Fusion energy needs private-public partnerships and workforce development

December 22, 2021, 7:00AMNuclear News

A major shift in fusion research and development is underway in the United States after recent national reports confirmed resounding support in the fusion community for building a pilot power plant and developing commercial fusion energy. Experts from professional societies, government funding agencies, industry, and the scientific community convened for the 2021 ANS Winter Meeting panel session, “The Future of Commercial Fusion in the U.S.,” to discuss what it will take to make that future a reality.

As part of a continuing series of articles diving into highlights of the 2021 ANS Winter Meeting, Newswire brings you key moments from the discussion organized by Lauren Garrison and Paul Humrickhouse, both of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and featuring five panelists: Daniel Clark, of the Department of Energy’s Fusion Energy Sciences Office; Cami Collins, of ORNL; Ashley Finan, of the National Reactor Innovation Center at Idaho National Laboratory; Bill Reckley, of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; and Erik Trask, of TAE Technologies.

Paul Wilson, chair of the Engineering Physics Department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and current chair of the ANS Fusion Energy Division, which sponsored the session, moderated the discussion. “For decades,” he said, “fusion energy research has been pretty much entirely the purview of the federal government. . . . What we've seen over the last six or eight years is a transformation where public or public-private partnerships and purely private ventures are emerging on the market and filling an important role that's different from the historical role of the federal government.”

Collins: Cami Collins is a research scientist and a group leader of the advanced tokamak physics group in the Fusion Energy Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. She is also an executive committee member in the American Physical Society’s Division of Plasma Physics, and she served as a program committee member for a two-year Community Planning Process (CPP), which yielded a report that has been incorporated into other reports and funding recommendations. Collins describes that process as a “historic success,” and one that reflected strong support “to make a fusion pilot plant that produces net electricity and establishes the scientific and technological basis for commercial fusion energy.”

“The entire fusion community came together and identified and prioritized the research required to advance both the scientific foundation needed to develop a fusion energy source and the technology that's needed as well,” Collins said. “I think there's been a huge wave of institutions reorganizing themselves to align with the strategic objectives in the CPP.

“Fusion energy is not just plasma physics, and it is immediately going to require rapid, large, and diverse expansion of the workforce, and that has to start now,” Collins said, adding that the key to doing that well, and incorporating the diversity, equity, and inclusion needs identified by the CPP, is reaching out to young people as they are choosing a career path. A new website envisioned in the CPP, USfusionenergy.org, is now live and offering fusion information, resources for the fusion community, and jobs and opportunities in the fusion sector.

“I think the future is going to have to be a lot more transparent about the skill sets needed by the fusion industry,” Collins said, explaining that undergraduate and graduate research can be targeted toward training students so they can go straight into a fusion job after graduation.

Speaking to another hot topic during the panel session—the roles that public and private entities can play—Collins said, “The national labs and larger institutions have quite a depth of knowledge and especially in the modeling and simulation world, where I think we're moving toward a system design suite tool set that we can use to evaluate different fusion concepts. It takes a lot of time to develop that validated tool set, and that's one of the roles that the national labs can supply.”

Trask: Erik Trask, director of experimental systems at the fusion company TAE Technologies, had the opportunity to sit on the DOE Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (FESAC) Long-Range Planning Committee as a representative of private industry.

Trask welcomed the focus on net energy reflected in the CPP and in a recent FESAC report, and he pointed to opportunities for plasma science spin-off technologies as well. “There are some great applications for plasma science,” he said. “Fusion energy is of course the obvious one, but there are low-temperature plasmas that have applications in semiconductors, medical physics, materials processing—there's a wide breadth of applications.”

Trask said private industry is receptive to taking on the risk of technology development, while turning to the national laboratories for testing facilities or modeling and simulation. “At TAE, our motto is actually ‘fail fast.’ Take incremental steps, test something, get an answer as fast as possible. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn't. . . . For our investors, the time cost is probably more important than the dollars themselves.” Trask explained that his company has been asked multiple times: “If we funded you at 10 times the amount, could you do it 10 times faster?”

