the USA pursuing fusion power research— is currently building the central solenoid for the ITER project and has also provided several design innovations incorporated in its fuel system.  The 5-story, 1,000-ton magnet will use 15 million amperes of electrical current to stabilize ITER’s fusion plasma. Each coil is 7 feet tall, 14 feet wide, and is composed of 3.5 miles of low temperature superconducting cable.

In October 2022 GA announced a plan to construct “The General Atomics Fusion Pilot Plant” (FPP) that represents “a revolutionary step forward for commercializing fusion energy”. It is the culmination of more than six decades of investments in fusion research and development and draws heavily on the experience gained from operating the DIII-D National Fusion Facility in San Diego on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy.  The FPP plans to utilize GA’s proprietary Fusion Synthesis Engine (FUSE) to enable engineers, physicists, and operators to rapidly perform a broad range of studies and continuously optimize the power plant for maximum efficiency. A key innovation is GA’s advanced modular concept (GAMBL) for the breeding blanket which is a critical component that breeds tritium, a fusion energy fuel source, to make the fusion fuel cycle self-sufficient.  

Global Fusion Activities

According to Wikipedia, there are at this time approximately 51 listed ongoing fusion experiments in the entire world centered around magnetic confinement technology—the USA has 11, UK 9, China 6, Russia 5, Germany 3.  It is difficult to ascertain the status of most of these from published data, but ITER—due to its power-station scale and schedule status—is most likely to remain in the lead.  It now seems clear that once its demonstration goals are achieved in the next decade or so, there will be an avalanche of both public and private investment world-wide to make fusion power a commercial reality. The one known dark horse is the privately funded U.S. SPARC project which is scheduled to commence operation in the same time scale as ITER. Although its power output (50-100 MW) is less, its use of much smaller superconducting magnet technology likely makes it easier and faster to commercialize. There may well be other advanced projects whose status is not readily obtainable that could emerge in this same time scale. Given that the basic science has been definitively proven, it is almost a certainty that wide scale adoption of fusion power will occur in the 2nd half of this century.  We can only hope that once again American ingenuity bolstered by the free enterprise system will rise to the top in this incredibly important area.

Recent U. S. Government Fusion Activities

Although U. S. funding for Fusion has been relatively small for the last few years, the Federal Government finally appears to be turning the corner—albeit still at a modest pace. In 2022 the White House held a Fusion Summit to assess the status of fusion, and the Department of Energy (DOE) is now actively soliciting bidders for Public Private Partnerships to accelerate the commercialization of fusion energy by 2050.  More detail on this is provided in Appendices 2 

and 3.

What’s Possible Once Fusion Power is a Reality?

All of this portends a total revolution in our power generation systems once the daunting but achievable engineering and economic challenges are overcome. Imagine what may be possible with essentially unlimited sources of energy:

• An “all-electric” economy virtually devoid of fossil fuels will become practical and widespread

• Wide-scale adoption of seawater desalinization combined with large pumping stations and pipelines can effectively eliminate drought in arid areas of the globe

• With the continuous improvement that always occurs, small-scale thermonuclear plants will eventually be developed, enabling underdeveloped and remote areas to have access to essentially unlimited energy

• Energy intensive synthesis of new compounds and materials will become feasible

• Large scale CO2 extraction from the atmosphere maybecome feasible, in turn reducing global warming effects

• Many other possibilities are unimaginable today and are virtually unlimited….

As with any new technology, new downside effects will crop up and need to be dealt with, such as increased usage of water in arid areas causing increased atmospheric water vapor, aggravating global warming. However, the overwhelming benefits along with advanced mitigation strategies will no doubt far outweigh any downsides.

Guarding Against Low Probability, Disastrous Consequence Events

Finally, some very unlikely events over which we have no control have occurred in the past that, should they happen again, could truly have existential consequences. Two examples are the earth being struck by a large asteroid, and a massive volcanic eruption.  Even though the likelihood of this happening is quite small, the impact could seriously threaten life on earth as we currently know it.  In either case, enormous dust clouds in our atmosphere would literally blot out the sun for years, affecting our most basic needs such as agriculture, solar power, and almost everything else.  Instead of Global Warming, we would suddenly be faced with the beginning of another Ice Age. To cope with something like this, enormous amounts of energy would be required. 

The single most promising source would be unlimited fusion power, with nuclear fission power a close second.  Transitioning the global power grids to these sources of energy will provide insurance against such highly unlikely but truly catastrophic events.


