The United States government should build a 50-megawatt fusion power plant to demonstrate the technology, according to the authors of a report released today by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

Now is the time, the scientists say, because of the convergence of recent technological developments:

“On the science and the technology side, the last decade has seen significant advances in our ability to understand the fusion plasma and predict its performance,” said Dennis G. Whyte, director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “and key technological innovations which are linked in many ways to advanced computing but also linked to advanced manufacturing capabilities and use a new magnet technology.”

At the same time, Whyte said, there’s an urgency visited upon the world by climate change.

“The committee talked about this a lot, and it was not our task to pick a particular path, but there was a realization that there was a set of synergistic advances, that were clearly right, basically, to take advantage of this opportunity to contribute to carbon free energy by 2050.”

Whyte is one of 12 scientists enlisted by the National Academies to pen “Bringing Fusion to the U.S. Grid.” Several of them appeared in a National Academies webinar Wednesday announcing the report’s release.

Brian D. Wirth of the University of Tennessee’s Department of Nuclear Engineering linked those technological advances to the necessity for the government to build a pilot plant:

“It’s not really credible to list a single most important innovation,” Wirth said, “and frankly it depends upon the design or the confinement concept or the reactor concept that’s being established. But there’s many synergies between the linked advantages that are recent including computing power, advanced manufacturing, high-temperature superconducting magnets, and so we really do believe, and I think we’ve demonstrated, the high-temperature plasmas that produce fusion power are now the impetus for changing towards progress and a focus on producing electricity.”

A pilot plant would allow engineers and scientists to assess not just the technological feasibility of a fusion plant, but the practicality of building them, Wirth said.

‘This is the muscle you exercise by building the pilot,” he said. “It actually provides the pathway to understanding what the larger ecosystem needs to be to actually provide fusion at commercial scale.”

The report calls on the U.S. Department of Energy and private companies to invest now to complete the pilot plant between 2035 and 2040.

The panel was asked whether the U.S. should withdraw from the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, which is building an experimental fusion reactor in France, to concentrate on its own project.

ITER is more of an experiment than a pilot plant, said Kathryn McCarthy, the associate laboratory director for the Fusion and Fission Energy and Science Directorate at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. ITER is teaching U.S. scientists in ways that will inform the building of a pilot.

“Having the ITER activities going on in parallel and providing information to that pilot activity is important,” McCarthy said.

A 50 MW plant would be too small for commercial application but would provide information crucial to another next step: a first-of-a-kind commercial-scale plant.

“The value of at least 50 megawatts is that it allows you to test the ability to move power back out onto the grid and also into a sufficient load to test the systems out,” said David Roop of DWR Associates, an expert in electric utilities and transmission. “The hope would then be to expand that to a much larger system on the first-of-a- kind unit, but it’s a way to demonstrate and test the components of this pilot plan.”

The pilot plant should give engineers a sense of whether a commercial unit could be built for less than the $5-$6 billion necessary for the plant to be economically competitive, said Richard Hawryluk, the associate director for Fusion at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. At the same time it would create the footprint for a nascent supply chain.



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