“New understandings come from building new devices, and so pushing the envelope of what we know requires building something and testing it, after which we can learn some more and then build again,” Trask said. “And so this idea of building again in cycles and keeping the foot on the accelerator is a good goal to launch for our program.”

Clark: Daniel Clark, a program manager in the DOE’s Office of Fusion Energy Sciences, welcomed an infusion of federal funding to INFUSE—the Innovation Network for Fusion Energy—a program that he has helped establish and manage, and which he described as a mirror of the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) voucher program. “We've already been talking with the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy,” he said. “We're learning a lot from them, and I'm hoping that we won't need an act of Congress to start synergizing more, especially as we start moving toward fusion energy.”

Clark shared his thoughts on the roles that can be filled through private-public partnerships. “If you look at the way we manage projects versus the way the private sector manages projects, we take a little bit longer and we spend a little bit more to make sure something viable is delivered at the end of it,” he said. “Being the fastest or most innovative or most advantageous . . . I personally think it’s the role of private companies to take that risk and make those big leaps forward, especially when you're working with radioactive materials or tritium, or things that bring up other safety considerations. Sometimes companies don't want to invest in that area, and that is an area where the DOE national lab system typically plays a large role. You see this very heavily with test reactor capabilities and [post-irradiation examination] and hot cell capabilities,” Clark added. The key is not competing with commercial entities, but “complementing them to the extent possible, which requires continual evaluation and reevaluation to make sure that we're not being too duplicative but being complementary.”

Finan: Ashley Finan is the director of INL’s National Reactor Innovation Center, where, she says, “We have a team of folks who are integrators who can work with the broad and deep expertise at the laboratories and in academia and industry and marry that with the private sector who have this grit, profit motivation, and innovation in order to work together and have successful projects.”

NRIC, which is focused on fission energy, is prepared to share lessons learned with the fusion community and the DOE’s Office of Fusion Energy Sciences. “In our founding legislation, fusion is included in the definition of advanced reactors, so I'm excited about this conversation, and [at NRIC] we are enthusiastic about supporting fusion as we move forward, if there's an opportunity to do that,” Finan said.

On the issue of workforce development, Finan praised Collins’s initiative. “Dr. Collins has done a lot to reach out to young people in this space and try to draw them into the space. And that's fantastic. We need more of that. I think that . . . it's something that nuclear fission has been trying to do with limited success. But I think fusion has an opportunity to really hit that out of the park,” Finan said.

“The private sector really has their finger on the pulse of what the market needs, and so it's important to be focused on the market and focused on the needs of society and on engaging with society and doing positive stakeholder engagement,” Finan added. “Nuclear fission, as we know, did not always get that right, and so certainly we want to learn from that, and I think also setting big audacious goals and knowing where you want to go and continuing to press toward that is very helpful.”

Reckley: Bill Reckley is currently serving in the NRC’s Advanced Reactor Program, where he is coordinating efforts to develop licensing approaches for non-light-water reactor technologies. He said the agency has been in “fact-gathering mode” as it works to develop an appropriate regulatory framework for fusion. That framework could involve treating fusion power plants like fission reactors (as “utilization facilities”), treating them like accelerators with a focus on by-product materials, or taking a hybrid approach. “We're currently doing an assessment of those options and preparing a paper for the commission to consider, and we’ll deliver that paper to the commission sometime in 2022.”

“We think that any near-term activity, including facilities such as the SPARC facility in Massachusetts [being developed by Commonwealth Fusion Systems], can be handled under existing programs, including, where appropriate, the agreement states,” Reckley said. “Where we're looking to develop a future regulatory structure is for the potential commercial deployment. . . . Looking ahead, it's important, I think, for the commercial deployment or potential deployment that they know what regulatory model they're going to be under and how that might impact the actual design of their machines. . . . And under NEIMA [the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act], we're supposed to be there by 2027, which should be ahead of when a pilot, plant, or other commercial facility would be asking for our involvement.”

Faced with a wide variety of proposed designs, Reckley said, “Do we develop a regulatory structure for all of those various designs? Or do we pick the most likely? Right now, we're trying to be open and say we will develop a regulatory program for any potential fusion technology.”

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