Can Sparc Light Up Fusion?

September 29, 2020

Fusion, one version of the joke goes, has been 30 years away for the last 50 years.

As nuclear engineer Dan Kammen told me a few weeks ago, the mainstream betting would be that fusion is still some decades away – but there are efforts underway now to shorten that time frame – “If we can overcome the engineering challenges,…” – which, well, have been the sticking point for quite a while.

New York Times:

Scientists developing a compact version of a nuclear fusion reactor have shown in a series of research papers that it should work, renewing hopes that the long-elusive goal of mimicking the way the sun produces energy might be achieved and eventually contribute to the fight against climate change.

Construction of a reactor, called Sparc, which is being developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a spinoff company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, is expected to begin next spring and take three or four years, the researchers and company officials said.

Although many significant challenges remain, the company said construction would be followed by testing and, if successful, building of a power plant that could use fusion energy to generate electricity, beginning in the next decade.

This ambitious timetable is far faster than that of the world’s largest fusion-power project, a multinational effort in Southern France called ITER, for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. That reactor has been under construction since 2013 and, although it is not designed to generate electricity, is expected to produce a fusion reaction by 2035.

Bob Mumgaard, Commonwealth Fusion’s chief executive and one of the company’s founders, said a goal of the Sparc project was to develop fusion in time for it to play a role in mitigating global warming. “We’re really focused on how you can get to fusion power as quickly as possible,” he said.

Fusion, in which lightweight atoms are brought together at temperatures of tens of millions of degrees to release energy, has been held out as a way for the world to address the climate-change implications of electricity production.

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There’s a reason people aren’t rushing to nuclear power to fix climate change. It’s not that easy.
Whether a new generation of “small modular reactors” – SMRs – can change that, is a wide open question, and there won’t be an answer anytime soon.

Associated Press:

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — U.S. officials have for the first time approved a design for a small commercial nuclear reactor, and a Utah energy cooperative wants to build 12 of them in Idaho.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Friday approved Portland-based NuScale Power’s application for the small modular reactor that Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems plans to build at a U.S. Department of Energy site in eastern Idaho.

The small reactors can produce about 60 megawatts of energy, or enough to power more than 50,000 homes. The proposed project includes 12 small modular reactors. The first would be built in 2029, with the rest in 2030.

The next wave of innovation': Nuclear reactors of the future are small and  modular | CBC News

Deseret News:

The debate over nuclear power has ramped up recently in Utah, with a number of the state’s municipal power agencies wrestling with continued participation in an experimental nuclear project in Idaho, the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems/NuScale project.

Much has already been written about the project itself. Though proponents tout benefits of cost and reliability, two municipalities so far, Logan and Lehi, have recently opted out of further participation, citing mainly financial concerns over an experimental design with delays and cost overruns mounting rapidly. Still, this extremely expensive energy might be worth it ― if the environmental benefits, particularly for climate change, were significant.

Climate change is regarded within the full scientific community as a bona fide civilizational emergency ― that is, a situation requiring immediate, meaningful response to avoid catastrophic outcomes. For the climate emergency, meaningful response means cutting global carbon emissions at least in half in the next decade, and eliminating them entirely in the next two to three decades. 

Electricity generation, as roughly a third of the current carbon emissions, is a large piece of the equation ― and it is on this point that nuclear power has been worth considering. Indeed, the project’s developers, having christened the endeavor the “Carbon Free Power Project,” are emphasizing the climate angle. And if the question were about building new nuclear generation versus new fossil (coal or natural gas) generation, they would have a point; the clear winner with respect to climate would be nuclear.

But this isn’t the question. In rapidly decarbonizing the electrical grid, the name of the game is replacing existing high-carbon (coal and gas) with new low-carbon, as quickly as possible. In this game, it’s essential to distinguish between existing nuclear, which is already installed and running, and proposed new nuclear, which is yet to be built.

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Below, CNN’s Candy Crowley’s famous dismissal of “climate people”.

Above, Candy Crowley of CNN, who moderated a Presidential debate in 2012, explains that she didn’t ask any questions about climate change, because, among other things, the price of gas.

Btw, “media people”, by “climate people”, did you mean the next 50,000 generations of human beings?

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Worth your attention, and worth sharing with anyone who still does not get the urgency.

