Scientists are trying to develop pure-fusion reactions—bursts that don’t require uranium or plutonium to ignite—for clean energy. But they could also usher in so-called low-yield nuclear weapons that emit very little radiation and could be both small and difficult to detect.
WHY, GOD, WHY?
The civilian rationale is that pure-fusion nuclear power could supplement, if not replace, fossil fuels and conventional reactors. And the era of widespread nuclear weapons development is largely over. A 2008 report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society and the Center for Strategic and International Studies recommended extending the life of old nukes with upgraded warheads and onboard microsensors for quality control (rather than building anything new). But if scientists happen upon pure fusion, who knows what they might do with it?
Nuclear weapons are scary. The U.S. has already created small “bunker-buster” nukes that can penetrate underground targets. But weaponized pure fusion would require miniaturizing lasers or other trigger technologies that currently involve building-sized equipment.
Of course, pure fusion may also be impossible. According to several reports, including declassified information from the Department of Energy, weapons scientists have tried and failed to pull it off since the 1950s, and funding for the research was banned in 1993. But Jeremy Tamsett, editor of the Journal of Strategic Security, says the 2004 Defense Authorization Act repealed the restrictions. And this year, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory will attempt to create pure-fusion reactions with lasers at its National Ignition Facility.
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