Technology has potential to revolutionalise energy sector
US energy secretary Jennifer Granholm has announced the Biden administration's ambitious goal of establishing a commercial nuclear fusion facility within the next decade as part of the nation's shift towards clean energy.
Granholm described nuclear fusion as a pioneering technology and emphasised president Joe Biden's commitment to leveraging fusion as a carbon-free energy source to meet both residential and commercial power needs.
Nuclear energy is a crucial element of the Biden administration's objective to achieve a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and a net-zero emissions economy by 2050.
During an interview with Associated Press in Vienna, Granholm expressed optimism about achieving president Biden's vision of commercial fusion within a decade, stating that it is within the “realm of possibility”.
Nuclear fusion operates by subjecting hydrogen atoms to immense pressure, causing them to merge into helium and release vast amounts of energy and heat. Unlike conventional nuclear reactions, fusion does not produce radioactive waste. Advocates of nuclear fusion say it is a potential replacement for fossil fuels and traditional energy sources, although carbon-free energy from fusion has yet to be achieved.
In August 2023, US scientists achieved net energy gain in a nuclear fusion reaction for the second time since a historic breakthrough in December last year in the quest to find a near-limitless, safe and clean source of energy.
Professor Dennis Whyte, director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was quoted by Business Insider as saying that the US has “a smart approach” on fusion energy advancing research and design by a number of companies working on a demonstration plan within a decade.
"It does not guarantee a particular company will get there, but we have multiple shots on goal," Whyte said.
Fission Waste Storage Remains A Challenge
Regarding the challenge of finding suitable storage sites for radioactive waste from the US existing reactor fleet, Granholm said that the government has initiated a process to identify communities willing to host storage facilities. Currently, most spent nuclear fuel is stored at reactor sites across the country.
"We have identified 12 organisations that are going to be in discussion with communities across the country about whether they are interested (in hosting a site)," she said.
While the US does not currently engage in spent nuclear fuel recycling, other nations, including France, have experience in doing so. Critics of recycling argue that it may not be cost-effective and could pose proliferation risks. Granholm highlighted the need for careful implementation with strong non-proliferation safeguards in place.