Week 2: More science fiction? The quest for nuclear fusion and the case of public v private R&D

Last week, we used driverless cars (which even a few year’s ago seemed more science fiction than reality) as a case for how a disruptive technology might challenge existing industry structures and may be leading firms to take R&D more seriously.  By contrast, this week’s topic of compact 100MW fusion reactors offers an example of how private R&D for a fraction of the public investment may potentially challenge the much slower pace and spiralling costs of public R&D on nuclear fusion.

How much of a game-changer could the Lockheed announcement be? The Skunk Works team conceptualise this as a solution for aviation, with testing and rollout taking place over the next 5-10 years, whereas the conventional approach is aimed at building an enormous power station, many gigawatts at least, over many decades. To properly appreciate the dire state of publicly funded fusion R&D, in particular, the ITER project, which will be based in Cadarache, France, see the recent article in Nature, which explains how “building costs have soared to roughly US$50 billion — 10 times the original figure — and the schedule has slipped by 11 years. Instead of 2016, ITER is expected to start its first burning-plasma experiments in 2027— but only if the ITER team can solve technical challenges”  Public R&D budgets for fusion keep increasing — for example, funding for nuclear research in the EU is expected to grow almost 15% in the latest EU multi-year R&D programme (Horizon 2020), of which fusion R&D accounts for some 90% of the budget. Fusion research will increase from €594 million a year on average under FP7 to €657 million, of which the vast majority, €515 million, will be spent on the the . Moreover, many other countries such as Korea and China are also pledging vast sums on fusion.

Criticism of fusion spending is not new.  Rather, support for fusion seems to be an almost pathological case that “wishful thinking is incurable” as Ann Finkbeiner describes in her NYT review of Charles Seife’s Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking.  But support for fusion is deeply ensconced among many in the scientific community unsurprisingly led by those who stand to benefit most — but even Stephen Hawking describes fusion as the preeminent challenge for the 21st century in spite of a history of cost overruns and failures.  Tom Murphy a physicist at UCSD has a nice short piece on the science of fusion and some interesting thoughts on why fusion has such a perennial appeal.

Apologists for fusion, argue that the EU is spending is a mere £1.20 per capita and offers the potential of ‘near-infinite, pollution-free energy’.  Of course, we only spend some £10 per capita on energy R&D overall, so in Europe we have been spending over 10% of our energy research budget on a technology that has never generated any commercial quantities of electricity and seems unlikely to ever do so.

There are many legitimate questions regarding the Skunk Works announcement, many of which have been raised by supporters of large-scale publicly funded nuclear fusion, who have cast doubts on the Lockheed Martin ‘breakthrough’. In an excellent news piece in Science on the Skunks Works project, Steven Cowley, director of the main UK fusion facility remarked  “You can’t conclude anything from this, […] If it wasn’t Lockheed Martin, you’d say it was probably a bunch of crazies.”  Perhaps the most damning judgement was rendered by the market on the day of the announcement “Lockheed shares fell 0.6 percent to $175.02 amid a broad market selloff”.

This case raises a number of more general questions — feel free to engage on one or more:

  1. Although there are many basic physics questions involved, fusion research is (or at least should be) about designing a commercial nuclear fusion reactor.  There is a debate about how where on the research, demonstration, demonstration and deployment continuum that fusion and ITER lies.  In spite of its size and cost, arguably fusion is very very far from the market.  In general though, should we expect that private R&D assume greater burdens for higher TRL level projects meant to bring science and technology to the market?  How can public support be justified for R&D that is meant to be close to market?
  2. As the Science article notes, there were several patents filed a week before the LM announcement.  Ultimately, firms need to find ways to justify their R&D investments.  WHat sort of business model should an R&D innovation centre such as Skunk Works use to justify its value to a parent company such as Lockheed Martin? How might the arrangements and justifications differ across sectors or firms?
  3. James Q Wilson has written of the ‘dead hand of regulation‘, but how much of the inertia in funding for fusion can be attributed to a four or five decade old model for the energy system? Support for fusion has remained strong even as the energy sector itself has turned over the past few decadesto other options such as CCS or decentalised systems based on intermittent renewables supported, eventually, by energy storage. What is the basis for allocating funding within a national energy R&D budget? How would you expect approaches and outcomes to differ if you adopted different lenses such as rational, institutional, incrementalist views of the policy process?
  4. ITER is perhaps most worthy of study as an exemplar of a truly international project that has seen sharing of costs and resources across participating countries.  When would we want to be able to undertake projects at an international level rather than at the national level? What determines whether such international collaborations will be successful?
  5. A rather different case is that of the competition between the public and private initiatives to map the human genome.  The outcome in the view of many was that the competition helped galvanise the public project.  When would you expect public and private competition to produce better results as opposed to duplication and wasted resources?