Michael Mann in Newsweek:

As we continue to warm the planet through fossil fuel burning and other activities releasing carbon pollution, the surface and lower atmosphere is warming faster than the air aloft. That favors heavy colder air on top of lighter warmer air, and a less stable atmosphere. It means more turbulence and more energetic storms. And it’s part of the reason we expect more extreme weather events in a warmer world.

With the oceans, we have the opposite. The warm, lighter surface waters are warming faster than the cold deeper water, since heat penetrates slowly down into the depths of the ocean. Global warming is consequently tending to make the oceans more stable. Sea water density depends not just on temperature but saltiness (“salinity”) too. Fresh water is lighter than salty water, and the melting of ice is leading to the accumulation of fresh, light water at the surface, especially at higher latitudes. It’s a double whammy, with both heating and reduced salinity leading to a more stable ocean.

My colleagues and I have just published an article in the journal Nature Climate Changeshowing that the oceans are not only becoming more stable, but are doing so faster than was previously thought. Led by Guancheng Li of the Institute of Atmospheric Physics in China, our team (which also includes Lijing Cheng, Jiang Zhu, Kevin Trenberth and John P. Abraham) analyzed a quantitative measure of stability known as “stratification”. We found that the stratification of the world oceans is not only increasing, but is doing so at a greater rate than estimated in previous studies. Our study uses more comprehensive data and a more sophisticated method for estimating stratification changes, and we found a nearly 6 percent increase in the stratification of the upper 200 meters (~650 feet) of the world oceans over the past half century.

This seemingly technical finding has profound and troubling implications. The more stable the upper ocean, the less vertical mixing that takes place. This mixing is a primary means by which the ocean buries warming surface waters. So the surface warms up even faster. It’s what we call a “positive feedback”—a vicious cycle.

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The world that climate deniers want for their children, and yours.


“In May 2012, Hanson and Michael Rowe noticed an overpowering smell, like rotten eggs, seeping from an abandoned gas well on their land in Kentucky. The fumes made the retired couple feel nauseous, dizzy, and short of breath.

Regulators responding to the leak couldn’t find an owner to fix it. J.D. Carty Resources LLC had drilled the well near the Rowes’ home in 2006 – promising the family a 12.5% royalty and free natural gas, which they never got. But Carty went bust in 2008 and sold the site to a company that was later acquired by Blue Energy LLC. Lawyers for both companies deny any responsibility for the leak.”

“More than a century of oil and gas drilling has left behind millions of abandoned wells, many of which are leaching pollutants into the air and water. And drilling companies are likely to abandon many more wells due to bankruptcies, as oil prices struggle to recover from historic lows after the coronavirus pandemic crushed global fuel demand, according to bankruptcy lawyers, industry analysts and state regulators.”

Leaks from abandoned wells have long been recognized as an environmental problem, a health hazard and a public nuisance. They have been linked to dozens of instances of groundwater contamination by research commissioned by the Groundwater Protection Council, whose members include state ground water agencies. Orphaned wells have been blamed for a slew of public safety incidents over the years, including a methane blowout at the construction site of a waterfront hotel in California last year.

They also pose a serious threat to the climate that researchers and world governments are only starting to understand, according to a Reuters review of government data and interviews with scientists, regulators, and United Nations officials. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year recommended that U.N. member countries start tracking and publishing the amount of methane leaching from their abandoned oil and gas wells after scientists started flagging it as a global warming risk. So far, the United States and Canada are the only nations to do so.

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2014’s marine heat wave in the North Pacific was a notable high impact event. Now events like this have been linked to climate warming.

High-impact marine heatwaves attributable to human-induced global warming – Science:

Marine heatwaves (MHWs)—periods of extremely high ocean temperatures in specific regions—have occurred in all of Earth’s ocean basins over the past two decades, with severe negative impacts on marine organisms and ecosystems. However, for most individual MHWs, it is unclear to what extent they have been altered by human-induced climate change. We show that the occurrence probabilities of the duration, intensity, and cumulative intensity of most documented, large, and impactful MHWs have increased more than 20-fold as a result of anthropogenic climate change. MHWs that occurred only once every hundreds to thousands of years in the preindustrial climate are projected to become decadal to centennial events under 1.5°C warming conditions and annual to decadal events under 3°C warming conditions. Thus, ambitious climate targets are indispensable to reduce the risks of substantial MHW impacts.

Updated this topic with Kevin Trenberth last November in San Francisco.