Last week’s fusion breakthrough at the Department of Energy is a magnificent achievement. The long-awaited arrival at the net-energy gain milestone from the process the powers the sun – minus the assist from gravity that fuses atoms in stars – is an engineering marvel for the ages. But once again, the coverage touts all of the benefits of fusion and outlines a false choice of fusion vs. fission.
As a fiscal conservative who has spent years ridiculing examples of government waste and excess, I’ve never been embarrassed to make the case for smart, targeted, and limited investment in basic research that doesn’t displace private capital or impede competition and innovation (that’s a lot of qualifiers and they’re all important). The Department of Energy’s achievement shows that smart and responsible investments in basic research over decades can reap breathtaking rewards. Thanks to the foresight of previous administrations and policymakers, the U.S. is a decade ahead of competitors like China in the race to make fusion commercially viable. That’s something all sides should celebrate.
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But the key to winning the commercially viable race, which will take years or decades, is to maintain our economic vitality by making energy abundant and cheap and not making a choice of fusion vs. fission. Fusion may one day provide the cost savings and emissions reduction benefits of fracking, but only if we keep fracking. Making energy abundant also requires policymakers to embrace the reality that the benefits of fusion tomorrow can be achieved by fission today.
The last few decades have seen incredible advances in nuclear fission reactor design, especially small modular reactors (SMRs) made by companies like Rolls-Royce, TerraPower, NuScale and more. These innovative fission designs can deliver virtually all of the astonishing benefits fusion might one day offer.
Zero emissions energy (no global warming)? Check. Energy density (lots of energy on less land)? Check. Non-intermittent (always on)? Check.
Another often-touted benefit of fusion – limitless energy (pulling hydrogen isotopes from the ocean) – is also a benefit of fission. The fuel supply for fission – uranium – is practically limitless. Scientists estimate there is enough uranium accessible through mining to power reactors for 230 years while pulling uranium from seawater would give us a 60,000-year supply, more than enough time to perfect fusion or develop near ways of acquiring uranium elsewhere in the solar system.
In the analysis of fusion vs. fission, that leaves fusion with one remaining advantage – the lack of radioactive waste. Yet, nuclear waste is more of a political and public relations problem than a practical problem. In fact, a country like Finland has solved the policy and public relations obstacles. Making fission politically viable is an easier problem to solve than making fusion commercially viable.
Congress should also direct its attention to the fact that even if fusion becomes commercially viable this century, it may take another century to license new plants. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently defied a congressional mandate to modernize licensing for next-generation nuclear reactors.
As the Breakthrough Institute writes, “[I]n the name of eliminating all public health risk associated with the commercialization of a new generation of nuclear reactors, the NRC is actually propagating public health risk [from a] power sector [that] today kills hundreds of thousands of real people every year.”
Congress has allowed the NRC to become a regulatory black hole from which no license and no logic can escape. Allowing agencies to defy democracy should be unacceptable to all sides. If the NRC continues to violate the law, Congress should replace it with a new licensing regime that will respect the rule of law.
Fusion may one day become a “holy grail” of clean energy. In the meantime, let’s reject the argument that fission is clean energy’s “unholy grail.” If we have the clear-headedness to wipe away the superstition, dogma and paint splatters from the protest left, we’ll realize that grail is already in our hands.