Nuclear fusion hype: A boost for U.S. armaments, not clean energy

Jennifer Granholm, the U.S. Secretary of Energy, led a press event on Dec. 13 to announce a major scientific breakthrough at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. 

There, researchers had aimed an array of the world’s most powerful lasers (192 in all) at a tiny pellet for a fraction of a second. This pellet became much hotter than the center of our sun and fused two hydrogen nuclei, beginning a controlled chain reaction. 

The process produced about 120% more energy than the energy used to power the lasers. The White House, press departments from important universities, and major media reported it as a giant step toward a solution to the global crisis of climate change.

But the mission of the Lawrence Livermore Lab is and always has been at the service of the Pentagon. The most significant part of its usable budget is for testing, maintaining, and improving U.S. nuclear missiles. The coverage of the “fusion breakthrough” was the ultimate exercise in greenwashing the continuing menace of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. It was a bait-and-switch con that concealed military research by dressing it up as clean energy research.

The New York Times quoted the White House Science Adviser, who referred to the event as “a scientific milestone achieved, and a road ahead to the possibilities for clean energy.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s headline was “Bay Area national lab to announce major breakthrough in quest for carbon-free energy.” The science writer for Forbes Magazine wrote, “This would be a key turning point in the decades-long quest to produce energy … without the carbon emissions from fossil fuels or radioactive waste.” Others followed suit.

The Department of Energy is a favored hiding place for Pentagon spending. The National Nuclear Security Administration, the biggest of five DOE sub-components with a $24 billion budget, ran the fusion experiment. The Livermore lab was opened in 1952 at the urging of Ernest Lawrence and Edward Teller, the real-life Dr. Strangelove, the “father of the hydrogen bomb.” 

Livermore Lab was founded during the failed U.S. attempt to destroy North Korea, while U.S. General Douglas MacArthur pushed for a nuclear attack on China.

All of this should be known to those writers who falsified what the December fusion experiment was about. The false coverage was no mistake. The articles were all written by people who know their history and science.

Even if they knew nothing about the lab’s relationship to the Pentagon, all they had to do was watch the Energy Department’s two-hour press event to understand the character of the experiment.

During the first section, beginning with Granholm’s opening remarks and then a series of officials, all of their titles spoke to the military character; the Undersecretary for Nuclear Security, the Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs, and others all gave presentations. 

About maintaining the nuclear arsenal

Clean energy was barely mentioned. However, maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal was bandied about quite a bit. 

Next came a panel of scientists moderated by the Lab’s Program Director for Weapons Physics and Design. Of the six panelists who spoke, only one – Tammy Ma of the Lawrence Livermore Institutional Initiative in Inertial Fusion Energy – mentioned clean energy. Ma spoke passionately about the possibilities of limitless energy with no radioactive waste and no fossil fuel.

If Tammy Ma’s passion is real, then her expertise would be better used elsewhere. Lawrence Livermore is not the only place where work is being conducted. A project called International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) began as a cooperative enterprise between the U.S., Japan, and the Soviet Union in 1985. 

Currently, 35 countries, including the U.S., China, and Russia, are participating. But over the years, the U.S. role in ITER has been checkered with threats to withdraw and weak funding. Research into fusion energy shouldn’t be abandoned, but the urgency of the climate change crisis demands that all scientific and engineering efforts must be made outside the influence of U.S. militarism. The Pentagon – a menace to the entire world and a major contributor to global warming –  should be abolished.

Many scientists exposed the true character of the experiment in the days that followed the initial press coverage. But that was all confined to bulletins, and scientific journals generally read only by their communities. Most still believe that although the scientific achievement in December is incredibly significant, clean energy from nuclear fusion still faces too many hurdles to consider it the silver bullet.

International cooperation is the best hope for humanity’s challenge of putting greenhouse gases and the resulting global climate change crisis in check. But the U.S. ruling class is competitive with its allies and hostile and antagonistic to the rest of the world. Billions of people rely on the world’s scientists and engineers to figure out a solution. The technology of those advanced lasers at Lawrence Livermore, those brilliant minds that made this milestone possible, and those billions of dollars used must be at the disposal of the entire world’s fusion scientists and engineers in an honest endeavor to heal the earth’s atmosphere.

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