Wait: Did Team Biden Just Take Credit For Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough?
Could Joe Biden be just around the corner from his “I invented the Internet” moment?
Judging from a Department of Energy (DOE) press release, one would be led to think the Biden Administration and Congressional Democrats were largely responsible for making a groundbreaking nuclear fusion ignition possible.
DOE announced Tuesday that on Dec. 5 the first nuclear fusion experiment to yield a net gain of energy (called “breakeven”) was conducted at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
While we’re far away from Mr. Fusion units powering cars using household scraps as imagined in the movie “Back to the Future II,” this major development sparked off a race of who will be the first to put nuclear fusion to practical and commercial use. Power plants could be a decade away under the rosiest of predictions.
Nuclear fusion (not to be confused with its cousin technology, nuclear fission, which splits atoms and is currently used in atomic weapons and nuclear power plants) is when two nuclei are fused into a single, heavier nucleus, producing a large amount of energy. The Livermore National Laboratory has been attempting to do this successfully for decades with many near-breakevens and false alarms, by way of high-intensity lasers in a stadium-sized facility known as the Nuclear Ignition Facility.
Nuclear theorists have long claimed that if fusion goes mainstream we would no longer have need of any other fuel source, including fossil. (We told you it was major.)
While knowledge of nuclear fusion has been around for more than a century and fusion was used to detonate hydrogen bombs in the 1950s, so far the reactions have resulted in destructive chaos or a net loss in terms of energy expended.
The development of the National Ignition Facility goes back to at least 1997 and has been on the radar of several presidential administrations. But you wouldn’t know it from DOE’s press release:
On December 5, a team at LLNL’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) conducted the first controlled fusion experiment in history to reach this milestone, also known as scientific energy breakeven, meaning it produced more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it. This historic, first-of-its kind achievement will provide unprecedented capability to support NNSA’s Stockpile Stewardship Program and will provide invaluable insights into the prospects of clean fusion energy, which would be a game-changer for efforts to achieve President Biden’s goal of a net-zero carbon economy.
“This is a landmark achievement for the researchers and staff at the National Ignition Facility who have dedicated their careers to seeing fusion ignition become a reality, and this milestone will undoubtedly spark even more discovery,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to supporting our world-class scientists—like the team at NIF—whose work will help us solve humanity’s most complex and pressing problems, like providing clean power to combat climate change and maintaining a nuclear deterrent without nuclear testing.”
Plenty of preaching about man-made climate change and going soft on defense, and no thank you to Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, or any of the agency staff or Congressional members who saved the program from financial insolvency in the early aughts. But the release gave plenty of ink to Congressional Democrats, including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell (yes, the Congressman caught commensurating with Chinese spy Fang Fang). The scientists and participating agencies and institutes were named last.
The timing could not have been better for the agency, which is often targeted as a nominee for abolishment by conservatives. The agency had recently fired Deputy Assistant Secretary Sam Brinton, spent-fuel czar appointed by Biden, for stealing women’s luggage at airports.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm joked during the historic announcement that Biden would consider this a “BFD.” She was correct when she said this advancement was made possible “because we invested” (e.g. government funding was used — though there’s no knowing what would have been possible through the private sector in a less-burdensome tax and regulatory environment). Cooperation with government and non-government entities is given due to the immense scale of the laboratory. For example, in 2012, the NIF shot 500 terawatts at a target — that’s 1,000 times more power than the entire U.S. consumes in a single day. Such shots have resulted in other breakthroughs such as the first burning of plasma in 2021, helping explain many theories surrounding black holes and other astronomical phenomena.
Funding was heading down a black hole during the Clinton Administration. Then-Secretary of Energy and would-be Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Richardson said the NIF was on budget and on time, but the Government Accountability Office discovered that was a lie. A Republican-led Congress requested a review and the entire budget was reset. The facility came online in 2009, after a massive mud slide and the discovery of woolly mammoth fossils underneath delayed construction.
At the end of this long and arduous journey, we’re left with skim media coverage and Democratic leaders patting each other on the back. Biden boosters are all over social media calling this “a win” for the administration. This development may one day be looked at as one of America’s proudest milestones, but the rollout was disappointing political posturing.