A saga on nuclear fusion from an eyewitness

A review of Search for the Ultimate Energy Source: A History of the U.S. Fusion Energy Program, by Stephen O. Dean

By Robert Margolis

A small cutting from the superconducting cable used in the windings of the MFTF-B. Note the vents for directing liquid helium flow, and that the ring is actually a set of small NbTi wires. These wires, when cooled to 4.5 deg K, would have conducted approximately 5000 amps to generate an over 5 Tesla magnetic field.

In the summer of 1984, a certain sophomore engineering student was on a tour of a magnet winding facility operated by General Dynamics in San Diego. The device being wound was the main coil for the Mirror Fusion Test Facility (MFTF-B), which was a cylindrical mirror fusion device. The tour ended with each attendee allowed to take a small scrap piece of superconducting cable as a souvenir.

Construction of the MFTF-B at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) was completed in 1986—followed by closure that same year without any fusion experiments performed.

How MFTF-B came to be closed without ever being used, as well as the overall roller coaster history of nuclear fusion research in the United States, is detailed in the new book “Search for the Ultimate Energy Source” by Dr. Stephen O. Dean. Dean was one of the pioneers in nuclear fusion research, having joined the Atomic Energy Commission’s Controlled Thermonuclear Research office in 1962. He would go on to found the Fusion Power Associates in 1979 to work with industry to advocate for fusion development.

In this new book, Dean begins with an introduction to the science and technology of nuclear fusion, including a case for pursuing this energy option. He goes on to provide a comprehensive history of the fusion program, both from a documentary standpoint as well as his own eyewitness perspective. He contrasts scientific work and achievements that may not be known to the public (e.g., production of megawatt levels of fusion power using deuterium-tritium mixtures in US and UK devices) with the changing politics that dogged the US fusion program.

Decades of commissions, panels, and committees, along with their myriad of acronyms, are recounted in this authoritative chronicle. Discussions and decisions from various government agencies are carefully documented, providing a clear view of the changing policy environment in which the fusion program operated. While the innate difficulties of the science and engineering of fusion are daunting, and have engendered controversy both within and outside of the nuclear research community, Dean reveals the constant shifting of policies and priorities that further hampered fusion research.

Although the book makes the case for continued support of nuclear fusion research, its primary strength is its detailed and far-reaching treatment of the political maelstrom throughout the timeline of fusion development. This book is ideal for historians and students of science and technology for its complete and in-depth coverage of nuclear fusion technology and policy. Dean has made a valuable contribution to the discussion of not merely the difficulties facing nuclear fusion, but the challenges of sustaining long-term energy policy in general.


Robert Margolis, PE, is a nuclear (fission) engineer having over 26 years’ experience as a reactor engineer, startup test engineer, project engineer, and safety analyst. Margolis is an individual affiliate member of Fusion Power Associates and still has the superconducting keepsake.


8 thoughts on “A saga on nuclear fusion from an eyewitness

  1. James Greenidge

    Greetings and a very informative article! However…fine and good, but the public isn’t going to warm to “fusion” until they look much more favorably on nuclear fission. Way back, thermonuclear fusion research saw the tea leaves and loped off the “thermonuclear” and “nuclear” from their moniker to better divorce fusion from fission’s undeserved stigma, but word games aren’t to help when the public senses — courtesy anti-nuke groups — that fusion is just nuclear smelling under another name. Fusion (and Thorium) people have to realize that first helping to get the public educated and accepting of the current batch of nuclear plants will grease the skids to their pet technologies going mainstream. To assume that just strutting out fusion or thorium like new recipe steak burgers that the public will gobble up just because you’re “different” and “healthier” is a gross misassumption of human nature and underestimates the indiscriminating guile of anti-nuke purists who see anything nuclear as a curse on mankind. Yes, do your projects but also actively support or at least put in some positive public mentions about present nuclear plants. They’ve an enviable near nil industrial mortality/property damage record that’s nothing to be ashamed of, and you only help feather your own nest for the future.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  2. Robert Margolis

    I did not mention in the review, but it is quite pro-fission. The two are certainly bound in a common destiny: if fission is defeated by the opposition fusion will be much more difficult to realize.

    There are still applications for the vacuum tube and there are still trains despite cars and planes. Lots of room for fission and fusion in the energy world IF we win the struggle for the moral imagination of the public.

  3. Robert Steinhaus

    The fact that, at this time, the worldwide fusion program has yet to make good on the promise of producing any net energy above what is required to run the fusion experiment is not itself cannot be considered valid grounds for criticism.
    It is strange however when comprehensive and scholarly accounts of the history and science behind nuclear fusion, like Stephen O. Deans fine “The search for the Ultimate Energy Source” makes no specific mention, in over 300 pages, to the only fusion energy system that

    1) has repeatedly demonstrated in the field the capacity to produce net energy at the exawatt power level (more energy out of the fusion reactor than it takes to run the fusion reactor)
    2) production of a fusion energy gain factor (q) not only greater than 1 (which is break even) but greater than 100,000 (far surpassing any demonstrated competing fusion energy generating system)
    3) is practical and can on demand produce fusion energy from both D-T fusion and also the 30X times more difficult to initiate, but more long term sustainable, D-D fusion reaction

    You would think a fusion technology that is practical and requires no additional physics or engineering breakthroughs to build and is in fact smaller and cheaper than any of the major fusion technology competitors would get a few pages of coverage or at least a casual mention in passing by a scholarly reviewer like Dr. Stephen Dean. Sadly, in Dr. Stephen Dean’s otherwise fine book, there is no mention of this practical fusion technology.

