Because of its potential as a remarkably cheap and abundant source of energy, fusion technology has long held the fascination of nuclear scientists. (The term “Fusion” encompasses a wide variety of nuclear reactions in which small nuclei are driven together to produce larger ones, as opposed to “Fission” in which very heavy nuclei are split into their component parts.)
Fusion is at the heart of every modern nuclear weapon, as even the smallest “2nd generation” bombs use a tiny capsule of tritium fusion fuel to enhance the reliability and efficiency of the fission reaction. Larger “hydrogen bombs”, of course, rely on fission-triggered fusion energy for a substantial portion of their city-busting power, which is measured in megatons of TNT equivalent.
However, as far as publicly available information is concerned, progress in nuclear weapons development has basically ground to a halt since the invention of special-purpose “third generation” nuclear devices such as bunker-busting shaped charges and neutron-enhanced weapons that were developed during the 1970’s. Conventional wisdom holds that since the adoption of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970, it has been difficult or impossible either to develop new weapons or to proliferate their use; and that since the end of the Cold War and the “End of History”, any need to develop new doomsday weapons technology has totally evaporated.
Meanwhile, research on fusion power for peaceful energy production grinds ponderously onward, with substantial progress to be sure, but without any useful results in sight. The old joke that “Fusion energy is 50 years in the future, and always will be” seems to be as true as ever. The € 15 Billion ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project is currently expected to reach “Plasma Break-Even” in 2027, although many engineering challenges must be solved before then. Even if that milestone is achieved, the project faces daunting challenges in terms of the development of durable materials to contain the highly energetic neutrons produced by the deuterium-tritium fusion reaction. Another alternative technology, Inertial Confinement Fusion (laser-driven compression of pellets of deuterium-tritium fuel) has also become an expensive fiasco, as the National Ignition Campaign ended in 2012 after spending over $4 Billion without achieving “ignition”, and the Laser Inertial Fusion Energy program was cancelled in April 2014.
Thus, the public is complacent in the belief that nuclear technology has not advanced in any practical sense since the 1970’s. However, in their 1999 book “Fourth Generation Nuclear Weapons”, Andre Gsponer and Jean-Pierre Hurney discussed the prospects for development of weapons that would be compliant with the Test Ban Treaty and non-proliferation treaties, because they are not based on fission-fuelled chain reactions. Their executive summary stated:
These new fission or fusion explosives could have yields in the range of 1 to 100 ton equivalents of TNT, i.e., in the gap which today separates conventional weapons from nuclear weapons. These relatively low-yield nuclear explosives would not qualify as weapons of mass destruction. Seven physical processes which could be used to make such low-yield nuclear weapons, or to make compact non-fission triggers for large scale thermonuclear explosions, are investigated in detail: subcritical fission-burn, magnetic compression, superheavy elements, antimatter, nuclear isomers, metallic hydrogen and superlasers (i.e., ultrapowerful lasers with intensities higher than 1019 W/cm2).
In a follow-up publication, “Fourth Generation Nuclear Weapons: Military Effectiveness and Collateral Effects” (2008), Gsponer focused on a discussion of antimatter, nuclear isomers and superlasers as the most likely technologies. Each of these technologies seems inherently very promising, although there is nothing in the publicly available literature to indicate that the development of practical weapons is imminent. Gsponer mentions a commonly held perception that the development of such weapons is still “very far in the future.” However, he also quoted a 1994 interview with a Russian nuclear scientist, who believed that “A new generation of nuclear weapons could be developed by the year 2000.”
At this website, we will explore the various technological options that could be in use to create a breakaway nuclear fusion technology.
Nuclear fusion posts at this website: