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Is Nuclear Fusion a $22 Billion Scam?

ITER will not produce 10 times the energy it consumes


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Nabil Alouani

a year ago | 9 min read

Endless energy. Zero waste. That’s what I found when researching nuclear fusion for the first time. I particularly fell in love with a project called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER.

“ITER will generate 10 times the energy it consumes,” the story went — and boy was I thrilled to write about it. Little did I know, I was falling for a sexy lie based on cherry-picking and discrete agendas. Before we dive into the details, however, you may want to refresh your knowledge about thermonuclear fusion and how it works. This article will bring you up to speed.

Otherwise, let’s begin.

Nuclear confusion 101

Every technology we use to generate electricity involves an efficiency ratio called “Q.” You calculate it by dividing how much energy you get out of a power plant by how much energy you put in it.

For instance, coal-based power plants have a Q value of 30%. Meaning that for every $10 worth of coal, you produce $3 worth of electricity. Not the greatest of deals, you may think, especially when you consider the deadly emissions accompanying the process. But in reality, burning coal (and other substances) has been the most potent solution we could come up with for a long time.

Ever since the 1880s, fossils have been cheap and abundant which compensated for their low efficiency. As for pollution, it was a problem for future generations.

The argument was that if we wanted to advance human civilization, we had to take a gamble. We’d use fossil fuels to promote tech and science, which, in turn, would create sustainable power plants. Ideally, that would happen before we run out of time, resources, and clean air.

True, naive politicians and short-sighted corporates slowed down the transition, but it is happening. More than ever, we’re putting effort into renewable energy like solar and wind. But what sets nuclear fusion apart from its siblings, is the potential to solve the energy crisis overnight, literally overnight. Which makes the narrative behind ITER so darn compelling.

ITER is an experimental reactor that promises to deliver a Q value of 10. In other words, “ITER will produce 10 times the energy it consumes.” In theory, you can get $100 worth of electricity for each $10 worth of energy you invest. From there, you can reroute part of ITER’s surplus energy to make the facility power itself, and voilà. Endless energy — or so you’d think.

Screenshot from ITER’s website in 2017. Source.

ITER’s claim is technically flawed because the Q ratio put forward accounts only for the energy that goes in and out of its plasma, not the entire facility.

Quick reminder here: what we call “plasma” is the raw material of nuclear fusion. It’s a soup of particles where hydrogen nuclei roam freely. Once heated to extremely high temperatures, those hydrogen nuclei smash into each other and fuse.

The results are helium nuclei and the liberation of tremendous amounts of heat. It’s this reaction that involves a Q ratio of 10. Meaning, the heat energy that comes out of the plasma is ten times bigger than the energy you use to heat the plasma in the first place. But this doesn’t mean that ITER as a reactor has a “net gain of energy” because we’re not considering its total input and output.

Let’s rephrase and add some numbers for more clarity.

ITER intends to use 50 MegaWatts of electromagnetic energy to heat its plasma (not to power the entire reactor). This will trigger fusion reactions that will, in turn, liberate 500 MegaWatts of heat (not usable electricity). As a consequence, the facility itself won’t produce 10 times the energy it consumes.

The truth is, ITER needs far more than 50 MegaWatts to make nuclear fusion happen. For instance, the famous 50 MegaWatts don’t take into account the energy needed to create hydrogen gas, direct it into the fusion chamber, maintain it in a precise position, and shower it with the electromagnetic power necessary to turn it into plasma.

Those operations require sophisticated tech like superconducting magnets, powerful water pumps, vacuum chambers, cryogenic cooling systems, supercomputers, high-sensibility sensors, and hundreds of other devices — which happen to consume quite a lot of energy.

Ivone Benfatoo, head of the Electrical Engineering Division for ITER, estimated in one of his papers that the energy needed to run the entire reactor equals 440 MegaWatts.

