A new goal for fusion: 50 MWe for the U.S. grid by 2035–2040

February 19, 2021, 7:00AMNuclear News

Coordinated federal and private industry investments made now could yield an operational fusion pilot plant in the 2035–2040 time frame, according to Bringing Fusion to the U.S. Grid, a consensus study report released February 17 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM).

Developed at the request of the Department of Energy, the report builds on the work of the 2019 Final Report of the Committee on a Strategic Plan for U.S. Burning Plasma Research, and it identifies key goals, innovations, and investments needed to develop a U.S. fusion pilot plant that can serve as a model for producing electricity at the lowest possible capital cost.

“The U.S. fusion community has been a pioneer of fusion research since its inception and now has the opportunity to bring fusion to the marketplace,” said Richard Hawryluk, associate director for fusion at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and chair of the NASEM Committee on the Key Goals and Innovations Needed for a U.S. Fusion Pilot Plant, which produced the report.

Pilot first: The committee concluded that a viable design for a pilot plant with peak net electrical power greater than or equal to 50 MWe would be needed by 2028 to support initial pilot plant operation between 2035 and 2040. As it progressed through three successive operating phases, the pilot plant would be expected to sustain peak power output above 50 MWe for increasingly long periods of time and demonstrate operation through environmental and maintenance cycles. Data and operating experience from the pilot plant would provide the technical and economic information needed for U.S. utilities to invest in future plants. The committee targeted total overnight construction costs of less than $5–6 billion for the pilot plant.

The technology: Although several technical approaches exist for achieving fusion and producing net electricity, the goals and timelines developed for the NASEM report are technology neutral and intended to be applicable to the design that is eventually chosen based on technological and economic criteria.

Any design will face technical hurdles, and the committee recognized that innovations in plasma confinement, extraction of heat, ensuring sustained structural integrity of the power plant components, and closing the fuel cycle would need to be developed in parallel to meet the challenge of operating a pilot plant between 2035 and 2040.

Larger context: The United States has already made sizable investments in ITER, the international magnetic confinement fusion experiment designed to produce a sustained burning plasma, and the report recommends continuing the partnership as “the most cost-effective way to gain experience with a burning plasma at the scale of a power plant.” Building off technological and research results from ITER, a U.S.-based fusion pilot plant would aim to produce net electricity from fusion over longer periods of time, test integration with the U.S. electric grid, and provide the technical and economic information for a future first-of-a-kind commercial fusion power plant.

The report goes beyond a discussion of technical details and addresses how fusion could fit in the U.S. electricity marketplace. The committee concluded that strong interest from private sector developers can provide motivation to deploy the pilot plant, and utility operators also indicate that an operating pilot plant could create an opportunity for fusion to support the transition to low-carbon energy systems.

Act now: The report emphasizes that other countries and groups around the world are rapidly working to build fusion pilot plants, and that by investing now the United States could take a global leadership role in fusion power development.

The committee recommends that the DOE support the creation of diverse teams, including national laboratories, universities, and industry working together and through public-private partnerships, to develop conceptual pilot plant designs and technology road maps.

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