The John G. Tower Center for Political Studies eagerly announces this year’s Kerri and Gerald J. Ford Scholarship recipient is Erik Rorem.
I came to Washington 20 years ago because I wanted to work on important things. I started out just answering the phones for my member of Congress and I made my way up focusing on energy and environmental policy as well as the ways that climate and energy issues influence geopolitics. After my Senator retired, I moved to the think tank world maintaining a focus on those topics. About 10 years ago, through my research work, I became kind of the only guy in Washington outside of the industry who was writing and advocating for fusion. That led to deeper engagement with the private fusion companies until the American Security Project, where I worked at the time, finally decided it was time to start up the FIA.
Q: What is the difference between nuclear fusion and nuclear fission?
Fusion is the power of Einstein’s famous equation, E equals mc-squared, put to work. You can get a tremendous amount of energy out of a very small change in mass when you push together two light elements at extreme temperatures and pressures to fuse into a new element. We do this in labs every day, all around the world. The challenge is that it also takes a tremendous amount of energy to achieve those high temperatures and pressures we need. We haven’t mastered the art of gaining more energy from the process than we invest in it yet, but we’re working on it.
The difference between that and fission is that fusion creates no long-term radioactive waste, there’s no risk of a meltdown, and no general threat to the safety of the public. This has a risk profile that is fundamentally different from both nuclear fission and fossil fuels. We’re so interested in fusion because we need large sources of the firm, clean energy to meet our climate targets and energy security goals. We need a game-changing shift in how we generate energy to get there.
Q: What would commercialized fusion energy mean for our national security?
Well that’s twofold. On the one hand, the main driver of investment into the fusion industry is that if we can get it onto the grid fast enough and scale it up, then we will solve the climate problem. Climate change is a national security issue; already it is driving droughts, water conflicts, and refugee crises worldwide and we can’t afford to ignore that.
In the more immediate term, we see the impacts of the energy trade, dominated by dictatorial regimes, being used as a tool for geopolitics. We see that in Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela among others. In Ukraine for instance, I don’t think Putin would have invaded had Russia not had natural gas dominance over most of Europe. Now, obviously, that hasn’t allowed him to cow Europe in the way he may have expected, and he’s united Europe in a way we haven’t seen since the Cold War, but the economic pain is still there for Europeans and the world. We need to have energy resources that are independent of our geopolitical choices, and we should be able to think about these issues separately. Fusion will allow us to do that by turning energy from something that we have to extract into something that we can manufacture. The fuel is so abundant that the limiting factor is how fast you can build the plants themselves.
Q: Is the U.S. well-positioned to be a leader in fusion?
Yes, the U.S. is one of several countries that are potential leaders in this area. I believe that the government can and should play a role in shaping these markets, especially given their importance to national security. Governments shouldn’t wait around for the markets to provide this technology. The U.S. government, more than any government in the world, has the capacity to make those game-changing investments and decisions due to its sheer size and the expertise of those in our universities, bureaucratic agencies, and national labs. But we shouldn’t pretend that this will happen automatically, the American government and the American people have to prioritize it.
Other countries are also moving on this. The United Kingdom has made significant sustained investments into fusion and has a plan for its own private plant by 2040. At this point, they are the leader of the clubhouse in terms of long-term planning for fusion energy. They’ve also passed a new energy law that will give an innovation-friendly regulatory regime by making fusion accountable to its health, safety, and environmental regulators instead of its nuclear regulatory bodies. We think that’s important because it will allow innovation while also protecting public health. The European Union and Japan are also making investments and then of course there’s the specter of the Chinese government which has made real significant investments into fusion.
We have to make sure that we cooperate with our partners internationally to beat China.
Q: How can policymakers better prepare for the arrival of nuclear fusion?
Policymakers need to do a couple of things to set the stage. We shouldn’t sit around and wait for the science to get here, we can be catalytic. That can mean new public-private partnerships with the Department of Energy and really accelerate things. Of course, more money helps. Like anything, there should be more investment into the private and public sectors. We need a significant investment here. Think back to the 60s, JFK said that we’re going to have a man on the moon before this decade is out, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard and because it will be worth it.. Having that dedication and that kind of goal is really important. What often gets overlooked in that speech is that he didn’t try to downplay how much it would cost. He said this will be expensive, and that the average American would have to contribute through tax dollars. We should be clear that fusion, while less expensive relative to the Apollo program, is not cost-free. It needs sustained investment and sustained attention from the federal government and investments need to go up significantly. So that’s number one: the science and the development.
Number two is the regulatory regime. We need it to be prepared to handle fusion which is fundamentally different from fission. The natural desire is to not reinvent the wheel, but they’re just too different and the risks are fundamentally different, so we need a new regime. We think that the best way forward is to regulate fusion under the existing rules for accelerators. The risk profile is similar and we already regulate fusion research facilities this way, so it would be a great fit. It’s important that we foster an innovation-friendly environment while also protecting the health and national security. I’m happy to say that I think we’re well down that road with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I think we’ll have some sort of regulatory decision-making in the next year or so and we’ve spent a lot of time working on that.
The third thing we need is for the public to start to think about this. We have a long and not terribly good history of nuclear fission and how it relates to the public and the fission industry has lost a lot of credibilities. So fusion advocates need to directly communicate the benefits and be transparent with the public while addressing their concerns. There are other things related to the supply chain, scientific development, and other areas that need to be addressed, but investment, regulation, and public awareness are the main priorities.