12 July 2022
Innovation in almost any sector is advancing at a pace that we have not seen before. This new blogpost series explores these innovative sectors in pursuit of creating a liberal environment, to push the boundaries of science even further.
By Elias Rosell, Political Editor for Östersunds-Posten.
There is an ongoing joke that fusion energy is 30 years away from a big breakthrough, and it always will be.
As early as the 1920s, scientists understood that energy production in the sun and other stars happen through fusion, meaning that lighter atoms merge to form a heavier atom. Since the 1950s, scientists have been trying to create energy by mimicking this process, but their experiments have not led to any practical benefit. Therefore, there is an obvious risk of appearing extremely naïve if one thinks of any large-scale commercial deployment of fusion-generated energy before 2050.
That being said, however, the dream of fusion energy is slightly less naive than it ever has been before.
In February this year, researchers at the Joint European Torus (JET), the world’s largest fusion reactor, announced that they had broken a new record for producing controlled fusion energy.
In a matter of five seconds, they managed to create 59 megajoules of energy. That is not much energy, about enough to boil 60 kettles of water. It should also be said that more energy was required to carry out the experiment than was obtained.
But five seconds of fusion is as much as the JET reactor can handle. After that time, the copper electromagnets in the rector became too hot. Thanks to this experiment, it’s possible to study the erosion of components in the high chamber, enabling new technological advances in the future.
“We’ve demonstrated that we can create a mini star inside of our machine and hold it there for five seconds and get high performance, which really takes us into a new realm”, said Dr Joe Milnes, head of operations at the reactor lab.
This successful experiment in the JET reactor, which is planned to be phased out from 2024, increases expectations about the ITER reactor in demonstrating that fusion in the lab is feasible. ITER, now being built in southern France, will replace JET as the world’s largest reactor and is planned to start operating in 2025.
The goal is for ITER to become the first fusion plant to produce more energy than is needed to power it—thus creating the conditions for future reactors that supply electricity to the grid.
Large-scale electricity production from fusion plants could have massively positive ramifications. They would give humanity an almost unlimited amount of energy without greenhouse gases, risks of meltdown or long-lived radioactive waste.
Given this enormous potential, it is perhaps not very surprising that the EU has decided to contribute €5.61 billion to the ITER project for the period 2021–2027. Still, the technology has so far not contributed a single kWh of production.
But fusion projects are no longer only about large government investments. More private companies are now investing in fusion technology.
The Fusion Industry Association (FIA) says there are at least 35 private fusion companies around the world. A survey made by the FIA last year shows that the 23 companies that responded had raised $1.8 billion in private funding. Such engagement of the private sector is very welcome—not least because it provides a variety of fusion techniques to be tested. “Of the 24 different members of the FIA, there are pretty much 24 different approaches to fusion energy”, says Andrew Holland, chief executive of the FIA, to Science | Business. The more variety in approaches being tried, the greater the chance that one of them will be successful.
But the technical side is not the only challenge for fusion entrepreneurs to deal with—they also have to navigate regulations that are not fit for fusion technology.
The lack of a regulatory framework for fusion technology has created a ‘regulatory vacuum’ that allows fusion technology to be classified as fission technology (traditional nuclear power based on splitting atoms). For example, the ITER facility was classified as a nuclear reactor. That is unfortunate because, from a security point of view, there are clear differences between fission and fusion technology.
In the event of an accident, a fusion reaction will “intrinsically terminate”, and in this regard fusion is “inherently safer than fission”, according to a publication prepared for the European Commission. Another difference between the technologies is that fission does not create long-lived radioactive waste. There is, therefore, a risk that the current safety requirements set for fusion facilities are too strict and even irrelevant.
Regulation is “one of the critical unknown factors of fusion commercialization both in terms of cost and timeline”, according to a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
It is important that the EU ensures private investors will not be scared away by uncertainties about over-regulation or the fear that fusion energy projects will be assessed in accordance with the same restrictions which apply to nuclear fission. If fission energy is to become a reality within the next few decades, start-ups must now be able to plan for building fusion facilities.
Accordingly, the EU and its member states have to develop a regulatory framework that is adapted to fusion technology.
The EU could draw inspiration from the UK, where the government recently decided to “exclude fusion energy facilities from nuclear regulatory and licensing requirements”. Another positive development in the British fusion strategy is that it has a more “goal-setting regulatory approach” rather than a prescriptive one. This means there are clear safety requirements, but it is up to the operator to develop a solution as to how these safety requirements should be met. To attain more diversity among start-ups with different approaches to fusion energy, it is important to avoid the relevant legislation being overly detailed.
Creating a star on Earth is technically complicated enough—it would be quite unfortunate if this new technology were to fall apart because of old regulations.
Elias Rosell is an Earth Scientist who is working as a journalist, he often writes about environmental and energy issues. He now works as a political editor at Östersunds-Posten and has previously worked as a research coordinator at the European Liberal Forum.
DISCLAIMER: Published by the European Liberal Forum. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the European Liberal Forum.