“Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is whether the United States has the foresight and the will to move forward,” Meade said.
The Financial Times first reported the research breakthrough on Sunday. A person familiar with the findings confirmed to POLITICO that the DOE will announce that its Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory used lasers to produce a fusion reaction that generated 1.2 times more energy than needed to create it.
If reports of the results of the experiment prove to be accurate, “it’s one of the greatest scientific achievements of the last 20 to 30 years,” said Gianluca Sarri, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast, who studies the physics of lasers and plasmas. But even then, hope for a fusion power plant is still more than a decade away, he said.
Fusion, which uses extreme heat to combine two atoms and produce massive amounts of energy as a byproduct, is the engine that powers the sun and stars, as well as advanced thermonuclear weapons. Unlike existing nuclear power plants, which harness the heat from a chain reaction of split atoms in a process called fission, fusion reactors do not generate a panoply of radioactive waste or pose a meltdown hazard. Since the 1950s, proponents of the technology have claimed that fusion could one day produce cheap and essentially unlimited energy.
But showing that a fusion reactor is even a practical goal has been difficult. Just over a year ago, however, Lawrence Livermore’s National Ignition Facility announced that it was finally approaching the stage of creating a fusion reaction that produces a net positive amount of energy.
That still leaves a lot of huge technological and regulatory challenges, like finding ways to convert the energy released during the smelting process into electricity.
Former Rep. Rush Holt (DN.J.), a physicist who was deputy director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, said in an interview that he found the news of the breakthrough “technically interesting, but I’m skeptical about its practicality. ”
And the merger’s uncertain timing means it’s unlikely to help meet the Biden administration’s goals of acting this decade to stave off the worst effects of climate change. President Joe Biden’s new climate law envisions a massive effort to switch much of the United States to electric cars and trucks, expand carbon-free wind and solar power sources, and modernize the electric grid to transport energy across the country – efforts that would require continuing no matter what with fusion research.
“We need to deploy as much clean energy as possible right now with the technology we have,” said Adam Stein, director of nuclear energy innovation at the Breakthrough Institute climate research center. “We can’t wait for fusion to enter the commercial space to do so. This does not mean that the merger will not be very important later. But he still needs a lot of political help.
That help, Stein said, includes a continued focus on fusion research and development by future administrations.
Even private fusion power developers say the breakthrough — while significant — is in line with what industry expected and doesn’t necessarily speed up the commercial deployment schedule.
“We saw this coming. We have gradually moved in that direction,” said Mike Donaldson, vice president of fusion development company General Fusion. “So I don’t think it actually takes years off the timeline.”
The fusion industry has estimated that the deployment of nuclear fusion projects will begin in the early 2030s, although the industry is not necessarily used to meeting its deadlines. In 2012, the director of the National Ignition Facility predicted that fusion technology would be commercially viable in 10 years, which is roughly now.
Donaldson stressed that the lab’s work is important in proving that the basic science is sound. But he said the developers will have to prove the next step: “What’s really up to us right now is to build on this to produce practical power-generating machines.”
Any results presented by the DOE will need to be reproducible to be considered scientifically, said Ed Lyman, director of nuclear energy safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Questions also remain about the safety of fusion reactors, since tritium, one of the main fuels in fusion reactors, is radioactive and the fusion process itself produces dangerous amounts of heat and pressure, Lyman said.
“Not to downplay if they actually did, but take it with a big grain of salt,” Lyman said. “It will be more than a little late to achieve decarbonization. We really have to do it in the next decade or two, and even the most optimistic estimates wouldn’t have fusion power until the 2040s.”
The good news is that governments and private companies are now investing money in developing fusion into a workable technology, said Belfast professor Sarri. .
He called the milestone reported by the DOE significant. “It’s true that it’s a proof of concept, but it’s the first time we’ve demonstrated production from this method,” Sarri said. “From here, getting an actual power plant will still take time.”
Even before the technology was ready, Congress moved to authorize federal licensing of commercial fusion reactors — a notoriously long and slow regulatory process for existing fission reactors.
The Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act 2019 directs the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to create a licensing framework for advanced reactors – a definition that includes fusion – by 2027. The commission is on track to have a frame completed in that time frame, according to Stein.
An NRC spokesperson said staff are developing regulatory options for commissioners to consider and a vote is expected “early next year”.
Matt Daily contributed to this report.