Climate change is already upon us, and we need to more seriously accelerate a coordinated thrust instantiating measures to deal with all of the consequences—especially rising sea levels.  
Even in the most optimistic scenarios, fossil fuels will be needed for many more decades.  The USA needs to reverse the current policy of prematurely eliminating fossil fuels, while stillcontinuing to encourage the employment of more clean energy sources.  In particular, there needs to be a new priority on building more nuclear generating capacity based on safe Small Modular Reactor technology.  This can lead to a more natural and economically viable transition away from fossil fuels that is more in step with global realities, and which will actually resultin meaningful global GHG reductions.  Finally, it is highly likely that practical nuclear fusion power will become a reality in the next several decades, making possible new and revolutionary advances that we presently cannot accurately envision.  By the end of this century when fusion becomes fully commercialized and ubiquitous, unprecedented strides will undoubtedly be made in GHG reduction and sequestration. To accelerate this happening, funding in this area should be significantly increased immediately!

Past history has repeatedly shown that new technologies emerge whose consequences no one can accurately forecast.  Given the accelerating pace of technological development, it is highly likely that society will discover new approaches to Global Warming that we cannot currently envision but which will allow mankind to deal with this challenge much more effectively

Based on all of the above, the future of our planet continues to look quite bright despite many challenges.  As time passes, hopefully a better understanding of this will also lead to more balanced coverage by the media and more rational policies from the political establishment.

Appendix 1-Change in Global Surface Temperature, [taken from 2022 6th International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report]

Figure A-1: Measured and predicted global temperature change

The predicted warming trend does generally follow the measured data (the model was “tuned” to make this so), but there are large uncertainty bounds (shown by the beige shaded area) on the prediction.  Both predicted and measured curves clearly imply continued warming over the next several decades.

According to the most recent United Nations report: “there is a near-linear relationship between cumulative anthropogenic CO2 emissions and the global warming they cause. Each 1000 GtCO2 of cumulative CO2 emissions is assessed to likely cause a 0.27°C to 0.63°C increase in global surface temperature with a best estimate of 0.45°C/GtCO2”.

The central aim of the 12Dec2015 Paris Agreement’ was to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.  If one extrapolates the measured data in FigureA-1, the result is substantially higher than these goals. Given the current status of the world and practical realities, it is highly unlikely that this goal can be met unless additional technical breakthroughs occur later in this century. Past history has repeatedly shown that new technologies emerge whose consequences no one can accurately forecast.  Given theaccelerating pace of technological development, it is highly likely that society will discover new approaches to Global Warming that we cannot currently envision but which will allow mankind to effectively deal with this challenge.

Appendix 2-The Role of Trees in CO2 Sequestration

Trees are one of nature’s ways of sequestering CO2 and is also one of the most energy efficient and effective approaches.  The process of photosynthesis uses the sun’s energy to convert Carbon Dioxide (CO2) into Oxygen and Carbon-based sugars necessary for tree functioning and to make wood.  The amount of CO2 sequestered in the wood of a tree is directly related to the tree’s dry weight.  Every part of a tree stores carbon, from the trunks, branches, leaves, and roots. By weight, dried tree material is about 50 percent carbon. Trees also release carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as a function of their physiology. When some or all parts of a tree decompose after death or burn during fire, the carbon is released back to the atmosphere. Thus, the amount of carbon in forests closely mirrors the natural cycle of tree growth and death. 

Carbon can also be found in soils. Carbon in soils comes from the organic matter from trees and other vegetation in varying degrees of decomposition. In fact, soil carbon represents about 50 percent of the total carbon stored in forest systems in the United States. Like vegetation, soils release carbon dioxide when soil microbes break down organic matter. Some soil carbon can decompose in hours or days, but most resides in soils for decades or centuries. In some conditions, carbon resides in soils for thousands of years before fully decomposing. Soil carbon is generally considered very stable, meaning it does not change much or quickly in response to vegetation dynamics. Exceptions are when soils are disturbed significantly, such as tilled for agriculture, with soil erosion, extreme fire events, or with permanent changes in certain types of vegetation cover.

How much carbon is in trees? 

The chemical composition of trees varies from species to species but is approximately 50 percent carbon by dry weight. Other elements in trees include oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and smaller amounts of calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, iron, and manganese. Carbon is one of the most important elements that form the physical structure of the tree material in trunks, bark, branches, and even leaves. While all vegetation stores carbon, trees are particularly important because they live a long time and because of their comparably dense nature and large size. Because forests are largely composed of trees with large amounts of carbon, forests are akin to a sea of carbon.

How much CO2 do trees sequester?

As the name implies, a molecule of CO2 contains 1 atom of Carbon and 2 atoms of Oxygen.  The atomic weight of these atoms is:

• Carbon—12.001115

• Oxygen—15.9994

Thus the atomic weight of 1 molecule of CO2 is the sum of 1 Carbon and 2 Oxygens:

           CO2 molecule weight:   12.00115 + 2 x (15.9994)=43.99915 or 44 in round numbers

The ratio of CO2 to C weight is:

    43.999915 divided by 12.00115 = 3.6663

Hence each ton of sequestered Carbon is equivalent to removing 3.6663 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere and adding back 2.6663 tons of Oxygen.

