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In the third and final part of our series, Fusion Industry Association director Andrew Holland tells Asia Times’ correspondent Jonathan Tennenbaum how the private sector is leap-frogging government programs in the race to develop commercial fusion power plants.
Andrew Holland: So now the private sector is coming in. You mentioned high-temperature superconductors. That’s an important new thing. There’s a whole range of new developments that come from outside of the fusion space that are now being applied.
So, for example, high-speed computing — the fact that you can model a lot of plasma science before you actually have to do the experiment, means that you can design your machine and know a lot better what it’s going to do.
There’s a whole range of other things. Advanced manufacturing, 3D printing, things that allow you to have a lot more confidence that you can build it, build it faster and build it cheaper.
The final thing is that you have all of the fusion concepts that were left behind by government research programs, all these cases where the government had been doing research and development, but then cut it.
So for example, the concept that would become [FIA member] General Fusion’s design was pioneered by the Naval Research Lab in the early 1970s. [FIA member] TAE Fusion’s program was first pursued by the US government and then cut.
A lot of government research had been done, and now private sector has picked it up, applying the new technology developed in other fields.
Jonathan Tennenbaum: So you think the notion that you could actually have commercial fusion power plants on the grid, producing electricity for profit in 20 years, is something one can have great confidence in?
AH: Yes, I have great confidence that there will be commercial fusion power in 20 years. Absolutely. And honestly, if we only have one in 2041 I’ll have seen that as a failure.
I think we should be more ambitious. All of our companies are mission-driven here. They see the climate crisis. They know that the world is demanding large sources of sustainable, reliable, affordable carbon-free power, and they’re racing to provide that. This is a problem these people have come in to solve.
JT: But what about costs? Today, a large nuclear power plant costs billions of dollars to build. It didn’t use to be so much, the cost situation has been very much inflated. The experimental fusion reactor ITER, whose construction has dragged on and on, is officially estimated to cost about US$25 billion but may end up double that.
On the other hand, looking at various reactor concepts of your member companies suggests to me that their fusion plants could be much, much smaller. And the energy price might be considerably less than that of nuclear fission power today, for example. Is that realistic?
AH: There’s a lot of factors that go into what the price is, and it’s very hard to speculate what the equilibrium price of energy will be in a decade.
But put it this way: all of our companies are laser-focused on costs and know that they’re going to have to be competing in an environment of, for instance, cheap natural gas in the United States and competing with renewable power, nuclear power, etc. They are working towards the goal of being cost-competitive.
ITER is a clear dead end on costs. It’s simply too big. There’s more steel in ITER than there is in the Eiffel Tower. Technology is not even the cost driver. It is concrete and steel, it’s building something of such a huge scale. That is why we think we can do it faster, cheaper, better.
JT: Can you give me an idea now what you think will come out of the Biden administration, and the government overall, in terms of fusion-related policy in the coming period?
AH: We are very confident in our support of Congress for the development of a fusion industry. Honestly, I don’t know the incoming Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, but given the Biden administration’s goals of developing and deploying vast amounts of carbon-free power, and finally the climate crisis, I think fusion fits in.
JT: Turning to the strategic aspect, how do you see the object of creating a fusion industry in the United States on the background of China’s rapidly-growing capabilities in science and technology?
Many believe that the US has lost much of its technological edge, that America’s industrial base has been eroded and urgently needs to be built up again? Can a US fusion industry be part of the answer?
AH: Well, I want to be clear that the FIA is an international association. The majority of our members are American, but we also have Canadian members, British members and French members, and we’ve talked with others in several other countries as well. We want to be open. We have not had questions from any Chinese companies, so far.
But still, in terms of American leadership, what I see is, this is about global competitiveness. The country that leads in fusion development will be the home of a new industry. Now, that doesn’t mean it is going to be brand new jobs for everybody or that it should be a source of protectionism or anything like that.
But if you look at development of new industries, they tend to cluster in hubs, they tend to develop in a web, with a network effect. We saw it in Detroit with motors in the early 20th century, we’ve seen it in Silicon Valley with the development of computer chips and then into hardware and software starting in the 1950s and 60s, with chips for ballistic missiles.
Even stuff like steel, in Pittsburgh and so forth, a lot of this stuff was catalyzed by the government, by a farsighted government that was making strategic long-term bets, that it was important for an industry to be developed here in the United States.
Now, that doesn’t mean that other countries can’t do the same thing. I see the beginnings of a very strategic plan by the government of the UK to drive investment in fusion within Great Britain. Probably some Asian countries are doing that. They all have different models.
The American model is very heavy on the private sector, with a relatively light touch from the government, but a real and important touch.
In the Asian models, it’s more of a direct handoff from government researchers to private industry. You see this in South Korea and Japan, not to say anything about China.
The American model is to pair this entrepreneurialism with the key underlying fact that it would be important for the American economy, and for American national security, to build the fusion industry here and support it here.
I’m an American. I’d like to see it built here. But I’d also like to see international companies come here because it is the best place to do it. But I’m also going to say that our association companies should be looking around the world for the places that have the best ecosystem, that includes workforce and includes regulation, government support and so on.
JT: Finally, I would like to ask you concerning the question of technological spinoffs, which was an important arguing point in favor of the Apollo program and the space program in general. How would that apply to fusion?
AH: The Fusion Industry Association’s member companies are profiting from the technological advances made in other industries, and some member companies are spinning off technologies for other applications. There are defined technical spinoffs that can come out of fusion research.
But there’s also the broader societal impact of creating new jobs in the industry, new jobs in support, a whole gamut of things. This is a new export industry.
This could be a huge thing in the United States alone. Energy is a US$1 trillion per year industry. To imagine that fusion can take all of that is probably a stretch, but it can certainly take a substantial share. And that would be a huge boost to any economy that produces it.