Last week, the Biden administration held a major summit on the promise of nuclear fusion power, while the Department of Energy (DOE) simultaneously launched a new agency-wide initiative to promote technology. Nuclear fusion is a process by which atoms are forced together to create new and heavier ones, thereby releasing energy. This is the same process that takes place in the sun and other stars, and contrasts with nuclear fission, which is the splitting of atoms. Fission is the current mode of operation of all nuclear power plants that create commercial energy around the world.
The Biden administration sees fusion as a potential source of carbon-free energy to help achieve its goal for the United States to become a net zero carbon dioxide emitter by 2050. Fusion energy is however controversial. Some claim it won’t be commercially viable for decades. Others believe that may never be the case. Nevertheless, due to the intermittent nature of renewables such as wind and solar power, a backup power source is almost certainly required if these technologies are to become mainstream. Moreover, if the merger works as its proponents claim, it could play a much larger, even revolutionary, role in society.
There are a few reasons to be optimistic. On the one hand, several major breakthroughs have taken place in recent years, notably in a DOE laboratory which momentarily created a laser-induced burning plasma (approaching what is called “ignition”, by which the reactor begins to feed itself) and in a Chinese factory that maintained a fusion reaction for 17 minutes at 158 million degrees Fahrenheit.
These success stories show how, if the technical obstacles are certainly important, they are gradually overcome. In fact, the biggest obstacles to clean, reliable fusion power may not be scientific, but social. Take, for example, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) being built in Saint-Paul-les-Durance, France. A collaboration between 35 countries, construction was recently halted by French regulators who challenged several barriers meant to control radiation.
The ITER reactor is not expected to be commissioned until 2025, and that could be optimistic if regulatory and construction delays continue. Even when the facility opens, it will not be used to generate commercial power. On the contrary, at present, it is only a scientific enterprise.
Nevertheless, the market seems optimistic about the outlook for the sector. According to the Biden administration, $2.5 billion has been invested privately in 2021 alone. In a next step, we are likely to see countries setting up their own research reactors. Last year, a major report by the National Academy of Sciences recommended that the United States do just that. But even on the most aggressive timeline, commercially viable fusion power may be a decade or more away.
As the industry moves forward, government officials should prepare now for the inevitable man-made challenges that will stand in the way once all technical hurdles are overcome. There are two in particular to note.
The first, already mentioned, are regulatory obstacles. Wind and solar projects are learning the hard way that, ironically, environmental regulations often impede progress, adding years of delays and millions of dollars in additional costs to projects.
Second, and just as important, is the public perception of new technologies. Wind and solar farms are relatively aesthetically pleasing to the eye, and even they still meet strong resistance from NIMBYs who don’t want these structures to obstruct their natural landscapes. The question of perception will be even more critical for a fusion reactor given the fears (founded or not) of radioactive contamination or fusion.
Questions about the pace of climate change are one reason government officials are backing a technology that many members of the public might express hesitation if considered in isolation. Fusion carries risks, of course, including the possibility of radiation leaks, radioactive waste and nuclear proliferation. That said, most experts say there is much less radiation released with fusion compared to a fission plant, and fusion does not carry the risk of a runaway fusion scenario, as fission does .
Indeed, reading about nuclear fusion, one gets the distinct impression that if this technology comes to fruition, it will look like the stuff of science fiction movies: a potentially limitless source of energy that produces few radioactive by-products. However, even if this vision can be shown to be scientifically feasible, expect progress to be slow. The economics of nuclear fusion, including whether it can compete with the plethora of other alternative energy sources, is an open question. Additionally, to thrive, regulatory hurdles must be removed and a culture of acceptance must be nurtured through education, most likely long before any deployment.
A potential energy source that for years has been thought to be decades away from viability may be closer to reality than we think. The Biden administration is right to include nuclear fusion in its portfolio of clean energy solutions. The question is no longer just whether scientists can make it work, but whether, as a society, we will allow this technology to thrive once the scientific questions are answered.