Skunkworks

After I graduated from college, I needed a job to keep food on my table and to pay for my graduate work at UCLA. By the end of summer I’d found a job at the Burbank Airport collecting parking fees from travelers. While the airport itself belonged to the city, the parking lots were operated by Lockheed (the former owner of the airport) and so I worked for Lockheed.

Lockheed’s famous Skunkworks, where they designed and built top secret aircraft, was located right next to the airport. Often, as I drove away at the end of my shift, I could peek into its large hanger. They often left the doors open on warm summer evenings. Late at night, long after the airport had closed, the roar of jet engines would fill the air as a giant U.S. Air Force C-5 cargo plane landed, delivering only Lockheed knew what.

Years later, long after I had moved on to other employment, I learned that one of the cargos on those secret, graveyard shift flights was the F-117 stealth fighter. It was being ferried back and forth from the Groom Lake facility better known as Area 51.

In the years since, all of Lockheed’s facilities next to the Burbank Airport have been torn down. Where the Skunkworks once stood, there is now a Starbucks and a McDonalds.

But the Skunkworks endures. It has been relocated to a large hanger just off Sierra Highway in Palmdale, California—just a few blocks from where I live. And they still sometimes leave the doors open on warm summer evenings.

Recently, Lockheed revealed something they’ve been doing there, something more than just designing a new airplane. They have been working on a nuclear fusion reactor, a generator that can be used to produce clean, cheap, unlimited energy for cities, aircraft, ships, and even spacecraft. They claim to have achieved what researchers around the world, have unsuccessfully been attempting to do for the last fifty years.

It is a major technological breakthrough that will profoundly change the world.

Currently, all nuclear generators are fission reactors: atoms of uranium or plutonium are split apart in a controlled fashion, creating heat which can be used to boil water and make steam to turn turbines that then generate electricity. No pollution is created. But only about nineteen percent of the electricity in the United States is generated by such fission reactors. But all of America’s submarines and aircraft carriers use nuclear fission reactors to generate the power that drives them through the oceans. The advantage of nuclear power for naval vessels is that they have unlimited range: a nuclear submarine or aircraft carrier can run for twenty years before needing to be refueled.

But there’s a downside to the current fission generators: they produce radioactive waste that is difficult to safely store. Worse, the waste can be processed to produce nuclear weapons (that’s why no one wants Iran to have a nuclear program, even one that is supposedly only for “peaceful purposes”). And if something ever goes wrong with a nuclear fission reactor, very bad things can happen. While fission reactors cannot explode, they can meltdown and release radiation into the environment, as happened at Chernoble and Fukiyama. And just finding, mining and processing the uranium and plutonium for the fission power plants is dangerous and difficult. And uranium is a limited resource.

All these problems disappear with nuclear fusion. Rather than splitting atoms, nuclear fusion works by slamming them together: a process releases more energy by orders of magnitude than any fission process. The sun is an example of a fusion reactor, and what scientists have been trying and failing to do up til now is to accomplish what the sun does on a much smaller scale. But how do you contain and controle a miniature sun? Apparently Lockheed has figured it out.

With nuclear fusion there are no radioactive byproducts. There is no possibility of a fusion reactor ever being used to create material for nuclear weapons. Even better, the fuel for a fusion reactor is not something rare, in limited quantities, expensive, or difficult to mine. The fuel for fusion comes from sea water: deuterium, a heavy form of hydrogen (remember water is two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen). It is cheap and unlimited: we can never run out.

Lockheed expects to have a demonstration fusion generator up and running in less than a year. It will fit inside the trailer of a semi and will be able to generate enough electricity for 80,000 houses.

Fusion reactors have other uses: submarines and aircraft carriers could replace their fission reactors, cutting costs while increasing range. Commercial ships would now find nuclear power cost effective. Fusion reactors could be put in airplanes, giving them unlimited range: no need to refuel for decades. Tanks and other vehicles—such as trains and trucks could be powered by nuclear fusion rather than diesel or gasoline.

What about accidents? What if someone shot a hole in a fusion reactor?

It would simply stop working: there would be no radiation released, no explosions, and no meltdowns.

California is currently in the middle of a drought. If we could drink seawater and use it for agriculture, we wouldn’t have to worry about a shortage of rain. But right now, the cost of desalinization is prohibitive, largely due to the energy costs. But with fusion power, desalinization would be inexpensive. The oceans suddenly becomes useable for drinking and farming. Turning a desert like the Sahara into productive farmland would suddenly become economically feasible.

Currently it takes chemically powered spaceships about nine months to travel between the Earth and Mars—and ninety percent or more of the mass is fuel. Nuclear fusion would cut travel time to one month, while eliminating the bulk.

If Lockheed has actually managed what they claim, our world will change in ways we can barely imagine. The era of burning coal, natural gas, and oil will be over.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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