Publications

- March 1, 2019: Vol. 6, Number 3

The other nuclear power: Fusion reactors might finally be within reach, even as new legislation has added fuel to traditional fission reactors

by Mike Consol

The U.S. government has been plowing funds into nuclear fusion research since the 1950s in hopes of creating a safe, clean and inexhaustible source of domestic power. Fusion — not to be confused with nuclear fission, which creates dangerously radioactive waste — is an effort to fuse hydrogen atoms together to produce vast amounts of energy by replicating the physics that powers the sun.

Despite decades of frustration in trying to trigger a fusion reaction, there is finally reason to believe 2019 could be the year fusion experiences renewed interest from governments, businesses and the public. Forbes magazine reports that, already this year, the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s 17 research facilities, published a study detailing a process to stabilize the typically volatile plasma (ionized gas) in which fusion reactions occur. What’s more, at the end of 2018, researchers at China’s Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak fusion reactor were able to heat plasma to 100 million degrees Celsius (about 180 million degrees Fahrenheit) — more than six times hotter than the sun, notes the Forbes report. The ability to achieve that kind of extreme heat is essential to generating fusion reactions.

Also take into account that another significant fusion project — the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor — is being constructed in France as an international effort funded by the United States, China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia and South Korea. It will be the world’s largest fusion reactor and could provide the breakthrough energy researchers, and power companies, have longed for.

Meanwhile, Congress and the White House have enacted bipartisan legislation to modernize the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s functions by establishing a new budget and fee structure and developing a revised licensing framework for advanced nuclear fission reactors. The legislation, titled the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, also directs the NRC to develop a licensing process for advanced nuclear reactors within two years and to complete a “technology-inclusive licensing framework” for optional use by advanced reactor designers by 2027. The Nuclear Energy Institute says the move is vital because dozens of companies and research institutions are developing advanced reactor designs, including molten salt reactors, liquid-metal-cooled reactors and high-temperature gas reactors.

Nuclear Energy Institute president and CEO Maria Korsnick says the new bill “reaffirms Congress’s support for nuclear innovation by working to establish an efficient and stable regulatory structure that is prepared to license the advanced reactors of the future.”

 

Mike Consol (m.consol@irei.com) is editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter @mikeconsol to read his latest postings.

 

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