Tag Archives: hydrogen

Admiral’s comments on fission hold for fusion 70 years later

Last month the US Energy Secretary, Jennifer Granholm announced a successful experiment at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in which 192 lasers were used to pump 2.05 mega Joules of energy into a capsule heating its contents to 100 million degrees Centigrade causing fusion of hydrogen nuclei and the release of 3.15 mega Joules of energy.  An apparent gain of 1.1 mega Joules until you take account of the 300 mega Joules consumed by the 192 lasers.  The reaction in the media to this fusion energy experiment and the difficulties associated with building a practical fusion power plant, such as the Spherical Tokamak Energy Production (STEP) project in the UK (see ‘Celebrating engineering success‘ on November 11th, 2022) reminded me of a well-known memorandum penned by Admiral Rickover in 1953.  Rickover was first tasked, as a Captain, to look at atomic power in May 1946 not long after first human-made self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction was initiated in Chicago Pile #1 during an experiment led by Enrico Fermi in 1942.  He went on to become Admiral Rickover who directed the US Navy’s nuclear propulsion programme and the Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine was launched in 1954.  With thanks to a regular reader of this blog who sent me a copy of the memo and apologies to Admiral Rickover, here is his memorandum edited to apply to fusion energy:

Important decisions about the future of fusion energy must frequently be made by people who do not necessarily have an intimate knowledge of the technical aspects of fusion.  These people are, nonetheless, interested in what a fusion power plant will do, how much it will cost, how long it will take to build and how long and how well it will operate.  When they attempt to learn these things, they become aware the confusion existing in the field of fusion energy.  There appears to be unresolved conflict on almost every issue that arises.

I believe that the confusion stems from a failure to distinguish between the academic and the practical.  These apparent conflicts can usually be explained only when the various aspects of the issue are resolved into their academic and practical components. To aid in this resolution, it is possible to define in a general way those characteristics which distinguish one from the other.

An academic fusion reactor almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small.  (3) It is cheap. (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose . (7) The reactor is in the study phase.  It is not being built now.  On the other hand, a practical fusion reactor can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now.  (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It is requiring an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of the engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is complicated.

The tools of the academic-reactor designer are a piece of paper and a pencil with an eraser. If a mistake is made, it can always be erased and changed.  If a mistake is made, it can always be erased and changed.  If the practical-reactor designer errs, they wear the mistake around their neck; it cannot be erased.  Everyone can see it. 

The academic-reactor designer is a dilettante.  They have not had to assume any real responsibility in connection with their projects.  They are free to luxuriate in elegant ideas, the practical shortcomings of which can be relegated to the category of ‘mere technical details’.  The practical-reactor designer must live with these same technical details.  Although recalcitrant and awkward, they must be solved and cannot be put off until tomorrow.  Their solutions require people, time and money.

Unfortunately for those who must make far-reaching decisions without the benefit of an intimate knowledge of fusion technology and unfortunately for the interested public, it is much easier to get the academic side of an issue than the practical side. For the large part those involved with academic fusion reactors have more inclination and time to present their ideas in reports and orally to those who will listen.  Since they are innocently unaware of the real and hidden difficulties of their plans, they speak with great facility and confidence.  Those involved with practical fusion reactors, humbled by their experiences, speak less and worry more.

Yet it is incumbent on those in high places to make wise decisions, and it is reasonable and important that the public be correctly informed.  It is consequently incumbent on all of us to state the facts as forth-rightly as possible.  Although it is probably impossible to have fusion technology ideas labelled as ‘practical’ or ‘academic’ by the authors, it is worthwhile both authors and the audience to bear in mind this distinction and to be guided thereby.

Image: The target chamber of LLNL’s National Ignition Facility, where 192 laser beams delivered more than 2 million joules of ultraviolet energy to a tiny fuel pellet to create fusion ignition on Dec. 5, 2022 from https://www.llnl.gov/news/national-ignition-facility-achieves-fusion-ignition

Crack tip plasticity in reactor steels

Amplitude of temperature in steel due to a cyclic load with a crack growing from left to right along the horizontal centre line with the stress concentration at its tip exhibiting the peak values. The wedge shapes in the left corners are part of the system.

At this time of year the flow into my inbox is augmented daily by prospective PhD students sending me long emails describing how their skills, qualifications and interests perfectly match the needs of my research group, or sometimes someone else’s group if they have not been careful in setting up their mass mailing.  At the moment, I have four PhD projects for which I am looking for outstanding students; so, because it will help prospective students and might interest my other readers but also because I am short of ideas for the blog, I plan to describe one project per week for the next month.

The first project is about the effect of hydrogen on crack tip plasticity in reactor steels.  Fatigue cracks grow in steels by coalescing imperfections in the microstructure of the material until small voids are formed in areas of high stress.  When these voids connect together a crack is formed.  Repeated loading and unloading of the material provides the energy to move the imperfections, known as dislocations, and geometric features in structures are stress concentrators which focus this energy causing cracks to be formed in their vicinity.  The movement of dislocations causes permanent, or plastic deformation of the material.  The sharp geometry of a crack tip becomes a stress concentrator creating a plastic zone in which dislocations pile up and voids form allowing the crack to extend [see post on ‘Alan Arnold Griffith‘ on April 26th, 2017].  It is possible to detect the thermal energy released during plastic deformation using a technique known as thermoelastic stress analysis [see ‘Counting photons to measure stress‘ on November 18th 2015] as well as to measure the stress field associated with the propagating crack [1].  One of my current PhD students has been using this technique to investigate the effect of irradiation damage on the growth of cracks in stainless steel used in nuclear reactors.  We use an ion accelerator at the Dalton Cumbrian Facility to introduce radiation damage into specimens the size of a postage stamp and afterwards apply cyclic loads and watch the fatigue crack grow using our sensitive infra-red cameras.  We have found that the irradiation reduced the rate of crack growth and we will be publishing a paper on it shortly [and a PhD thesis].  In the new project, our industrial sponsors want us to explore the effect of hydrogen on crack growth in irradiated steel, because the presence of hydrogen is known to accelerate fatigue crack growth [2] which is believe to happen as a result of hydrogen atoms disrupting the formation of dislocations at the microscale and localising plasticity at crack tip on the mesoscale.  However, these ideas have not been demonstrated in experiments, so we plan to do this using thermoelastic stress analysis and to investigate the combined influence of hydrogen and irradiation by developing a process for pre-charging the steel specimens with hydrogen using an electrolytic cell and irradiating them using the ion accelerator.  Both hydrogen and radiation are present in a nuclear reactor and hence the results will be relevant to predicting the safe working life of nuclear reactors.

The PhD project is fully-funded for UK and EU citizens as part of a Centre for Doctoral Training and will involve a year of specialist training followed by three years of research.  For more information following this link.


  1. Yang, Y., Crimp, M., Tomlinson, R.A., Patterson, E.A., 2012, Quantitative measurement of plastic strain field at a fatigue crack tip, Proc. R. Soc. A., 468(2144):2399-2415.
  2. Matsunaga, H., Takakuwa, O., Yamabe, J., & Matsuoka, S., 2017, Hydrogen-enhanced fatigue crack growth in steels and its frequency dependence. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A, 375(2098), 20160412