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This is the second installment in a three-part series. Read the first part here.
The giant appropriations bill signed by US President Donald Trump on December 27 contains a little-noticed section that sets the goal of creating a full-fledged fusion industry, a new industrial sector centered on the commercialization of nuclear fusion as an energy source.
The envisioned model is the successful public-private partnership that built up America’s commercial space industry. In an exclusive interview with Asia Times, Fusion Industry Association director Andrew Holland tells the inside story to correspondent Jonathan Tenennbaum.
JT: What do you see as the essence of the fusion amendment and what do you think people should know about it?
AH: It makes it an express goal of the Department of Energy to produce energy. It provides a goal of building a cost-competitive fusion power plant and establishing a competitive fusion power industry in the United States. It authorizes new research programs along this pathway.
Some in Congress were concerned that the ITER program [the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor now being built in France] was going down just one pathway and was leaving behind what are called alternative concepts, as well as inertial fusion energy [e.g. laser fusion].
JT: What does “alternative concepts” mean?
AH: Alternative concepts are basically everything other than the mainline tokamak pathway. The majority of our 22 member companies would fit under what the Department of Energy calls “alternative.”
So [the legislation] authorizes a new alternative concepts program. And also this inertial fusion energy (IFE) program is important because to date, all of the IFE research in the US government has been run through NNSA, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the weapons research program. So this will move some of that into a fusion energy sciences program.
Unfortunately, this bill passed by Congress, although it creates these programs, has not yet funded them. So it is still an open question whether the money will follow.
JT: Even though it is an appropriations bill?
AH: It was a broad omnibus bill with everything in it. A Christmas tree bill. There was the omnibus appropriations bill and then there was a ton of other things.
There were appropriations for the Fusion Energy Sciences Program in there.
But that is not specifically for these new programs. It was funded based on the request that had come out a year ago. So you’ve got that, and then it authorizes US participation in ITER for the next five years at least and authorizes quite a significant amount of money for that.
For our purposes, the most exciting part is the new public-private partnerships.
It reauthorizes the INFUSE program [Innovation Network for Fusion Energy], an existing public-private partnership that was started in 2019, as a result of our efforts. That allows private companies to work directly with US National Laboratories on key fusion research and development.
And then, it creates a new milestone-based research and development program. This is based on the COTS program, the Commercial Orbital Transport Services program from NASA, that created Space X and the commercial space sector.
The idea is that the government would work with the companies to find specific milestones that the companies would need to meet. And then once they’re met, they would release the funding for it to further build it out.
It’s a way to give “skin in the game” to private companies as well as to the US government to create a real partnership, and it also protects the taxpayer.
We think it’s an important way forward and it was tremendously successful with the Space X and the whole commercial spaceflight sector.
JT: So the idea is that the US government will put in money at certain points to push things to the next stage?
AH: Yes, they would put out a competition and say, “OK, tell us your plan for a machine that would produce a step-change in fusion. We want you to build a new fusion machine, whether you call it a pilot plant or a demonstration machine.
“Tell us how much you think it’s going to cost. Tell us your timelines. Tell us how that’s going to work and then say how much do you think you’d need from the federal government, and show what cost share you’ve had.”
You’d need to have at least 50-50 private dollars to public dollars. And then the government would pay upon completion of certain milestones.
JT: This is how SpaceX was realized, as a kind of walk-through process.
AH: Yes. I encourage you to read an article written by Melanie Windridge, who is a communications director for the FIA … talking about the SpaceX model.
JT: So where do things go from here?
AH: We still have to do the work to get it funded. But the program now exists. So now we have to convince the Biden Administration and the Congress that this is something that deserves serious funding.
JT: When you say “serious funding”, of course, everybody’s going to ask you to give a number.
AH: Our number is US$450 million over five years.
JT: That’s not very much!
AH: Exactly! Haha! If we get more, we can do more.
JT: When you talk about moving out of the labs and actually making fusion into a commercial proposition, many people would respond to that asking isn’t that premature?
Because we haven’t even had a convincing scientific break-even, Q greater than one. [Roughly, Q is the ratio of fusion reaction output to energy injected by heating systems to reach and maintain reaction conditions].
Skeptics love to say, “Fusion is always 30 years away. It was 30 years away in the 60s, 30 years away in the 70s and the 1980s and so on.” What is the basis of confidence that commercial fusion reactors could actually come on line within a time frame that would be attractive for investors?
AH: I would say, first, that it is based on all of the science that has been done since the 1950s. We created a whole new area of science that didn’t exist before. That science now informs us.
If you look at a chart of fusion performance, it maps very nicely onto Moore’s Law [referring to the exponential growth in the density of transistors on microchips over the decades].
And the curve of increasing towards Q is continuing. You can map it from 1960 all the way up until JET [Joint European Torus experiment] and TFTR [Tokamak Test Fusion Reactor] in the 1990s.
And then the progress stopped. Why did progress stop? Well, it got too expensive and it was being built towards the lowest-risk direction without regard to costs. If you go back to the original plans, ITER was meant to be started in the 1990s and to be built by the mid-2000s. It wasn’t because we didn’t know how to do it then. It was because it got too expensive.
Now ITER is being built and everybody is confident that ITER will meet its goals, will produce a burning plasma, and will produce a lot of science. But unfortunately it’s too expensive to be a model for commercial power.
JT: I was struck by the fact that the high-field tokamak projects being built by two of your member companies both use high-temperature superconductors; whereas the ITER was designed way back before usable high-temperature superconductors became available.
The ITER project has dragged on so long that in many respects ITER is already obsolete before it comes on line. If you were to design ITER today, I think it would look quite different.
AH: Exactly. So what’s happening now is that these companies are building at the speed of the private sector. With the knowledge base and lessons from the tech industry and venture capital and so on, you can build things faster.
Government is very good at a lot of things but, I would argue, not at building something at least cost.
This is the second of a three-part interview. Check Asia Times regularly for the final installment.