An inside look at the National Academies’ putting fusion on the grid report

Written by
John Greenwald
March 8, 2021

Richard J. Hawryluk, associate director for fusion at the U.S.Department of Energy's Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), chaired the committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to produce a report on a U.S. fusion pilot plant at the request of the U.S. Department Energy. The committee recommended the U.S. design and build a fusion-powered pilot plant to operate by 2040 as a stepping stone to a commercial fusion plant. Here is a Q&A with Richard Hawryluk about the report.

Q – What is the bottom line of this report?
A - The report outlines the path forward for U.S. public and private investors to go forward and build a fusion pilot plant to put electricity on the grid. We’ve identified key goals and innovations for designing and constructing a pilot plant that would enable utilities to make a decision to build commercial power plants.

Q – Why didn’t the report consider different types of fusion plants?
A –The statement of task from the Department of Energy requested general criteria that could be applied to different fusion concepts. Currently different fusion concepts are being investigated around the world including in the private sector.

Q – How does this report differ from the previous NASEM fusion energy report on burning plasmas published in 2019 and the American Physical Society-Division of Plasma Physics (APS-DPP) fusion community report?
A - It is important to note that the APS-DPP fusion community reports addressed many topics such as Discovery Science that were not addressed by this study.  We drew on those previous reports extensively and this report goes beyond them in a couple of ways. First, those reports tended to focus on tokamaks and stellarators; however, this report does not address individual fusion concepts. Second, we talked with utility owners and developers of fusion about what information they needed to make a decision about putting a fusion pilot plant on the grid. We looked at the responses and asked ourselves, “what does the pilot plant have to accomplish for utility owners to make a decision to move forward?” So interaction with utilities and discussions with them about the electrical marketplace was extremely important on how this report can make an impact. 

Q. How were the 12 members of the panel chosen?
A. The National Academies has a process for picking the committee. We have panelists who are very familiar with fusion and we also have people who know about putting power on the grid, material sciences, fission, licensing, and people familiar with public and private partnerships. They’ve all brought their experience and expertise to the table and that was extremely valuable. 

Q.-  How should public information about fusion energy and a pilot fusion plant be disseminated? 
A. - The more we can get the message out, not just to the general public but also to decision makers, the better. We need to have communications at all levels from the general public all the way up to the White House. 

Q. – In what areas are innovations called for in order to design and construct a pilot plant?
A. - There are various scientific and technical areas that we haven’t fully resolved yet. These innovations are driven by technical and market considerations. We need to ensure that the pilot plant works and we need to drive the cost down to be cost competitive with other sources of electricity.  The report describes the innovations needed in detail.

Q. - How was the committee able to put together the report in three months?
A. – The committee had a very large and diverse background and put together this report very quickly to address the DOE statement of task. The NASEM staff supported us throughout this process and also deserve credit for getting the report out quickly to address the DOE statement of task. It was my pleasure to work with Committee and the NASEM who committed themselves to completing the report quickly.

Q. – What is the next step?
A.- The committee has made their recommendations and is providing briefings to the technical community and the stakeholders. The question now is whether we as a country want to make a commitment to move ahead with this or elect not to. 

PPPL is mastering the art of using plasma — the fourth state of matter — to solve some of the world's toughest science and technology challenges. Nestled on Princeton University’s Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, New Jersey, our research ignites innovation in a range of applications including fusion energy, nanoscale fabrication, quantum materials and devices, and sustainability science. The University manages the Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the nation’s single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences. Feel the heat at and