EJ Rorem ’24, an SMU Highland Capital Management Tower Scholar, is double majoring in Political Science and Statistics with a minor in Public Policy and International Affairs. He was recently awarded the SMU Tower Center Kelli and Gerald J. Ford Internship, giving him the opportunity to pursue a summer internship in Washington, D.C. He was able to gain more work experience in the public policy sphere and make valuable connections through the TFAS Summer Internship program.
My internship with the Fusion Industry Association gave me a unique look at a strategic, next-generation energy trade in development, yielding insights into how businesses and governments prepare for shifts in technology. Much of the history of technological progress is the story of policymakers failing to anticipate innovations with local, regional, and global implications, leaving later generations to retroactively address critical questions about our national security, economy, and environment.
The FIA is distinct from other business associations in that it was the brainchild of policy analysts who wanted to break this cycle. Having concluded that fusion energy, once commercialized, would hold immense promise in bolstering the United States’ energy security and climate goals, the American Security Project laid the groundwork for a trade association that would connect the scientists, engineers, and investors pioneering these technologies with the policy community who would one day oversee them.
A quiet but serious international competition to realize the dream of nuclear fusion has already begun, bringing the strategic standing of America’s allies and rivals into question. The British are proving especially nimble in establishing a new regulatory framework for the fusion industry, whereas the Chinese are making consistent investments in state-backed development initiatives. American energy leadership is within reach, but it will require the attention of our government and the public to secure it.
One key recommendation for policymakers would be to begin preparing to address the nonproliferation element of nuclear fusion development. While significantly less risky than fission plants, fusion energy facilities will need to have some formal, international acknowledgment within the export control and nonproliferation system. Tritium handling standards, dual-use concerns, and security-by-design measures should be considered and discussed early to ensure that the industry can confidently move forward. This will have the added benefit of raising the profile of the industry internationally, spurring the public to begin thinking seriously about the transition to fusion energy.
Continued investments and a rich web of public-private partnerships will be essential to maintain U.S. competitiveness in fusion energy. These measures cannot guarantee American preeminence in the global fusion industry, but they are the price worth paying to create the conditions innovators need to bring it about. Solidifying regulatory frameworks early would be a huge step forward, allowing industry to plan long-term, multimillion-dollar projects while safeguarding America’s communities and ecosystems. Fortunately, none of these steps are unprecedented, and nearly all of them will be less onerous than those taken to start America’s space exploration and nuclear fission endeavors. Continued engagement and foresight will pay handsome dividends down the road and are the only responsible approaches when confronted with such a disruptive and promising technology.
In contrast to my prior experience interning for the World Affairs Council, the Fusion Industry Association operates in an area where the research literature is sparse or nonexistent. This presented a unique challenge to my efforts to write about the development of nuclear fusion and its interplay with federal and state regulations. I relied more on raw, unabridged government and industry reporting, usually in the form of congressional testimony and hearings. I also learned to navigate more obscure resources, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s website or the IAEA’s archives. While I became more proficient with these sources as a measure of last resort, I have come away from my internship with a deeper respect and appreciation for these types of materials that I will carry into my future academic pursuits.
While not my favorite part of the job, I also gained experience writing for and managing an official social media account. The style, timetable, and nature of these types of assignments were very different from the policy research I was used to producing, and given the importance of social media to politics, diplomacy, and business, the skills I gained are applicable to a wide range of topical career paths.
Overall, I count myself lucky to have been able to work in such a singular and consequential field. As nuclear fusion matures, it will require forward-thinking and well-informed policymaking to support its transformation from a creature of the laboratory to a fully-realized benefit to American security.