Could Fusion Overcome Public Opposition to Nuclear Power?

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Every second, 620 million metric tons of hydrogen undergo fusion at the center of our solar system. The churn of light nuclei into heavier ones—releasing energy in the process—powers the sun and sends electromagnetic radiation more than 90 million miles to Earth to light our days. Plants and algae use that sunlight to produce oxygen and chemical energy as part of photosynthesis. Given animals’ dependence on plants for food, it follows that life on Earth broadly depends upon the fusion reactions taking place in the sun.

Stretching back to the middle of the last century, scientists have investigated whether fusion processes could be created and harnessed on Earth for energy applications. Fusion power plants are potentially relevant to the challenge of addressing climate change because they would represent another energy source that is both low-carbon and dispatchable—able to be turned off and on in response to demand; this could, among other things, help to stabilize power grids in an era of rising variable renewable energy use.

On Dec. 13, 2022, the National Ignition Facility (NIF)—part of a U.S. federal laboratory in Livermore, California—announced that it had achieved a long-sought scientific milestone: to produce more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it—also known as “scientific breakeven.” Soon after the United States announced that it was the first nation in the world to achieve this goal, some wondered whether “limitless clean energy” was at hand.

Every second, 620 million metric tons of hydrogen undergo fusion at the center of our solar system. The churn of light nuclei into heavier ones—releasing energy in the process—powers the sun and sends electromagnetic radiation more than 90 million miles to Earth to light our days. Plants and algae use that sunlight to produce oxygen and chemical energy as part of photosynthesis. Given animals’ dependence on plants for food, it follows that life on Earth broadly depends upon the fusion reactions taking place in the sun.

Stretching back to the middle of the last century, scientists have investigated whether fusion processes could be created and harnessed on Earth for energy applications. Fusion power plants are potentially relevant to the challenge of addressing climate change because they would represent another energy source that is both low-carbon and dispatchable—able to be turned off and on in response to demand; this could, among other things, help to stabilize power grids in an era of rising variable renewable energy use.

On Dec. 13, 2022, the National Ignition Facility (NIF)—part of a U.S. federal laboratory in Livermore, California—announced that it had achieved a long-sought scientific milestone: to produce more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it—also known as “scientific breakeven.” Soon after the United States announced that it was the first nation in the world to achieve this goal, some wondered whether “limitless clean energy” was at hand.

While it is too early to tell, fusion-based energy—if the engineering succeeds and it is commercialized—could command greater public support than existing fission-based nuclear power for several reasons: It is inherently safer than existing fission-based plants; it does not produce the type of long-lived nuclear waste that requires deep geological isolation and has proved very difficult to dispose of due to public opposition; and the material, equipment, and technology collectively present less of a nuclear proliferation concern.

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The NIF facility’s origins lie within the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) nuclear weapons program. The facility was to help the government better understand its aging nuclear weapons stockpile given the central role that fusion reactions play in their functioning and the cessation of weapons testing in 1992.

NIF began construction in 1997 but ran into delays and cost overruns. When it finally opened in 2009, its target for achieving ignition was 2012. It is a tremendous credit to the scientists and engineers involved that they overcame the slew of challenges they faced and ultimately produced a global first-of-a-kind achievement. Regardless of its implications for fusion energy, achieving ignition at NIF finally delivers on a long-standing goal of the U.S. nuclear weapons program that taxpayers paid billions of dollars for.

NIF’s laser arrays take up three football fields of space and consume about 100 times more energy from the electrical grid than was released in NIF’s record shot. None of these characteristics cry out “commercial application,” where a power plant would need to run more or less continuously and—to state the obvious—add more electricity to the electrical grid than it consumed.

But NIF does provide a scientific and technical marker for what are known as inertial confinement approaches to fusion. Here, very small target pellets containing fusion fuel are rapidly compressed and heated, typically using lasers, to produce the high temperatures and densities needed for fusion to take place. Magnetic confinement approaches, on the other hand, rely on high-strength magnetic fields to confine fusion materials into small areas at high temperatures for the same purpose.

It is possible that the NIF result will lead to an increase in public and private interest (and investment) in inertial confinement approaches, which to date have received less investment from the private sector than those based on magnetic confinement.

A 2021 U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) report recommended that for the United States to be a leader in fusion and contribute to mid-century decarbonization, DOE and the private sector should produce a fusion pilot plant in the United States in the 2035-2040 time frame. This timeline was considered plausible if sufficient investments were made. If the key goals for a pilot plant were met, the NASEM committee concluded that the facility would provide the scientific, technological, and economic information that would enable fusion power plant developers and utilities to move forward with a commercial fusion power plant.

In March 2022, the White House declared ambitions to accelerate this timeline to the early 2030s, and the fusion industry also believes that a pilot plant can be accomplished faster than the NASEM report estimated. Along these lines, DOE launched a new milestone-based program in September 2022 to partner with private companies and speed fusion’s development.

The new fusion milestone program is modeled after NASA’s successful partnership with SpaceX and awards companies specified amounts when they achieve a series of milestones. The announcement of the first round of companies selected for the milestone program is expected in the first half of 2023.

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The economics and commercial availability of fusion power are unknown. However, there are reasons fusion energy may enjoy greater public support than traditional nuclear power has to date. All of the nuclear reactors operating today are based on the splitting, or “fission,” of heavy atoms, such as uranium, to generate energy, rather than the merging of light ones, such as isotopes of hydrogen.

The public may be more supportive of fusion systems because they will not produce the high-level nuclear waste that fission-powered reactors do. Questions of what to do with the spent nuclear fuel from fission power reactors, while manageable in a technical sense, have proved to be challenging when it comes to public acceptance. For many decades, a scientific consensus has existed that commercial spent nuclear fuel can be safely disposed of by mining deep into certain solid rock formations underground, but no nation has accomplished this yet. Finland may be the first to achieve disposal of commercial spent nuclear fuel in the next year or so, but progress in this arena has otherwise been slow.

Fusion systems would still produce some low-level nuclear waste. Fusion power plants utilizing deuterium-tritium fuel, for example, will produce energetic neutrons, and those will in turn lead to some level of activation in the structural materials surrounding the fusion reactions. Importantly, however, if the levels of activation are kept below certain limits, the United States and other countries have successfully operated sites for the disposal of these less-challenging waste forms for decades.

A second reason fusion may have greater public acceptance than fission is that the public may be less worried about catastrophic accidents. Fusion plants would not produce the same hot, radioactive isotopes that fission reactors do. Splitting heavy atoms in conventional reactors creates “fission products” in the spent fuel that produce so much heat from their radioactive decay that they require substantial cooling well after the reactor power has been stopped. Failure to cool the spent fuel has led to nuclear accidents in the past where the solid spent fuel has melted (a “meltdown”) and, in the case of Fukushima, radioactive isotopes were ultimately released into the atmosphere.

By definition, the reactions in fusion power plants would not produce radioactive fission products. Moreover, the main radioisotopes that have been of concern in fission reactor accidents for potentially delivering doses of radiation to nearby populations (such as iodine-131) or contaminating nearby land (such as cesium-137) don’t exist in fusion reactors. The primary end product of fusion reactions is helium—a stable and inert gas with no safety concerns. The absence of radioactive fission products is part of the appealing safety case for fusion power.

There would still be some radioactive materials on-site at a fusion power plant that would require care and attention. Tritium is a commonly used fusion material that is highly mobile and also radioactive (though only weakly so). Hydrogen itself is a flammable gas that can lead to fires and explosions if not handled properly. On the other hand, the safe use of flammable and hazardous materials takes place at many other types of industrial facilities around the world without sparking the type of public concern that nuclear plants can arouse.

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Finally, when it comes to exporting fusion systems to non-nuclear weapon states that do not currently have nuclear power programs, the nonproliferation attributes of fusion energy systems represent an improvement over those based on fission. This is chiefly due to the absence of uranium and facilities for making fuel out of it —especially uranium-enrichment plants—and the lack of plutonium production. The latter obviates the possibility of facilities for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to produce separated plutonium. (Reprocessing plants, along with uranium-enrichment facilities, are the two most sensitive components of the traditional nuclear power fuel cycle.)

There would still be materials, equipment, and technology involved with fusion systems that are controlled for reasons of nonproliferation. Tritium, for example, is used to boost nuclear weapons’ yields, and the United States and other countries have had facilities for producing and managing tritium as part of their weapons programs. Systems based on deuterium-tritium reactions will produce energetic neutrons that could potentially be used to turn fertile material (natural uranium and thorium) into fissile material (plutonium and uranium-233). Still, on the whole, there is less to worry about from a nonproliferation point of view when it comes to the deployment of fusion systems.

Along with additional attractive features, including an abundance of fuel, these technical aspects of fusion are part of the rationale for why private firms have put astonishingly large amounts of money into fusion companies in recent years. The Fusion Industries Association estimates more than $4.7 billion in private-sector investment to date—mainly in magnetic confinement approaches.

NIF’s recent success in achieving ignition builds scientific confidence for fusion energy and may lead to additional investment in fusion development. The NIF results probably don’t change the development path of companies commercializing magnetic confinement designs much, though they might have somewhat more impact on companies pursuing inertial confinement approaches.

Fission-based reactors will continue to constitute the entirety of nuclear power deployed around the world in the coming decade and perhaps much longer; after all, they are commercially available and fusion systems are not.

A comprehensive global strategy to address climate change can’t rely on commercial fusion materializing before mid-century. The emergence of commercial fusion power plants in the 2030s or 2040s would be a welcome development that now seems possible—but that should not stop policymakers from investing in other low-carbon dispatchable options.

If commercialization succeeds, the world may well look back at the NIF achievement decades from now as one of the more prominent milestones that helped to usher in the era of fusion. A new low-carbon and dispatchable source of energy with improved safety, waste, and nonproliferation attributes would be a boon to global efforts to fight energy poverty and the campaign to address climate change. Perhaps even countries historically averse to traditional fission-based nuclear power will look at fusion in a different light.

The post Could Fusion Overcome Public Opposition to Nuclear Power? appeared first on Foreign Policy.

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