U.S. fusion program must have energy mission

The Hill By Caroline Von Wurden and Andrew Holland January 13, 2015

Fusion energy research holds the promise of clean, safe, and secure energy. It is not an exaggeration to say that developing fusion energy would revolutionize America’s energy security, climate policy, and global scientific leadership. However, despite decades of path-breaking scientific research, the U.S. is ceding its leadership and has no plans for how to develop a fusion power plant. In order to deliver on the promise of fusion energy, the U.S. must reorganize its fusion program and give it an explicit mission of producing energy.

The FY-15 omnibus budget, passed last month and signed into law, supports the U.S. fusion program with $467.5 million. However, money alone will not guarantee energy from fusion on the electrical grid.

The problem is that America’s fusion research is treated as a science experiment, not as an energy program. The difference is important: science can prove the theoretical basis for fusion, but only detailed engineering can turn that theory into a power plant that can add electricity onto the grid. We need a more active program that would develop technologies necessary for a fusion power plant along with the plasma physics that form fusion science.

Fusion energy is a national priority for America’s foreign competitors. China, South Korea, and Europe all have specific goals, timescales, and funding to implement successful fusion energy programs. South Korea is running K-STAR, a superconducting tokamak, the South Korean Ministry on Education, Science, and Technology said in 2012 that developing technologies to build K-STAR would be a priority for the next 10 years. The country is designing a fusion power demonstration reactor called K-DEMO. The country’s National Fusion Research Institute has plans to complete it in the 2030’s.

We can take lessons in how Americans rapidly developed advanced fission nuclear technology in the 40s and 50s. The first nuclear fission reactor (Chicago Pile 1) was built in 1942. Less than a decade later, the USS Nautilus – the world’s first nuclear powered submarine – was authorized (1951) and launched (1954). Admiral Hyman Rickover led and managed that transition, and the path he set us on still defines the U.S. nuclear fleet, both civilian and military. We can get the U.S. on a similar track with fusion development.

It is clear that the U.S. fusion program needs a jolt.

In December 2014, ASP convened an expert-level roundtable to discuss recommendations for how to build a viable US fusion program. This roundtable outlined the large challenges the U.S. fusion program has to overcome. Political will, good management, and sufficient funding are needed to develop it into an energy program. At present, these ingredients to achieve success are missing.

The roundtable concluded that the country needs strong political leadership to develop fusion as an energy program. At the moment, due to declining and sort –term budgets, there is in-fighting between different experiments and no unified plan for how to advance the U.S. fusion program. Just as the Manhattan project had Lieutenant General Groves to direct the development of the nuclear bomb, and the nuclear fission program had Admiral Rickover to direct the creation of the Nuclear Navy, so too does the fusion program need a leader charged with the political directive to build a working fusion power plant.

Some of these problems could be solved by creating the position of “Deputy Under Secretary for Fusion Energy” within the Office of the Under Secretary for Science and Energy. This person would be politically responsible for fusion energy development and would report directly to the Under Secretary for Science and Energy.

We need a strong, inspiring vision on how to develop fusion energy. The mission of the new official must be on energy. If this were the explicit goal for the official, that would then drive future evolution of the program and enable many changes. It is possible to have a fusion experiment in the near term (10-15 years) that would produce energy, as outlined in a 10 Year Plan in ASP’s Fusion White Paper. To achieve this, many parallel efforts and proportionate funding increases would be required. Until a funding increase is possible, a new position leading the U.S. fusion program could set the program on a path towards energy.

Fusion must be an energy program centered on developing a path to safe and economical fusion power on the electrical grid. It is a national security imperative that America demonstrate practical fusion power in a short timeframe. This will set the stage for full-scale commercial power that will drive American prosperity for the next century.

Von Wurden is an adjunct junior fellow at the American Security Project. As a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, where she received a B.A. in physics, she has published seven scientific papers on her research at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the ALPHA Antihydrogen Collaboration at UC Berkeley. Holland is the American Security Project’s senior fellow for Energy and Climate. He is a Washington-based expert on energy, climate change, and infrastructure policy.