When the US Department of Energy announced last month that the first positive-energy nuclear fusion operation at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California had been conducted using inertial confinement fusion technology — which consists of bombarding hydrogen plasma with super-powerful lasers — it marked an historic event. Until now, fusion has always required more energy than it has produced, but the experiment at the NIF released more energy than was pumped in by the lab’s lasers.
But where fusion progress in the US marks historic progress, it’s also a kick in the teeth for Europe.
Fusion tech: Europe vs the US
Alongside the NIF, in 2021 American startup Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) — which uses the other main fusion technology stream of tokamak, using massive magnetic fields — raised the largest private investment ever made in nuclear fusion: $1.8bn. Founded just four years ago and spun out from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, CFS aims to deliver the world's first net-positive energy fusion device by 2025.
By comparison, and in the same technological vein, the ITER project, an international consortium based in Cadarache, southern France, was launched in 2007, with a budget that has since quadrupled (from €5bn to €20bn). It was created a decade earlier than CFS, and has just announced a five-year delay to its planned plasma production and an additional €1bn in costs. The first plasma production is now set for 2030, and ITER is aiming for a balance in terms of the ratio of energy produced to energy consumed, whereas NIF and CFS are aiming for a ratio of 2:1, or even more.
International endeavours like ITER are important to make fundamental science move forward, but the comparison between these projects teaches us three lessons about how we organise our research and public investments:
- Agility is the key to seizing the latest technological developments.
- It is essential not to be locked into overly rigid plans and to allow a great deal of porosity between the academic and business worlds.
- And finally, in the nuclear industry, as elsewhere, we must always aim for the next move.
CFS seems to have managed to make the most of the latest technologies, including the use of artificial intelligence and deep learning, to overcome one of the major challenges of fusion: containing an extremely complex burning plasma.
The Boston team was able to move much faster in its research by using digital twins for its simulations, rather than a working nuclear fusion reactor — the only one to date is the European JET project, based in the UK. CFS has also taken technological bets with the use of new architectures and materials, including high-temperature superconductors, whereas ITER is using low-temperature superconductors. Overall, CFS’s approach has led to it creating the strongest magnetic field ever created on Earth, measured at 20 teslas.
Fusion and the future of nuclear energy
At a time when many European countries are reflecting on the future of nuclear energy and could be committing tens of billions of euros of public money to the EPR technology that we are desperately trying to make work — at the UK’s Hinkley Point C, Flamanville in France and Olkiluoto in Finland, for example — it is imperative to remain attentive to breakthroughs.
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The key issues related to nuclear energy are our dependence on Russian uranium, the risk of radioactive accidents and the storage of nuclear waste.
But nuclear fusion goes some way to solving those issues. It uses fuels other than uranium — often deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen present in water and therefore inexhaustible, next to tritium, which is much rarer. It also generates radioactive products for a shorter period of time than the almost eternal, final waste produced by current nuclear plants. Above all, it is not a controlled chain reaction — which can be prone to malfunction, as we saw at Chernobyl and Fukushima — but an unstable operation that stops in the case of an anomaly.
These characteristics could sign Germany's reconciliation with nuclear power, since the risk of an uncontrolled chain reaction and the fear of radioactive waste are the biggest worries of its citizens. While fission remains a complete no go, we could see some German Green politicians more open to fusion.
The nuclear fusion breakthrough is therefore a great step for humanity, but a small step backwards for our continent. While France and the UK have long been pioneers, Europe’s delay on fusion is a scandal and a real shame — the United States is catching up with us. The examples of the National Ignition Facility and CFS show that it’s capable of mobilising the best of its ecosystem: universities, private investors and public authorities focusing on essential but timely funding of disruptive innovation, with precise objectives to be achieved, instead of doing “classic” industrial policy with bureaucratic monsters like the Important Projects of Common European Interest (IPCEI), or massive subsidies plans without clear KPIs.
While European decision-makers are still arguing over the "green taxonomy" of whether nuclear power is clean energy, US actors are working to make it greener. We warned about these new approaches a year ago, but public institutions at member state and EU level have remained tight-lipped, clinging to existing players and framework programmes established years ago.
While Europe is entangled in an energy crisis — for which the war in Ukraine is a convenient alibi, which masks the lack of strategic anticipation — here we go again with fusion, which should, precisely for this reason, be an absolute priority area.
Once again, we are missing the train of technological progress. It is time to demand accountability, impact and radically change the bureaucratic monsters we have created in Europe, or disappear into the dustbin of history.
André Loesekrug-Pietri is the president of the Joint European Disruptive Initiative (JEDI), the European DARPA.
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