PPPL hosts workshop on fusion energy and nonproliferation

Written by
Raphael Rosen
April 13, 2023

Public and private organizations around the world are developing fusion energy devices that could serve as models for fusion power plants. Scientists are striving to duplicate the fusion power that drives the sun and stars as a source of carbon-free energy to generate electricity without contributing to climate change.

While fusion plants could help meet global energy demands without emitting greenhouse gases and producing long-lived radioactive waste, they could also have risks — many of which were discussed at a two-day workshop hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) and sponsored by the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

The workshop, “Fusion Energy and Nonproliferation,” included representatives from government, national laboratories, Princeton University, and other academic institutions, as well as representatives from private fusion developers like Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Helion. Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment held the January 25 and 26 event.

The workshop broadly focused on identifying questions both government and the fusion industry should start addressing about the low, but possible, risks of fusion being linked to nuclear proliferation — the spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear weapon technology, or materials necessary for the development of such weapons to countries that do not now have them.

“The workshop was successful in bringing together a broad array of participants to discuss topics that will be critical to the commercial development of fusion energy systems,” said Michael Ford, PPPL’s associate laboratory director for engineering and lead coordinator for the workshop. “This event kick-started the formation of a community of interest. There is more work to do, but this was a critical first step in moving the conversation forward.”

The event was held under rules that promote free and open discussion, which means that while attendees can be identified, comments and positions taken during the workshop cannot be attributed to any individual. Topics covered at the two-day workshop included, 1) the risk of clandestine or covert production of special nuclear material; 2) management of tritium, a form of hydrogen used in fusion facilities, and lithium-6, which is needed to produce the tritium fuel during the power plant operation to make fusion a self-sustaining energy source; 3) energy justice, social licensing, and DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility) issues related to nonproliferation; 4) inertial confinement fusion, which uses lasers to compress fuel capsules to produce energy; and 5) regulatory frameworks for fusion. A summary report was produced after the workshop.

Most participants stressed that while any risk of future fusion energy systems contributing to nuclear proliferation is very low, the community should nevertheless start examining any concerns now and be clear about any findings. For example, stakeholders should consider whether current regulations are sufficient to cover fusion energy systems or if there should be new policy to cover those systems.

Several panelists noted the significance of this workshop occurring in the larger context of recent fusion advances around the world including the White House Summit in March 2022 — “Developing a Bold Decadal Vision for Commercial Fusion Energy” — as well as the recent news of fusion ignition at the DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the development of an extremely powerful electromagnet by Commonwealth Fusion Systems in September 2021.

There have been record amounts of investment in the private fusion industry, and the DOE also unveiled a new milestone-based public-private program that would accelerate the development of commercial fusion power.

Speakers further noted that the White House is currently working with the intelligence community to protect U.S. fusion technology and making sure that the Department of Defense monitors fusion development, since it could lead to defense applications.

In addition to technical discussions, there was also a panel discussion about the relation of fusion energy and proliferation considerations to energy justice. The panelists agreed it is important to work with a broad range of communities to ensure that building fusion power plants will not create disproportionate hardships for any of them, and to build trust with those who have had negative experiences with the energy industry in the past.

If the fusion industry does not help ensure that both the benefits and potential burdens of fusion energy are well understood, commercialization could be seriously hampered. The goal for the workshop in this area was to examine whether there were unique energy justice considerations tied to proliferation risk.

Representatives of private fusion companies also offered their perspectives. They noted that new rules may not be needed to regulate future fusion facilities because any efforts to modify fusion devices to enrich nuclear material, for instance, would be extremely difficult and easily detectable by the international community.

In addition, industry representatives expressed concern that enacting unnecessarily restrictive fusion-related laws could end up stifling fusion commercialization, which would slow the deployment of fusion, potentially increasing climate impacts. In general, the speakers advocated for weighing the pros and cons of such laws and keeping in mind practical considerations.

Other speakers discussed legal and regulatory concerns, noting that current nonproliferation frameworks do not cover fusion facilities. However, there are formal controls in place covering tritium, an isotope of hydrogen that is critical to fusion operations and which also has implications for proliferation. The management of tritium inventories in fusion facilities generated significant discussion at the workshop, and there was consensus that additional discussion was needed regarding the necessity for any changes to the existing tritium control and export regimes.

Plenary speakers at the workshop included Rian Bahran, assistant director for nuclear technology and strategy in the White House Office of Science, Technology, and Policy;  Scott Hsu, DOE lead fusion coordinator; David LaGraffe, associate assistant deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation research and development at the NNSA; Robert Goldston, former PPPL director; Stephanie Diem, assistant professor of engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Seth Hoedl, president and chief science officer of the Post Road Foundation; Robert Mumgaard, co-founder and chief executive officer of Commonwealth Fusion Systems; Sachin Desai, general counsel for Helion; and Amy Roma, partner in the Hogan Lovells law firm; among many others.

Workshop organizers have received positive feedback about the workshop. “We have received multiple requests for follow-on briefings to discuss the workshop's outcomes,” Ford said. “I anticipate follow-on workshops and conferences as fusion energy system development continues.”

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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 https://energy.gov/science and https://www.pppl.gov.