Lockheed's Compact Fusion Reactor and the Future

If you follow the nuclear industry, you've probably already seen the news: Lockheed-Martin's fabled Skunk Works division—yes, the same folks who under Kelly Johnson brought us the U-2 and SR-71 spy-planes and much, much more over the decades—has announced a consummate design for a compact fusion reactor. They have made various press releases about this novel technology throughout 2013 but the most recent announcement is the most elaborated and telling yet about the design parameters and capabilities of the reactor. 

Guy Norris over at Aviation Week has written the best overview of the Lockheed Compact Fusion Reactor I've yet seen, so instead of reinventing the wheel and writing in-depth on the details of the reactor myself, I'm going to link to Mr. Norris' superb article:

http://aviationweek.com/technology/skunk-works-reveals-compact-fusion-reactor-details

What I would like to talk about a little bit however is the social impact of this technology. Much of my blog here has concerned how nuclear power went from a promising technology that most Americans embraced and trusted in the 1950s and 1960s—even the 1970s—but lost faith in over the course of the 1980s due to Hollywood films that portrayed the industry in a very poor light, the Three Mile Island incident, the growing environmental movement (which now is properly more concerned over coal's pollution than nuclear, ironically) and the general association of nuclear anything with the arms race of the later Cold War years. Chernobyl also certainly played a role in the loss of trust. We went from Atoms for Peace to a popular, misguided, opinion of "atoms for nothing" in mere decades and we're still feeling the pinch and sting of that today. So now, we have a brand new form of nuclear technology—a technology that is starting to meet some of the space-age dreams we've long had for nuclear—the dream of fusion. A promise of an energy source that is clean, able to provide vast amounts of power at low cost, and sustainable. Moreover, it's a technology that Lockheed declares scalable, thus able to be built at different sizes for different applications and suited for everything from commercial power plants to nuclear-powered ships to possibly nuclear-powered aircraft, bring back the 1960s dreams of planes powered not by jet fuel but on-board reactors. Also, and this was part of the reason Lockheed was so keen to develop this technology in the first place, the new fusion reactor could be applied to spacecraft propulsion. 

If all the promises Lockheed has made of this technology's possible applications prove even half-true, we're looking at possibly the biggest breakthrough in energy technology in decades: that's how big this could be if it can be engineered for the scalable solutions Lockheed envisions. 

Is this enough to excite a new generation about nuclear engineering and science in general? I can only hope so. Let's look at the facts:

—Lockheed is a long-standing, admired, traditional company. As much as I love companies like Tesla Motors and SpaceX, or any company that is young and desires to do great "space-age" type work with emerging technologies, I am even more pleased to see Lockheed as the force behind this fusion development. Why? Because the Lockheed of the current day doesn't take many risks. They don't gamble as say Google or Tesla might. They're not in the "emerging tech" gee-whiz stuff business, but in the money-making business. They know on military aircraft projects alone tens of millions can be spent on concepts that will never fly—or even on the radar cross-section testing of such concepts. So they aren't going to waste time, precious lab space and talent, nor money on things they don't see turning around and making cash off of further down the line. Lockheed would never have spent more than a month on this project if they didn't totally believe what they're telling the world now. Their own faith in it is viable to foster my faith.

—As I stated already, it's scalable. It can be small—perhaps very small—and Lockheed is already considering every possible application for the technology, which opens many avenues for its engineering and marketing. That's key to keep something like this afloat over the course of the development trajectory. Does anyone recall the Offshore Power Systems/Westinghouse effort to design and build reactors for floating nuclear power plants? They started the project in 1970 at Blount Island, Jacksonville, Florida but it was terminated in 1978 after public opposition as the anti-nuke movement grew and also because despite the massive funding and planning—and huge construction facility obtained at Blount Island—OPS/Westinghouse could neither fully articulate beyond their opposition the merits of the project nor, most importantly, could they (or would they) diversify the project beyond one basic planned nuclear power solution, which is to say if the one "product" they peddled was somehow nixed (as it was) they not only were without a product at all but without any reason to exist. In contrast, Lockheed sees scores of rational, necessary, applications for its technology. And it has the thrust and know-how to get it where it's going. 

—The basis of the fusion approach Lockheed is applying comes out of tokamak technology, something I've spent a lot of my own software career studying and they have solved some elusive problems in the application of fusion at a viable scale for energy generation, moving beyond the pitfalls we've always seen in tokamak approaches ever since these unique devices were dreamed up by Soviet physicists decades ago. As Guy Norris writes in the article linked above, "This crucial difference means that for the same size, the CFR [Lockheed's compact fusion reactor] generates more power than a tokamak by a factor of 10". So they've got around one of the great issues of the noble tokamak: that you cannot make one small enough to get anywhere near the plasma confinement ratio required for viable energy generation parameters. That's a huge breakthrough in and of itself. It should also get people thinking about the physics of tokamaks in new ways and the modeling of plasma dynamics. 

—Beyond Lockheed's fusion reactor itself, this should further generate general interest in small, modular, reactors, period. It should show people that nuclear power doesn't have to be a matter of giant power plants—indeed, it never has been such, as on cramped nuclear subs in Admiral Rickover's time even the reactors and their associated systems were robust, hardy, powerful—yet compact. Many companies are working on non-fusion small modular reactor concepts with delivery projections much earlier than Lockheed can offer, and I hope that just as young people are becoming interested in things like biomedical nanotechnologies, they'll see the modular reactor revolution as a key area of engineering to explore as a career. 

Please read the Aviation Week article linked: it's very good and should provide a great basic overview of what Lockheed is up to with their fusion approach. Like most journalists covering the industry, I'm also already talking to Lockheed about getting interviews and more info on this remarkable development so look for more soon about fusion's future.