The first person to shed light on this value was Steven B. Krivit, an investigative science journalist who has been researching ITER for a few years. Krivit’s findings have been backed up by physicist and author Sabine Hossenfelder who criticized nuclear fusion in an educational video.

Screenshot from one of Steven B Krivit’s reports. Source.

Further, Krivit consulted with a dozen other experts such as Daniel Jassby, a retired plasma physicist from the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. In an email, Jassby mentioned 300 MegaWatts which is a figure that keeps coming back in Krivit’s investigation. That’s six times more input energy than ITER makes us believe when reading their statement — “500 MW of output power for 50 MW of input power.”

But wait, it gets worse.

The 500 MegaWatts we expect ITER to produce will come in the form of heat. Part of that energy will be lost when you convert it into electricity. The best heat-to-electricity ratios are somewhere between 30 and 40%. But let’s be optimistic and consider that ITER will have an outstanding conversion ratio of 50%. Even then, ITER will lose half of its projected output, which means that at best, it will generate 250 MegaWatts of electricity.

With this in mind, let’s calculate ITER’s actual Q value. We’ll use the lower range energy consumption value provided by experts (300 MegaWatts) and an optimistic heat-to-electricity ratio (50%).

Just like that, we went from getting a 10x return on investment to losing 17% of the energy we use to run the facility. That’s 51 MegaWatts gone. For reference, one MegaWatt can fuel up to 900 households for an entire year.

Last but not least, those calculations assume that ITER will convert its heat into electricity. Except, it won’t; not during its initial phases at least. Meaning that during the first trials, the 500 MegaWatts of heat produced by nuclear fusion will safely dissipate into the atmosphere, and we’ll end up with no electricity output whatsoever. Put differently, Q=0.

Sure, ITER is still an extremely interesting experiment and a step forward in research and development (more on this later). But this doesn’t justify the fake hope and the deceptive statements ITER’s spokespeople are spreading.

“These false claims had been so deeply and broadly disseminated that, for people who [are] not fusion experts, the illusion became reality,” said Steven B. Krivit.

“After journalists unknowingly published articles with the exaggerated claims [about ITER] and after members of congress unknowingly stated exaggerated output power values, not one fusion scientist, to my knowledge, ever informed [them] that there had been a misunderstanding.”

Sadly, ITER isn’t alone in this disinformation game. Similar misleading claims have been made in other nuclear fusion projects such as the United States’ National Ignition Facility (NIF) and the United Kingdoms’ Joint European Torus (JET). They all communicate the incomplete Q ratio — that is, the ratio of energy that goes in and out of the plasma, not the real Q ratio that involves the entire facility.

When you look at this widespread tendency, it becomes hard to believe that those misleading numbers are unintentional.

Why it’s hard for ITER to take back its false claims

People in the business of nuclear fusion are humans. They’re subjected to ethical flaws and self-serving behaviors. Let’s start with the latter.

Every enterprise has goals to achieve and money to make — ITER is no exception. Imagine being the project’s director and you have to sell it to governments and international committees to secure funding. If you succeed, you get a prestigious title, generous pay, and a ton of social acclamation. Heck, you may even be crowned as one of humanity’s greatest superheroes. If you fail, however, you’ll have to go back to working in a humble university lab where your name will soon be forgotten.

Would you share the entire truth about the energy output? Or would you swing impressive — but not exactly accurate — numbers to seduce your audience?

It shouldn’t be shocking to learn that Bernard Bigot, the general director of ITER, didn’t hesitate much in front of the United States House of Representatives. “ITER will have delivered in that full demonstration that we could have 500 MegaWatt coming out of the 50 MegaWatt we put in,” he said. Other spokespeople followed in Bigot’s footsteps preaching the same message.

From there the news spread like wildfire devouring major media outlets like New York Times, Live Science, BBC, Daily Mail, TED, and many others. They all chanted the “50 MegaWatts in; 500 MegaWatts out” song oblivious to the disinformation that came with it.

