Fusion is prioritized in net-zero R&D initiative and IRA funds, but fission factors in too

November 10, 2022, 3:00PMNuclear News
The U.S. ITER Project Office in Oak Ridge, Tenn. U.S. ITER has received $256 million in Inflation Reduction Act funding. (Photo: U.S. ITER)

Just days before COP27 and the U.S. midterm elections, the White House announced $1.55 billion in Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) funding for national laboratories and the launch of a Net-Zero Game Changers Initiative based on a new report, U.S. Innovation to Meet 2050 Climate Goals. Out of 37 research and development opportunities identified, fusion energy was selected as one of just five near-term priorities for the new cross-agency initiative. Together, the announcements signal policy and infrastructure support for fusion energy—the biggest chunk of Department of Energy Office of Science (DOE-SC) IRA funding went to ITER, via Oak Ridge National Laboratory—and for advanced nuclear technologies to power the grid and provide process heat to hard-to-decarbonize industrial sectors.

The climate R&D report was jointly prepared by an interagency Net-Zero Game Changers Working Group (a subset of the Climate Innovation Working Group of the National Climate Task Force) and was released by the White House Climate Policy Office, Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Office of Management and Budget. The goal: to accelerate climate innovations toward a goal of cutting greenhouse gases by 50 to 52 percent in 2030 and to reach net-zero emissions no later than 2050 through a long-term transformation of the energy system and investments in underserved communities through the Justice40 Initiative.

The Biden-Harris administration reviewed the report’s 37 R&D opportunities to select five near-term topics for the Net-Zero Game Changers Initiative (in some cases grouping together multiple R&D opportunities): efficient building heating and cooling, net-zero aviation, net-zero power grid and electrification, fusion energy at scale, and industrial products and fuels for a net-zero, circular economy.

Cost-competitive fusion: Deploying fusion energy at scale, “cost-competitive with conventional energy,” is identified as a “high-risk, high reward” endeavor that is essential to a diversified portfolio of net-zero technologies in the report.

The case for fusion energy is put this way: “Fusion can offer energy diversity and security for nations, and potentially ease the expansion of renewables by offering grid stability. Fusion uses abundant fuels (e.g., deuterium and lithium) and could potentially be designed to produce little or no long-lived radioactive waste. It may require less land than renewables and could potentially be sited near or within population centers. As costs come down, fusion can address an increasingly large fraction of the electricity market and help decarbonize other energy sectors that rely directly on process heat, such as industrial processes, synthetic fuel production, and desalination. Much R&D remains to be done, especially in the following areas: achieving a net-gain fusion plasma for longer durations; developing the first-wall materials and operating scenarios for handling extreme heat and particle exhaust with acceptable maintenance cycles, economics, and waste management; and developing a sustainable, safe, and licensable fuel cycle. Within the past decade, significant market pull (represented by over $5 billion of cumulative private investments) and technical readiness of the science and enabling technologies warrants a new U.S. strategy for fusion energy R&D.”

What about fission? The climate R&D report describes a “threefold action plan” for net-zero goals consisting of innovation, demonstration, and deployment. Energy technologies that are already in the demonstration and deployment phases are not a focus of either the climate R&D report or the Net-Zero Game Changers Initiative: “While the United States continues to demonstrate and deploy more established technologies, this report focuses on the need to maintain a robust early-stage development pipeline of emerging technologies which will make it substantially easier or cheaper to reach net-zero.”

That said, advanced nuclear fission is included as one of the 37 R&D opportunities in the report, which states, “Advanced fission reactors require low amounts of area per megawatt and the siting does not depend on availability of local energy resources such as sun or wind. As a result, advanced fission reactors could directly replace emitting firm generation sources, thereby potentially reducing the need for transmission expansion and providing a new source of jobs for legacy energy communities. As heat sources with wide ranges of possible sizes and temperatures, they can serve the specific needs of hard-to-abate industrial sectors such as petroleum refining, chemicals, and steel. Advanced fission reactors can also be used for heating and cooling and to produce hydrogen and other alternative fuels. The main technological next steps are ensuring adequate nuclear fuel supply (specifically high-assay low-enriched uranium for most types of advanced reactors), building demonstration units, and establishing a long-term nuclear waste strategy.”

While fission was not plucked from the list of 37 R&D opportunities as one of the five game-changing priorities, its continued deployment and future applications are an essential component of two of the five priorities: “net-zero power grid and electrification” and “industrial products and fuels for a net-zero, circular economy.”

ORNL welcomes IRA funds: ORNL received a total of $497 million in IRA funding, or about one-third of the DOE-SC funding. Of that total, $256 million goes to the U.S. ITER Project, which is managed by ORNL for DOE-SC to support U.S. contributions to the international ITER fusion facility by designing, fabricating, and delivering hardware systems.

Other ORNL programs receiving IRA funds include the new Stable Isotope Production and Research Center (SIPRC, $75 million), the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility (OLCF, $57 million), the Second Target Station (STS, $42.7 million toward the development of a high-brightness, long-wavelength neutron scattering for materials science), the Materials Plasma Exposure eXperiment (MPEX, $14 million), the Radioisotope Processing Facility (RPF, $12 million as part of a total of $48 million for additional isotope work), and the Large Enriched Germanium Experiment for Neutrinoless Double-Beta Decay (LEGEND, $5 million).

Beyond ORNL: Other national laboratories that received some of the fiscal year 2022 IRA DOE-SC funding for specific projects are listed below (in order of funding total):

  • Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, $259.4 million
  • Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, $196.6 million
  • Brookhaven National Laboratory, $190.9 million
  • SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, $135.8 million
  • Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, $76.5 million
  • Argonne National Laboratory, $57.5 million
  • Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at Michigan State University, $29.7 million
  • Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, $25.5 million
  • Ames National Laboratory, $24.5 million
  • Savannah River National Laboratory, $20 million
  • Los Alamos National Laboratory, $16.6 million
  • Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, $8.2 million
  • Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, $2.4 million

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