Creating new sources of sustainable, reliable and zero-carbon energy is a critical national security question and may prove to be an existential threat to humanity. Investors are rushing to fund clean-tech startups that promise to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Perhaps the most transformative of those new, clean energy technologies is fusion energy.
Leveraging almost 100 years of scientific research, fusion is now approaching commercial viability. Although it sounds like science fiction, scientists have been able to create fusion in the lab for decades, but it has always used more energy than it creates. Today, many businesses, universities and even nations around the globe are racing to demonstrate an energy-positive sustained fusion reaction. Some of our members in the Fusion Industry Association (FIA) hope to demonstrate fusion above the break-even point within the next few years.
For decades, nuclear power plants have played a critical role in providing carbon-free, always-available baseload electricity for the power grid. The nuclear fission reactions that provide energy in these plants involve splitting heavy atomic nuclei, producing power along with dangerous, long-lived, radioactive waste. Nuclear reactors also face the risk, although small, of catastrophic meltdowns.
Fusion is entirely different. Instead of splitting atoms, a fusion reaction occurs when two light atomic nuclei collide and fuse, releasing immense energy. Fusion power plants will produce clean energy safely with an inexhaustible fuel supply found in seawater, without any long-lived dangerous waste or risks of meltdown. And yet, if nothing is done, fusion power plants could be regulated under the same strictures applied to nuclear fission.
So far, fusion entrepreneurs and their investors have invested more than $1.5 billion in private fusion energy start-ups. One thing slowing investment is the lack of regulatory guidance that will enable a rapid adoption of fusion energy. Time is running out for the United States to develop a regulatory framework as other countries continue investing in fusion research and private fusion enterprises emerge around the world.
The federal government has shown some signs of support for fusion energy development, both to fund research and commercialization and to develop reasonable regulatory approaches to the technology. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which has funded fusion science research for decades, recently established a program to allow private fusion companies to leverage the unparalleled expertise at the nation’s national laboratories. And the U.S. House recently approved a milestone-based cost-share program for private fusion modeled on the government funding program that was critical to supporting the commercial space industry.
Perhaps more importantly, the government must take concrete steps to demonstrate regulatory certainty for the future fusion industry.
First, regulators must adopt an approach that explicitly and permanently removes fusion energy from the regulatory paradigm applied to nuclear fission power plants. Fusion facilities simply do not have the same risk profile that fission reactors have. In the event of abnormal operations at a fusion power plant, the effects would be confined to the plant site with no negative impact on the public besides a potential disruption in the facility’s energy output.
So, rules for fusion should be distinct from the rules that have applied to fission facilities. This approach is vital to build a robust fusion industry. As the FIA outlined in its recent white paper, there are already federal rules that could apply to fusion power plants. To be clear, we know that it is appropriate for fusion power to be regulated: Every source of power must ensure that it is safe.
Second, the federal government should prepare states to take a leading role in the regulation of fusion facilities through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Agreement State program. Through the program, the NRC allows a state to be the primary regulator over certain activities involving radiation, like production of medical isotopes for pharmaceuticals. States are already regulating some fusion devices, demonstrating that they are capable of playing a large role in managing regulatory programs for fusion.
On Oct. 6, 2020, the DOE and NRC co-hosted a public forum with the FIA and its member start-up companies. At this event, the DOE undersecretary for science stated how important it is that “the first commercial fusion plant be built in the U.S.” and the chair of the NRC stated how optimistic she was about the work toward a new fusion regulatory regime. The event was a crucial first step in the discussion of how to best support and regulate public and private-sector fusion energy research and commercial deployment.
The decision for how to regulate fusion energy needs to be thoughtful, risk-informed and future-focused. We need to demonstrate our leadership in this growing industry. If regulated appropriately, the United States can be the center of a true revolution in energy that will shape the global economy for generations. Without decisive action to answer these regulatory questions, the United States could be left to watch as other countries overtake us as the epicenter for a fusion-based future.
• Andrew Holland is executive director of the Fusion Industry Association.