Fusion Development is critical to America’s future. Congress should encourage public-private partnerships to accelerate development of fusion energy.
By Andrew Holland, Director of Studies, American Security Project
Fusion energy is the power of the sun. It creates energy in a nuclear reaction that fuses small atoms together, releasing an immense amount of energy. When perfected, it will be a nearly perfect source of energy: capable of providing limitless energy with fuel derived from seawater. It will provide energy on demand without any long-lived radiation or fear of meltdown.
Of course, challenges remain: no one has been able to initiate a fusion reaction yet in which more energy is generated than it takes to control the reaction. We know how to produce fusion in the lab, and we know that we can reach that breakeven point – but there still remain significant scientific and engineering hurdles before we reach that milestone. However, scientists agree that we know enough to justify a renewed commitment to fusion.
America faces a crisis in its declining support for Research and Development. The next generation of America is in danger of inheriting a country that is no longer the world’s leader in science or engineering; the very skills we know will be the building blocks of 21st Century prosperity.
This crisis is paired with a coming crisis in energy: our economy depends on reliable sources of power, but over the next few decades, almost all of the power plants in the U.S. will need to be replaced, and America’s dependence on fossil fuels presents serious national security concerns – they sap our economy, exacerbate climate change, and constrict our foreign policy.
Achieving practical fusion power will cement American leadership in solving some of the world’s critical problems, and drive American competitiveness in the coming decades.
Other countries (like China, Russia and South Korea) already have ambitious plans to develop fusion. The U.S. will be left behind if we fail to make the smart investments we know are necessary. Fusion power is possible and America can do it.
A Global Race to Fusion – Which We Must Not Lose
The United States has not made fusion research a priority for decades, and we are paying the price now. The world is now entering a global race to build a working fusion reactor. The first country to develop and deploy fusion will lead the world into a new era. While other countries remain dependent upon unpredictable fuel supplies and global markets, the fusion leader will be able to generate nearly limitless energy. They will be able to sell the technology to favored nations around the world. It is not an exaggeration to say that our national security is at stake in this race.
China is accelerating its investment into fusion energy research, training hundreds of new plasma scientists. Its experimental reactor, the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST), is more advanced than anything in the United States. Japan and South Korea, similarly, have more advanced experiments than anything in the U.S. Germany’s program has made headlines, while the UK has the most effective tokomak-design in the world.
The Federally-Funded American Fusion Program is Chronically Underfunded
Meanwhile, America’s federally-funded experiments are aging and starving for funds. MIT has closed their Alcator C-MOD reactor due to a lack of funding – the day they set a record for plasma density! Princeton’s experiment has shut because of an unforeseen magnet failure. The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has been tasked away from energy research to focus on nuclear weapons.
The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) funds a small research program into how to turn medium-density plasma fusion ideas into a power plant. This funding is small and risky, but could prove to be substantially cheaper avenue to achieving fusion. ARPA-E’s mission is expressly set up to fund “game-changing” technologies – fusion is a natural fit for their work.
If you total the full investment in fusion research from these three areas, it is around $1 billion per year – but a large portion of that is devoted to nuclear weapons research. This is a small amount in the face of such a huge market: in the United States alone, energy accounts for about $1 trillion dollars in sales per year. For a relatively small investment, we could change the world.
Decades of Investment Have Benefits Today
For 60 years, governments around the world have funded research into fusion energy. In that time, they have overcome vast and complex challenges – and created a new area of science – plasma physics – to move the world closer to fusion energy. What had started as a Cold War contest between the United States and the Soviet Union, turned into one of the most important examples of international scientific cooperation.
This work has resulted in tremendously important spin-offs. For instance, the electromagnets now being used on US Navy aircraft carriers to launch planes were built using expertise developed from the fusion energy program. The advanced manufacturing required to build the components of fusion research facilities would only further push forward precision manufacturing around the country, with benefits across our economy.
America’s Advantage: Our Private Sector
Up to now, fusion has predominantly been the province of large, government-funded research programs, with most research funded through Universities or National Labs. Today, however, venture capital funds have begun investing in new start-up companies that are trying alternative approaches to fusion. Private companies are streamlining the pathway to a fusion power plant.
This is not an argument for the private funding for fusion. To the contrary, the needs – and indeed the benefits – of fusion are so great as to deserve government investment. Moreover, the private sector has drawn their staff and expertise from government-funded research, and they need the decades of data built by the national program. America needs to embrace public-private partnerships that could utilize the great resources of the federal government while allowing the private-sector’s tolerance of risk and resourcefulness to drive innovation forward.
Recommendations to Congress: Increase Investment, Accelerate Public-Private Partnerships
The time has come to both increase funding into fusion research and to better organize the American fusion program. Fusion scientists agree that the scientific basis for fusion is now strong enough to support increased investment. With significant investment into new research reactors and a reduction in bureaucracy, experiments in the United States could reach the milestone of breakeven energy – perhaps within a decade.
However, today, an increase in funding would only be wasted if the current design of the fusion research program were maintained. Fusion research should be organized towards building a commercial power plant. The federal government should do everything it can to facilitate scientists – both inside and outside of the government – who are making strides towards a fusion power plant. We should rationalize research goals and cut through bureaucracy.
The time for increased investment in fusion is now. In the near future, Congress could lay the groundwork for a revolution in energy production and availability. The benefits are huge; the time is now.