An order of magnitude example

To put this in more familiar terms, consider how much CO2 would be sequestered by an acre of trees {We will use the “hectare” from the Metric system because of its simplicity and ease of use (1 hectare = 2.471 acres)}. As a representative example, take a tropical tree plantations of pine and eucalyptus trees.  According to Myers and Goreau, 1 metric acre can sequester an average of 9 metric tons of CO2.  The roots and soil sequester an additional 60% or thereabouts, so in very round numbers let’s use very optimistic numbers and assume 1 hectare can sequester 20 metric tons of CO2.  Currently, the USA adds some 6 Billion metric tons of CO2 per year to the atmosphere. 

Suppose we wish to remove 1/100th or 1% of this—i.e. 60 million tons/year—by adding forests in our deserts. This would require adding (in round numbers):

Required forest area = (60 million tons of CO2) divided by (20 tons removed/hectare) 

= 3 million hectares of forest that must be added.

For reference, the area of New Mexico is 31,500 hectares.  Thus, we would have to plant an area equivalent to:

   (3,000,000 hectares required) divided by (31,500 hectares in NM) = 95

Thus, we would have to add a forest area equivalent to 95states of New Mexico to achieve a 1% reduction in U.S. CO2emissions!  (Note that U.S. emissions are only 17% of the world total)!!!  The UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)has stated that some 730 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide must be removed from the atmosphere by the end of this century to avert the worst impacts of climate change. This is 10,000 times larger than the 60 million tons in the above example.  More trees can’t even make a perceptible dent in this problem.

This real-world example helps put the task we are facing into perspective—especially that of achieving net zero by 2050.  

Clearly, huge reductions in GHG emissions are needed before strategy of sequestration by planting trees become a meaningful solution….

Appendix 3-2022 White House Summit on Climate Change

In March of 2022, the White House announced an “all-of-DOE” strategy to accelerate fusion energy RD&D in partnership with the private sector through Public Private Partnerships (PPP). This was followed by a DoE workshop in November.  The following excerpts provide the gist of their workshop findings:


November 2022

Fusion Energy at Scale

Fusion energy has the potential to be a globally scalable, on-demand, and sustainable zero­carbon source of primary energy that can support a worldwide energy transition. Fusion can offer energy diversity and security for nations, and potentially ease the expansion of renewables by offering grid stability. Fusion uses abundant fuels ( e.g., deuterium and lithium) and could potentially be designed to produce little or no long-lived radioactive waste. It may require less land than renewables and could potentially be sited near or within population centers. As costs

come down, fusion can address an increasingly large fraction of the electricity market and help decarbonize other energy sectors that rely directly on process heat, such as industrial processes, synthetic fuel production, and desalination. Much R&D remains to be done, especially in the following areas: achieving a net-gain fusion plasma for longer durations; developing the first­wallmaterials and operating scenarios for handling extreme heat and particle exhaust with acceptable maintenance cycles, economics, and waste management; and developing a sustainable, safe, and licensable fuel cycle. Within the past decade, significant market pull 

(represented by over $5 billion of cumulative private investments) and technical readiness of the science and enabling technologies warrants a new U.S. strategy for fusion energy R&D. This

was discussed at a recent White House Summit on Developing a Bold Decadal Vision for Commercial Fusion Energy, at which DOE announced a new Department-wide, cross-cutting initiative to coordinate fusion energy R&D activities.  The stated goal of the participants is to achieve commercial fusion power by 2050.  Thus far, the U.S. government has not followed through with commensurate funding to help assure this happening.

Appendix 4-Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable Webinar: Unlocking New Possibilities for Commercial Fusion

National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine                                               February 16, 2023

Department of Energy Announces $50 Million for a Milestone-Based Fusion Development Program—-Sept 22, 2022

Dr. Colleen Nehl, Fusion Energy Systems Program Manager

The program is modeled in part after the NASA program that enabled SpaceX and commercial the launch industry. Awardees will: 

• Deliver Fusion Pilot Program (FPP) pre-conceptual designs and technology roadmaps within 18 months 

• Pursue R&D to resolve S&T up to delivering FPP preliminary designs over 5 years 

• Receive Federal fixed payments upon milestone completion, with significant non-Federal contributions 

• Implement Community Benefit Plans in support of community/labor engagement, the American workforce, and DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility) 

Next Steps:

• Milestone Program Selections

• New Public-sector R&D programs, aligned with the Fusion Energy Science Advisory Committee Long Range Plan, to support the Milestone Program and enable commercialyrelevant FPP designs

• Test facilities such as a Fusion Prototypic Neutron Source

• Broad activities beyond FPP development to support eventual fusion commercialization

These goals are very encouraging, but more concrete emphasis from our government will be required to fully capitalize on the enormous potential and benefits that can result!