Ecological imperialism and nuclear fusion: a forgotten topic in global resource conflicts

In 2021, during the Serbian protests against lithium, I interviewed one of the chemists at the Belgrade Institute of Chemistry and Metallurgy, where a group of independent researchers questioned Rio Tinto’s new lithium mining project in Serbia, the so-called “Jadar project,” which sparked controversy and nationwide protests against lithium mining.

One of his warnings about lithium was that demand wasn’t just coming from the electric vehicle industry. He also feared the unfair advantages that the new fusion technology would give to imperial/Western nations, for whom lithium is one of the most important resources needed in large industrial quantities. He feared that this would result in some nations, such as France, accumulating enough of the resource to pursue large fusion projects and essentially have free energy, while the rest of us would be left without it or degraded to nations deprived of it. While this is a simplistic portrayal of reality – not least because focusing on states alone often doesn’t give the whole picture – there is some truth to it.

Before we proceed, it is worth mentioning that France is home to the largest experimental fusion reactor ITER, which is operated with the help of money, components, and experts resulting from the cooperation of the major superpowers (China, India, South Korea, Russia, USA, and EU) and several other partners (such as Australia, Canada, Thailand, etc.). ITER has been called one of the largest international scientific megaprojects of mankind, together with the International Space Station and the Large Hadron Collider.

But, more importantly, there is some doubt as to where the fuel for all this will come from. Tonight I came across an article that deconstructs the hype about nuclear fusion and directly mentions the isotope lithium-6, which China and Russia are producing for military purposes. To quote it:

No economical method exists to harvest natural lithium from the ocean. That is because the concentration of natural lithium in seawater is dilute: roughly 0.2 ppm. Until and unless an economical method of ocean harvesting is developed, fusion fuel will need to come from conventional sources, which will only add to the current geopolitical lithium resource conflicts.

Using lithium for fusion will be even less practical than using it for batteries, because only about 7.5 percent of the lithium in that 0.2 ppm contains the needed lithium-6 isotope. Additionally, ocean-harvested lithium-6 is subject to all of the same problems as discussed above (lack of processing plants, proliferation risks, etc.) that mined lithium is.

The article just cited seems interesting in light of the recent news that a “huge barrier” to fusion energy production was overcome by bombarding a hydrogen pallet in a small cylinder with 192 lasers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The result was that, for the first time in a laboratory setting, the reaction produced more energy than was supplied to it, “reproducing the power of the sun” and producing “clean energy,” probably along with other romantic images in the minds of many journalists. How big or small this achievement was can be gleaned from a remark by Catalan economist Joan Martínez Alier:

Fusion energy announcement. “The fusion reaction at the US government facility produced about 2.5 megajoules of energy, which was about 120 per cent of the 2.1 megajoules of energy in the lasers”.

My immediate opinion. a) In 1988 there was an announcement about “cold fusion”, the same enthusiasm for some weeks in the press (Financial Times etc). “We are saved”. This time is “hot fusion”, more plausible. b) 2.5 megajoules is a very small experiment, one person eats per day 10 megajoules. c) More important, the EROI is extremely low, lower than fossil fuels or windmills. EROI is the energy return on the energy cost. Taking into account the energy spent and dissipated in building and running the lasers, I guess EROI less than 1.

So, despite these criticisms, this is indeed big news for the media (and it should not be forgotten that this is, after all, an experiment, which means that the net performance gain from the experiment, however small, is still a relevant breakthrough, which can be scaled up in the future by using more efficient solid-state lasers in this case, (this will give a boost to the Australian laser industry, as recently reported, where the University of Adelaide is collaborating with multinational companies and private entities to develop ultrashort pulse laser (USPL) applications, among all else)[1]. But for the rest of us, something else should be more worth discussing than the current headlines. For example, what is less discussed is where the materials needed to sustain such a reaction on a scale necessary to provide “clean” energy to billions of people will come from. Since I come from a country whose government was nearly overthrown over an Australian company’s lithium mining project, which brought a new green opposition to parliament thanks to mass protests against lithium, I can imagine how the new demand for the element will be viewed by producing countries already suffering from galloping demand from the expanding lithium market. To what extent will nuclear fusion be clean? Even though it is hardly talked about in the Balkans yet, it is a myth to call it “clean” by the demand countries, just as it is a myth to call any element to be extracted “clean.” Whether product or element, there are no “clean” extraction processes under capitalism. If one resorts to mining or extracting lithium in any form (brine or rock), only a small percentage of which contains the much-needed isotope, how can we rightly speak of “clean” energy as if it had simply been given to us by Almighty God? And unless we are talking about such a question, it means that we are using a rather simplistic framework for our technologies – without the social context. So, again, we need to question the ideology of “clean energy” if we are to at least see the social costs of its very dirty production.

Finally, the article I mentioned gives an overview of all the sources of this potential lithium (and it should be consulted). It concludes that the hype about nuclear fusion is snake oil because it overstates the expected energy gains and systematically understates the availability of resources that can be used to make fusion reactors of this magnitude. Whatever we might think of this, one could only add a more topical criticism, namely that the ongoing forms of ecological imperialism could only get worse, for both producer and demand states, if this is factored into the equation

In this respect, my friend the chemist was right, although I believe we are still a long way from any country hoarding enough lithium to cause shortages for other countries. For us in the present (December 13, 2022), the biggest enemy in this regard is still the auto industry. It should be noted, however, that demand for more lithium could come from potential mega-projects stimulated by nuclear fusion proponents, should governments be swayed by them, and they will.

EDIT: Fusion on the moon

Since I published this draft, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) has discovered a sixth lunar mineral: Changesite-(Y). In addition, this mineral contains helium-3, a non-radioactive element that could be used as fuel for nuclear fusion reactors. As reported here,

In December 2020, the CNSA’s Chang’e 5 mission landed on the moon, collected 3.8 pounds of lunar material, and then returned the samples to Earth, marking the first retrieval of moon material since the 1970s.

A second piece of news is that, according to a recent Financial Times report, nuclear fusion startups have accelerated in both inertial confinement fusion (ICF), as in the experiment mentioned above, which uses a laser to trigger the reaction, and pulsed fusion using electric currents, known as magnetic confinement fusion (MCF). Although most of the research in both cases was publicly funded, and there are currently only 35 companies in the field worldwide – the oldest being Princeton Fusion Systems, founded in 1992 – most of the new private sector companies were founded after the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, as shown in the chart below from FT news. This is an interesting shift from publicly funded programs that laid the groundwork to private capital that came into play only after the field had raised some hopes for profits. It is interesting to note that even in this area, the “green transitions” promulgated by governments in the Eastern and Western hemispheres on the basis of IPCC reports (UN) have paved the way for private capital to take the limelight.

Aleksandar Matković

[1] The Australian coalition mentioned above admittedly plans to hydrogen and boron-11 as fuel instead of lithium which can be used to produce tritium, which does not occur naturally on Earth, during the fusion process. These also have problems of their own (very high ignition temperature with a moderate fusion yield) and this approach to fusion fuel is the exception rather than the rule.


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