GAO assessment highlights challenges and opportunities for commercial fusion energy

The development of commercial fusion energy, which promises to provide a clean, abundant, and sustainable source of electricity, faces significant technical, financial, and regulatory challenges, according to a report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Mar 30, 2023. The report, titled “Fusion Energy: Potentially Transformative Technology Still Faces Fundamental Challenges,” provides an overview of the current state of fusion energy research and the potential implications for the U.S. energy system and economy.

The commercial potential of fusion energy has been the subject of much excitement and hype since the announcement of ignition at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Lab after a multi-decade effort. However, commercially viable fusion is not just around the corner. GAO cautions that “several challenges must be overcome to achieve commercial fusion, and stakeholders’ projections of this timeline range from 10 years to several decades.”

Fusion energy is the process of merging atomic nuclei to release energy, similar to what powers the sun and stars. If harnessed on Earth, fusion energy could provide a virtually limitless supply of electricity without greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear waste, or other environmental hazards associated with fossil fuels or fission nuclear reactors. However, achieving commercial fusion energy has proven to be a formidable scientific and engineering challenge, requiring the development of a self-sustaining fusion reaction that produces more energy than it consumes.

The GAO report notes that the U.S. has been a leader in fusion energy research for decades, with the Department of Energy (DOE) funding a portfolio of fusion projects at national laboratories, universities, and private companies. However, the report also highlights the limitations and uncertainties of current fusion approaches, which rely on either magnetic confinement (e.g., tokamaks) or inertial confinement (e.g., lasers) to heat and compress the fusion fuel to the required conditions.

The report points out that while the technical progress in fusion has been steady, it has not yet reached the point where a commercial power plant could be built. The report also notes that the funding for fusion energy has been subject to fluctuations and uncertainties, with some programs facing budget cuts or cancellations. Moreover, the report raises concerns about the lack of a clear regulatory framework for commercial fusion energy, which could delay or hinder its deployment.

Despite these challenges, the GAO report sees several opportunities for the U.S. to maintain and strengthen its leadership in fusion energy. These include investing in a diverse and collaborative fusion research portfolio, expanding international partnerships and collaborations, leveraging private sector investment and innovation, and developing a coherent regulatory framework that balances safety, security, and innovation.

The report also highlights the potential benefits of commercial fusion energy for the U.S. economy, including the creation of high-skilled jobs, the stimulation of advanced manufacturing and supply chains, and the reduction of energy imports and trade deficits. The report cites estimates that a successful commercial fusion energy industry could generate hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue and contribute to the global decarbonization of the energy sector.

The GAO report concludes by calling on DOE to develop a comprehensive fusion energy strategy that incorporates the findings and recommendations of the report and provides a clear roadmap for the future of commercial fusion energy in the U.S. The report also recommends that Congress continue to support fusion energy research and development by providing stable and sufficient funding, as well as oversight and guidance on policy and regulatory issues.

The GAO report is likely to stimulate further discussion and debate on the future of commercial fusion energy, both within the scientific and engineering communities and among policymakers and stakeholders. While the challenges of fusion energy are significant, the potential rewards are also immense, and the U.S. has an opportunity to lead the way in realizing this transformative technology.

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