The United States Looks to Fusion to Re-inject Energy in the Global Climate Efforts
Fusion energy ascended in prominence at the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, as U.S. special envoy for climate change John Kerry appealed to the world for greater international cooperation on fusion energy on December 5. The U.S. international engagement plan on fusion energy emphasizes five areas for global partnerships as the Biden administration seeks to facilitate its deployment and commercialization: research and development, market development, regulatory frameworks, workforce, and public engagement. While the plan is light on targets and benchmarks, its announcement is a notable milestone in the U.S. fusion energy endeavors which have gained a tailwind in the recent years.
Global energy supply with a much-reduced carbon footprint looks increasingly viable today following a series of scientific milestones in fusion energy experiments. In July the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California achieved net energy gain for a second time—at a higher energy level than the first time in December 2022. Net energy gain is achieved when the energy output from fusion reactions is greater than the direct input required for starting the reactions in the first place. Fusion is a process in which two atomic nuclei fuse together, forming one single nucleus and releasing some leftover mass as energy in its process. The process is basically the opposite of what happens in nuclear fission, whereby heavy atoms are split to create energy. Laser-driven inertial confinement fusion that is pursued at the NIF is one of three major approaches; the others being magneto-inertial confinement and magnetic confinement fusion.
There are some significant benefits if fusion energy could be commercialized. First and foremost, nuclear fusion provides a significant amount of energy. A fusion power plant can generate four times more energy per kilogram of fuel than an existing nuclear power plant that runs on nuclear fission. When compared to fossil fuel combustion, a nuclear fusion power plant can generate nearly four million times more energy. Most importantly, just like nuclear fission, fusion does not generate carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. Also important is that according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, fusion is much safer than fission, as fusion can occur only under strict operational conditions, rendering a runaway reaction and meltdown highly unlikely. Nor does it produce long-term, highly radioactive byproducts or waste. The security of fuel supply may be another benefit. The current fusion reactor concepts under development will use a mixture of deuterium and tritium, both of which are hydrogen isotopes, and these fuel supplies could last for millions of years, especially if fusion energy systems can produce their own tritium at a sufficient volume.
A number of significant additional milestones are needed before fusion is fully established or commercialized. For example, net energy gain needs to be achieved for the entire process, rather than for a one-off reaction. This stems from a major scientific challenge that researchers do not yet fully understand: the behavior of burning plasmas. Also, materials and structures that control and withstand fusion reactions that entail extreme heat, among others, over the lifetime of a reactor must be developed. Furthermore, several complex systems engineering issues stand in the way of extracting energy from fusion to provide an economical source of electric power.
In the United States, the federal support for fusion research dates back to the early 1950s, with a focus on magnetic confinement fusion research at national laboratories. The federal government support now extends to private industry. One of the major support initiatives in the recent years is the Innovation Network for Fusion Energy (INFUSE), announced by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in 2019, that provides the fusion industry with access to technical expertise and capabilities across the DOE national laboratories as well as financial support to advance fusion technology research. The DOE’s funding for fusion research this year alone includes $46 million in May to eight companies that are advancing designs for a utility-scale pilot plant, and $112 million in August to 12 projects that are utilizing computing resources to advance fusion research. On the international front, the United States has been a foundational participant in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, an international fusion project whose concept design work dates back to the late 1980s. While the NIF at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is pursuing the inertial confinement fusion, the ITER is pursuing the magnetic confinement fusion.
Meanwhile, the regulatory environment for fusion is starting to take shape in the United States. Specifically, since the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decision in April 2023 to regulate fusion energy under a byproduct materials approach (Title 10 of the Code of Federal Regulations Part 3), as opposed to an approach that is currently applied for nuclear fission (Title 10 of the Code of Federal Regulations Parts 50 & 52), rulemaking is underway. An initial stage includes staff-level work of environmental analysis, cost-benefit analysis, as well as collecting stakeholder input.
Several other governments are also increasing their support for fusion development, eager to demonstrate its commercial viability within the next few decades. For example, the United Kingdom seeks to demonstrate the commercial viability of fusion through a prototype fusion power plant by 2040, and to ultimately export fusion technology globally. Also, the United Kingdom signed bilateral agreement with the United States in early November, to form strategic partnership to accelerate fusion demonstration and commercialization. Germany, which recently increased fusion funding to a sum of 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) for the next five years, is closely examining needs for “further research on the way to a first fusion power plant.” Meanwhile, China aims for an industrial prototype fusion reactor by 2035, and commercial use by 2050. China is reportedly leading the world in fusion technology-related patent filing, followed by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan. Elsewhere in Asia, South Korea seeks to commercialize fusion around 2050, while Japan has expressed commitment to building fusion-based power plant albeit without a target date.
Moreover, private sector support for fusion research and commercialization is growing. A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office observes a notable divergence on the timeline that fusion energy stakeholders expect fusion energy to become technically feasible as well as commercially viable, ranging from 10 years to several decades in the future. Yet, according to the Fusion Industry Association there are over 40 verified, private fusion companies around the world, attracting $6.2 billion in investment. Twenty-five of these private companies are headquartered in the United States, making the nation the top hub for private fusion endeavors. Additionally, there is at least one fusion start-up in Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
Regardless of one’s predisposition—whether the glass is half full or half empty for fusion energy’s journey toward commercialization, several major economies are starting to roll out strategies and make significant investment. Successful commercialization would surely mark an enormous contribution to the global energy transition. Meanwhile, who will lead the commercialization effort may have a significant implication not only for the nature and characteristics of global supply chains and commerce for fusion energy technologies, but also for the norms and principles governing its security and nonproliferation. Much is riding on how the United States will build on the international engagement plan and advance its key objectives.
Jane Nakano is a senior fellow with the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.