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A national lab achieved a ‘Wright Brothers moment’ in nuclear fusion

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced a key achievement in fusion research Tuesday. Fusion, the lesser-known opposite reaction to nuclear fission, is when two atoms slam together to form a heavier atom and release energy. It is the way the sun makes energy.

“Our result is a significant step forward in understanding what is required for it to work. To me, this is a Wright Brothers moment,” Omar A. Hurricane, chief scientist for the Inertial Confinement Fusion Program at the laboratory in Livermore, California, told CNBC.

“It’s not practical, but we got off the ground for a moment,” Hurricane said.

The lab announced Tuesday that on Aug. 8, it produced 1.3 megajoules of energy at its National Ignition Facility, albeit very briefly.

At the National Ignition Facility, which is the size of three football fields, superpowerful laser beams re-create the temperatures and pressures similar to those in the cores of stars and giant planets and inside exploding nuclear weapons, a spokesperson told CNBC.

On Aug. 8, a laser light was focused onto a target the size of a BB, which resulted in “a hot-spot the diameter of a human hair, generating more than 10 quadrillion watts of fusion power for 100 trillionths of a second,” the written statement says.

What’s key is that the results make “a significant step toward ignition,” said a statement from the lab.

“Ignition is a tipping point in the fusion process where the fusion heats itself and overwhelms all the cooling losses that can occur,” Hurricane told CNBC. “Once this happens, a feedback process is generated where heating creates more fusion, which creates more heating, which creates more fusion, and so on.”

Getting to the place where a fusion reaction makes more energy than it uses, ignition, is something of a holy grail for companies that are trying to commercialize fusion and sell it as a clean energy source.

Whether or not the Livermore experiment was able to do that — to generate “net energy” — is “complicated because the answer depends upon where one starts the accounting for the energy input,” Hurricane said.

“The bottom line is that very little energy ever makes it into the fusion fuel as compared to the electricity we used to charge the laser,” Hurricane said.

“As a result, there is zero net energy gain as compared to the electricity we pulled to do the experiments. This is one of the reasons why I view our scheme as not being practical for energy production,” he said. “However, the fusion energy generated was about 5 times the energy absorbed by the capsule and about 70 percent of the laser energy shot at the target — these are the significant aspects.”

The results have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but that process will occur, the lab said. Typically, news announcements are tied to publications in peer-reviewed journals, but “news was spreading because of the scale of this achievement, so we felt it was important to put out the facts,” a spokesperson told CNBC.

A key milestone, but a long way to go for fusion

The news certainly represents progress, but it does not signal a sea change in how energy will be generated in the immediate future.

“The current experiment produces a large amount of power … but only for a very short time … and as yields increase, experiments like this will produce more power for longer durations, important steps on the road to commercial power production, which would require net positive power production for long durations of time,” said Brett Rampal, director of nuclear innovation for the Clean Air Task Force, an energy policy think tank.

“There’s still a long way to go,” Rampal said.

Andrew Holland, the CEO of the Fusion Industry Association, was enthusiastic about Tuesday’s announcement.

“Proving ignition is the ‘Kitty Hawk Moment’ for fusion energy,” Holland told CNBC.

“It will prove that we can unleash fusion energy for power production on Earth,” Holland says. “It will provide deep scientific understanding of how fusion works, and that will help all fusion developers better build their power plants.”

Hurricane, however, was more cautious about seeing fusion as an answer to a need for clean energy.

“While our team is very excited about this result, because it is a hard-won science/engineering achievement, I don’t see it as being useful for a clean energy source. The learning from our result may, however, be relevant,” Hurricane told CNBC.

“I am very concerned, in general, about fusion being hyped as a solution for climate change,” he said. “My personal opinion is that fusion energy is still a future technology, so it would be foolish for people bet the planet on fusion addressing the immediate climate concerns.”

Also noteworthy, research at the Livermore lab’s National Ignition Facility is part of the Stockpile Stewardship Program, a government effort born in 1995 to study aging nuclear weapons without nuclear testing.

“One of the original visions for the NIF was for it to be a substitute for underground nuclear testing, keeping weapons scientists tethered to the reality of experiment so that the nation can depend upon their skills, knowledge and, most importantly, judgment,” Hurricane said. “This new result helps support that vision.”

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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