    If the worldwide fusion program has been offered by generations of fusion scientists as a cure for mankind’s energy problems without bearing practical fruit, that in itself is not a substantial ground for criticism as the physics problem may just be very difficult.

    If promises for ignition and net energy (more energy out of the fusion experiment than it takes to run the fusion experiment) are repeatedly made but project objectives and fusion milestones are routinely not met and there are no program administrators to hold accountable for the conduct of the program, this may be an unintended development.

    If there actually is a fusion technology available that was first demonstrated to work in 1952 (Ivy Mike nuclear test) and has consistently worked in over 800 separate field tests at the Nevada Test Site and out on the Pacific Test Range over a span of 40 years, but this technology is rarely if ever discussed and certainly no active consideration is ever given to it, while far more difficult and expensive technologies that have to date not produced even a single erg of net energy, even after hundreds of experiments and thousands of attempts have been made and these alternative unproven and impractical fusion projects absorb $10s of billions of dollars worldwide of R&D funding, this may just be some kind of unfortunate administrative oversight or perhaps some kind of strange coincidence.

    LANL and LLNL pioneered fission ignited Inertial Confinement PACER Fusion –

    There is a practical form of fusion power generation that depends on using a tiny amount of fissile material to serve as a sparkplug to reliably, first-time every-time, produce the conditions of thermonuclear fusion and produce huge amounts of net energy. This technology is a form of Inertial Confinement Fusion invented at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Labs and is called PACER fusion. PACER fusion requires no physics or technology breakthroughs to build and could reliably produce Gigawatts of electrical power from fusion in less than 3 years. PACER fusion uses a tiny amount of fissile material to produce the conditions necessary to reliably ignite a D-D or D-T fusion plasma. PACER fusion, like all inertial confinement fusion approaches, generates power by creating a succession of controlled fusion bursts. The difference between PACER and other forms of inertial confinement fusion (NIF Laser Fusion, Sandia z-Pinch Fusion, etc) is that PACER has repeatedly been proven, in actual supervised field tests, to work and produce huge commercially significant amounts of fusion power.

    All current Inertial Confinement Fusion concepts currently are repetitive pulse energy generators producing energy through a succession of controlled small fusion bursts.

    National Ignition Facility produces a 1.8 Mjoule fusion burst per shot which is the energy produced from burning 0.014 gallons of gasoline (while producing no net energy)

    Sandia z-pinch experiment produces a 30 Mjoule fusion burst per shot which is the energy produced by burning 0.23 gallons of gasoline (while producing no net energy)

    PACER Fusion experiment produces 1.2552 x 10^7 Mjoules per shot which is the energy produced burning 92,290 gallons of gasoline (with commercially significant large amounts of net energy)

    I would ask you which of the above fusion technologies is practical, and which of these technologies deserves mention and to be included in a book intended to trace the search for “the Ultimate Energy Source”?

    The target cost for robotically manufactured PACER devices is under $2000 dollars per device without nuclear fuels.

    Does practical PACER fusion, as was designed by LLNL’s most versatile senior nuclear designer, Dr. Ralph Moir, deserve passing mention in Dr. Stephen Dean’s otherwise fine book given the current need to find a new source of power for America to heat homes, light factories, and to preserve American quality of life?

    Millions of dollars are budgeted each year to fusion projects based on diffuse energy ignition of fusion plasma. Why not put some funding and effort or even acknowledge a practical form of fusion that uses nuclear fission to reliably produce the conditions for nuclear fusion and has low technical risk and can produce safely net energy, instead of dozens of high technical risk fusion systems that have never produced an erg (of net energy) in 50 years of attempts.

    The time since the earth first formed = 4.54 billion years.
    The time until the sun burns out = 5 billion years.
    The deuterium in the sea is capable of completely powering planet earth at a level of 60 Terawatts for 8.33 billion years

    Practical fusion to fully power the planet longer than the earth has existed or the sun will burn -http://goo.gle/Ju0LI

    A small website has been set up to share information on this practical molten salt approach to nuclear fusion – http://www.ralphmoir.com/pacer/

  4. Stephen O. Dean

    While I did not mention PACER by name, I did state (in the Prologue), “”On planet Earth, its (fusion’s) energy has been tapped directly in the form of the hydrogen bomb, by far the most powerful explosive known to man.” The PACER proposal described above is based on continously exploding hydrogen bombs and capturing the energy released to make electricity. This idea was analyzed by scientists at Los Alamos and Livermore in the 1950s and 60s but the idea of setting off hydrogen bombs (no matter how “small”) never became popular due, I suppose, to the image of such explosions taking place at power plant sites all over the globe. Once the laser was invented in 1960, it became “obvious” that it might be possible to make “micorexplosions” that could be contained in a reasonaby-sized vessel for a typical-size commercial power plant, and this realization led to the inertial confinement concepts I describe in my book.

  5. Atomikrabbit

    @Robert Margolis – thank you for the review. I’ve got a new one now on my “wish list”.

    @Robert Steinhaus – looking forward to a book by you on PACER (hint, hint).

  6. Bill Eaton

    As an old nuclear power utility guy, I am as usual blown away, no pun intended, by the magnitude of the information associated with technolgies that I know little about. Reading these interesting messages highlights for me the lack of technical information, let alone interest in the subject matter, that permeates our political system and affords almost no opportunity to improve the public’s view of what is possible. It’s sad on the one hand, and maddening on the other, to recognize the possibilities that remain just outside the grasp of our society. Kudos to you guys who have this capability and knowledge.

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