National Academies Press: OpenBook

Bringing Fusion to the U.S. Grid (2021)

Chapter: Executive Summary

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Suggested Citation:"Executive Summary." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Bringing Fusion to the U.S. Grid. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25991.
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Suggested Citation:"Executive Summary." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Bringing Fusion to the U.S. Grid. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/25991.
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Executive Summary Fusion energy offers the prospect of addressing the nation’s energy needs and contributing to the transition to a low-carbon emission electrical generation infrastructure. With the major fusion burning plasma experiment known as ITER scheduled to begin operations within the next decade, many partner countries are already undertaking large efforts to capitalize on their involvement in the international ITER experiment and position fusion as a future energy source. Technology and research results from U.S. investments in ITER, coupled with a strong foundation of research funded by the Department of Energy (DOE), position the United States to begin planning for its first fusion pilot plant. Strong interest from the private sector is an additional motivating factor, as the process of decarbonizing and modernizing the nation’s electric infrastructure accelerates and companies seek to lead the way. Published in 2019, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report Final Report of the Committee on a Strategic Plan for U.S. Burning Plasma Research (hereafter the “Burning Plasma report”) identified research priorities for magnetically confined plasma research in the United States. In order to reach its conclusions and recommendations, the study gathered input from academia, government, and industry through numerous white papers, town halls, and site visits. The report recommended that the United States remain committed to its investment in ITER, and that The United States should start a national program of accompanying research and technology leading to the construction of a compact pilot plant that produces electricity from fusion at the lowest possible capital cost. In a request from DOE, the National Academies’ Committee on the Key Goals and Innovation Needed for a U.S. Fusion Pilot Plant was asked to build upon the work of the Burning Plasma report by identifying the key goals and innovations—independent of confinement concept—that are needed to support the development of a U.S. fusion pilot plant during each of its phases of operation. The committee obtained valuable input from a broad range of stakeholders, including DOE agency staff, congressional aides, regulators, power plant owners, developers of fusion power plants, manufacturers of components, national laboratory leaders, and university researchers and professors, to address the statement of task. Relative to the Burning Plasma report, this committee took a somewhat different approach to examine pathways to a pilot plant by reviewing the implications of the changing electrical landscape on how fusion can contribute to the national energy needs and taking into account that private industry is looking at a broad range of fusion concepts. The committee did not evaluate specific fusion concepts. The U.S. fusion community has been a pioneer in fusion research since its inception and now has the opportunity to bring fusion to the marketplace. On one hand, the U.S. community has not yet fully removed the risks associated with overcoming the economic, funding, technology, and safety concerns remaining before utilizing fusion as an energy source, and future difficulties may yet remain. On the other hand, the United States currently faces strong competition from other groups around the world, and if the nation can overcome these risks and provide the resources for a fusion pilot plant as outlined in this report, it has the opportunity to play a global leadership role. Discussions with utility owners identified that utilities are planning on making major changes to the mix of electrical generation infrastructure to reduce carbon emission by 2050. The foreseen increased PREPUBLICATION COPY – SUBJECT TO FURTHER EDITORIAL CORRECTION ES-1

investment in modernizing their electrical production fleet provides an opportunity for fusion to contribute. This led to the committee’s first recommendation. Recommendation: For the United States to be a leader in fusion and to make an impact on the transition to a low-carbon emission electrical system by 2050, the Department of Energy and the private sector should produce net electricity in a fusion pilot plant in the United States in the 2035-2040 timeframe. (Chapter 2) The committee identified key goals and innovations for a pilot plant based on the input from stakeholders received during the study as well as input received during the Burning Plasma study and the recent APS-DPP Community Planning Process. The key goals, if successfully met, would provide the scientific, technological, and economic information that would enable fusion power plant developers and utilities to move forward with a commercial fusion power plant. A great deal of scientific and technological progress has been made, but significant remaining technical and scientific issues must be addressed in parallel with developing a successful pilot plant design that would enable an economically attractive power plant. There is increased risk associated with this approach, as compared to solving technical and scientific issues prior to designing a pilot plant, but urgency in clean energy needs, coupled with the promise of fusion energy, motivates this approach. Due to the highly integrated nature of a pilot plant—including cutting-edge research, technology, and engineering—a conceptual design leading to an engineering design is required. The teams responsible for the design require a breadth of talent found in industry, national laboratories, and universities. An engineering design is the basis for determining costs and developing a schedule, which is critical for project planning and execution and will provide a focus for the work. The creation of national teams is imperative to begin the design work and to identify critical technology requirements. This led to the committee’s second recommendation. Recommendation: The Department of Energy should move forward now to foster the creation of national teams, including public-private partnerships, that will develop conceptual pilot plant designs and technology roadmaps and lead to an engineering design of a pilot plant that will bring fusion to commercial viability. (Chapter 5) In this report, the innovations needed for a pilot plant are broadly described. While some of the technology innovations are applicable to multiple fusion concepts, some concept-specific innovations need to be further defined. This report presents a strategic plan to help meet the key goals and generate the required scientific and technological innovations to produce electricity in the 2035-2040 timeframe. This plan identifies both goals for the various phases of design, construction, and operation of a pilot plant and broad criteria for moving forward to the next phase. This plan is more aggressive, thus higher risk, than that in the Burning Plasma report, since it is motivated by the needs of the electrical marketplace to make significant investments in low-carbon and non-carbon emission electricity. This results in the following conclusion: Conclusion: Successful operation of a pilot plant in the 2035-2040 timeframe requires urgent investments by DOE and private industry—both to resolve the remaining technical and scientific issues and to design, construct, and commission a pilot plant. (Chapter 5) PREPUBLICATION COPY – SUBJECT TO FURTHER EDITORIAL CORRECTION ES-2

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Fusion energy offers the prospect of addressing the nation's energy needs and contributing to the transition to a low-carbon emission electrical generation infrastructure. Technology and research results from U.S. investments in the major fusion burning plasma experiment known as ITER, coupled with a strong foundation of research funded by the Department of Energy (DOE), position the United States to begin planning for its first fusion pilot plant. Strong interest from the private sector is an additional motivating factor, as the process of decarbonizing and modernizing the nation's electric infrastructure accelerates and companies seek to lead the way.

At the request of DOE, Bringing Fusion to the U.S. Grid builds upon the work of the 2019 report Final Report of the Committee on a Strategic Plan for U.S. Burning Plasma Research to identify the key goals and innovations - independent of confinement concept - that are needed to support the development of a U.S. fusion pilot plant that can serve as a model for producing electricity at the lowest possible capital cost.

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