Why the Biden White House chose nuclear fusion

The United States is partnering with commercial forces to modernize our infrastructure with nuclear fusion power.
Brad Bergan
A photo of the White House (left), and a computer depiction of atomic fusion and plasma (right).1, 2

There's no denying it.

Nuclear fusion has the potential to completely transform the U.S. energy industry, and become a primary source of zero-carbon energy.

This is why, in a bid to "win the 21st-century economy," the United States is heavily investing in nuclear fusion technology, according to a March 17 White House summit reported on by Scientific American

While scientific consensus is firm that we're still not ready to roll out fusion technology for commercial use, the early stages of renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and small modular reactors demand that we double down on reliable backups.

And, in harnessing the same power used by the Sun, nuclear fusion could transform our energy infrastructure, for keeps.

Nuclear fusion can help us achieve net-zero emissions by 2050

Fusion is a process in physics whereby two atoms are pushed into one another until they merge, and create a heavier atom. This releases a tremendous amount of energy — it's the same process happening at the core of every star — and it generates comparably low levels of radiation.

That makes it an appealing alternative not only to fossil fuel or coal mining, but potentially every other kind of sustainable energy technology — even solar and wind. But critics among scientific consensus have maintained for decades that, while empirically plausible, the practical realities of implementing fusion technology on a commercial basis are and will remain beyond our reach for decades more.

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But now, the White House has joined with a group of investors who don't shy away from risk to put forward fusion as a crucial means to building a new economy for the U.S., one that can offer net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, according to a fact sheet from the White House.

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"We can lead the world with new energies and innovation and that is exactly what we are doing and why we are gathered here today," said Gina McCarthy, the White House's climate advisor, during the summit. "We have to act on climate change so our country can win the 21st-century economy, and that's what fusion helps to present us with — tremendous opportunities as well as challenges we know."

Nuclear fusion deployment by end of the 2020s "possible"

Incredibly, $45 million of the $1.5 trillion appropriations bill from Congress is committed to a new fusion program that will see private firms join forces with the Department of Energy (DOE) — united in a $700-million pursuit of novel fusion energy devices with the DOE's Fusion Energy Sciences program.

This multi-pronged effort to coordinate fusion energy research could see "possible" deployment by the end of the 2020s, said Jennifer Granholm, the energy secretary, during the summit.

But while it's tempting to rush to utopic depictions of a new fusion-powered future, we should definitely keep from expecting too much, according to Granholm. "We've got to manage expectations," he said. "There's a reason why fusion is hard. So it's going to take time: Even as we are making amazing progress, we have to be careful about overpromising, and we have to be realistic."

Extraordinary gains are in store for nuclear fusion this decade

Alas, considering the scientific obstacles to realizing viable fusion power, she's not wrong. But this isn't to say fusion development is stuck, not by a long shot: A nuclear fusion project in China successfully sustained fusion reactions for 17 minutes at 126 million degrees Fahrenheit — five times the temperature of the Sun. 

In February, scientists at the Joint European Torus (JET) facility in the United Kingdom's Oxford broke their own 24-year-old record by creating a 59-megajoule sustained fusion reaction. They even released a video of the breakthrough on Twitter.

Small moves, big gains - Ultimately, the skeptical attitude is apt when it comes to how soon nuclear fusion power that's viable on commercial scales will come. But with benchmarks and milestones beginning to follow one another like clockwork — from generating more power than is put into a fusion reaction to sustaining that output to more practical durations — we would be foolish to pretend that the 2020s won't be a time of extraordinary growth for nuclear fusion.