“A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition,” said Daniel Kahneman, a world-class psychologist, and best-selling author. “Because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.”

To be fair, some of ITER’s spokespeople contested the deceptive message. “I always said that the ITER Web site does not use correct figures regarding ‘fusion power.’ We can’t compare the input of 50 MW with the output of 500 MW because the former is electric and the latter is thermal,” said Michel Claessen, former head of communications for ITER. “Also, I was told that the average electricity consumption on the site will be 110 MW with peaks of 600 MW during the shots.”

But even if more people speak out against the false claims, it’s unlikely that ITER would take them back because of a phenomenon called Escalation of Commitment. It’s the human tendency to remain committed to past behaviors, especially those exhibited publicly, even when they don’t make much sense.

Recall the last time you finished a movie you didn’t like. By minute 30, you might’ve realized how boring the plot was, but you also felt it was too late to quit. You’d just committed half an hour of your life, you might as well see things through, right? The same pattern applies in more significant instances like business decisions, warfare, and scientific projects — only the effect is multiplied because billions of dollars are involved.

Back in 2007, the project was initially expected to cost $5 billion. In 2018, however, ITER reported a revised budget of $22 billion. But the United States Department of Energy contested those numbers and estimated the cost of construction alone to reach $65 billion.

Imagine ITER’s spokespeople saying, “On top of exploding the budget, we weren’t telling the entire truth about our energy output.” No way that would happen, right? Instead, ITER might want to double down on its initial promise to remain relevant to its sponsors who include China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States.

In fact, ITER’s website still uses foggy words when describing the energy output. There’s no mention of how much energy the facility is expected to consume either. Nevertheless, there have been a few clarifications that have likely resulted from the pushback that came from Krivit’s investigations.

Two screenshots taken in 2021. They illustrate the “foggy vs clear” language used on ITER’s website. Source.

What to make of all this?

Sure, the whole thing feels like a scam. It makes you wonder that, perhaps, those $22 billion should have gone into solar panels, turbines, and batteries. At least we’re 100% sure those work. Maybe the media is to blame, prioritizing the sensational over the truth. Or maybe the real culprits are greedy scientists who cherry-pick facts to construct a compelling story.

Or perhaps none of that.

For it would be naive to think that ambition and status are the only motives behind ITER’s false claims. When people do bad things, they often do them for good reasons. In the case of nuclear fusion, ITER might be disinforming everyone for the sake of science, and ultimately, humanity.

It’s hard to convince governments and investors to pour billions of dollars into a science experiment that might or might not work. And it’s so darn frustrating because the upside is too great for us not to try. It takes one fusion reactor with real net gains to change the future of humanity once and for all.

Once we learn how to generate limitless energy, the only limit left for our species is the universe itself. So why not tweak the numbers to appeal to the public? Why not gamble your reputation to get humanity one step closer to sustainability? Why not lie today for a better tomorrow?

Sure, the truth will come out when the first trials take place. But by then, we’d have the biggest functional fusion reactor on the planet. We might as well keep exploring the tech and find ways to improve it. Actually, it’s already happening.

Fourteen years before its completion, ITER is already pushing forward the fusion industry. Breakthroughs are happening all over the planet, both in the public and private sectors.

“Andrew Holland, chief executive of the Fusion Industry Association, says there are at least 35 [nuclear fusion] companies in several countries, including the United States, Britain, France, Canada and China,” the New York Times wrote in October 2021. “They have raised a combined $1.9 billion, largely from private sources, according to a forthcoming study by the association and the British Atomic Energy Authority.”

That’s a long way from nuclear fusion being a joke often greeted with tsunamis of laughter. Who knows, maybe in a couple of decades, we’ll look back at ITER and feel grateful for having been misled.

Until that happens, keep your skeptical mode up and running and speak up when you see disinformation. Because, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb once wrote:

“If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud.”

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Nabil Alouani

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Business | Psychology | Marketing — What's your favorite quote? Mine is "True masters are eternal students."


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