What the US needs to do to win the fusion race

On Dec. 2, 2023, the People’s Republic of China formed a national fusion energy consortium, uniting its state-led research and industrial efforts into a single entity. As one Chinese fusion entrepreneur put it, nuclear fusion is now a national priority. To beat them, the United States will need to embrace a sense of urgency — and revamp the way it deals with the industry. 

Fusion has been a potential solution to humanity’s energy usage for decades. By merging two light isotopes it releases colossal energy that, if harnessed, promises near-limitless clean power without the waste of current fission reactors. The power generated by fusion could be key to meeting future demand and enabling the revolution in AI. But earlier attempts to tame fusion have been marked by over-optimism and under-delivery, leading to skepticism. Projects like the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) face repeated delays and large budget overruns. To some, fusion has been a watchword for unfulfilled scientific promise.

This skepticism is no longer warranted. In December 2022, the National Ignition Facility in California achieved the first net-energy gain reaction, an important milestone. In 2023, it replicated the feat three times — at one point doubling the amount of energy generated. The commercial fusion ecosystem has seen a surge in funding in recent years. Many of these companies target delivery within the decade. One firm, Helion, has signed a contract to deliver fusion-generated power to Microsoft by 2028. Another organization, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, is building an in-house tokamak reactor that will be completed in 2025.

Instead of overpromising, today’s risk is one of under-prioritization. As the technology advances, America’s rivals are increasingly focused on preparing for its delivery. Beijing’s creation of a consortium, to be led by the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), China’s nuclear authority, is not a standalone effort. The CNNC also revealed the creation of a Fusion Energy Corporation, to lead R&D efforts on fusion energy. As the State Council put recently, Beijing believes ‘controlled nuclear fusion is the only direction for future energy.’   

Luckily, American allies and partners understand the potential of the technology. Germany has announced over a billion dollars in additional funding for fusion R&D, while Japan is pushing to become a leader in fusion supply chains. In the U.K., recent legislation moves fusion away from the nuclear regulator — allowing for more iteration and easier deployment. In October, they launched a Fusion Futures Programme with an investment of £650 million, designed to educate and train workers in fusion technology and expedite the growth of the fusion industry. This comes on top of an earlier government commitment of £126 million to support UK fusion R&D.

In the United States, these concerted efforts are missing. The Biden administration has taken steps in the right direction with its development of a Bold Decadal Vision, recognizing the technology’s potential as a clean energy source, but has not translated this into a large-scale push. The current approach lacks the urgency and scope required to deliver the technology’s promise. The U.S. strategy is fragmented, with insufficient coordination between government, academia, and private sectors, and it lacks the aggressive funding and political support that would signal its prioritization. Fission energy, which is stuck in a trap of expensive plants and slow deployment, shows that technological progress does not always translate into societal success.

Instead, the United States should set out to win the race  — and deliver a plan to do so. Some moves are clear, such as empowering the Department of Energy with a commercial mission and upgrading the grid. But policymakers will also have to reckon with politically harder choices. Increasing funding for basic fusion research is a hard sell in a tight budget cycle, and amounts to only a fraction of the funds that would be needed for fusion at scale. A further streamlined system of permitting will be crucial, but will almost certainly run into resistance. The nuclear regulator NRC’s recent proposal is a step in the right direction, but only part of the work is required. U.S. leadership in fusion will depend as much on a sense of national urgency and purpose as it will on technical expertise.

This urgency comes with a historical precedent. In the space race, the United States sought to beat its adversaries by reaching the stars. To win the race for fusion, the United States will need to unlock the energy that powers them. Doing so will not be easy. Scaling fusion will require a partnership between innovators, the government, industry, and academia. It will involve complicated political choices and a bet on the future of the sector. But the imperative is just as clear: a world where fusion is a foreign technology would be one where the United States has lost its edge.

Ylli Bajraktari is president and CEO SCSP, a non-profit initiative which seeks to make recommendations to strengthen America’s long-term competitiveness.

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