At a time when humanity is racing to develop technologies that will address climate change while also providing energy security, fusion could play an important role.
Fusion powers the Sun, but engineers and scientists have found that reproducing fusion energy on earth is complicated. With more than $4 billion in private investment in more than two dozen companies, and over 130 different potential fusion devices at different stages of development, fusion technology shows great promise. The Biden administration also recognizes the potential of fusion energy, setting aside a $1 billion budget for fusion development. But the technology can’t hit the electricity market before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has rules in place. And the existing rules are insufficient.
The need for modernized regulations was underscored in December 2022, when researchers hit a scientific milestone. For the first time, they briefly achieved a controlled fusion reaction that yielded more energy than was consumed to trigger the reaction. Although commercial energy from fusion is still a long way off, the scientific breakthrough sparked renewed public interest in fusion and discussion about how it should be regulated.
In 2019, the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA) was signed into law, which ordered the NRC to come up with a regulatory structure appropriate for the new nuclear reactor technologies (both fission and fusion) by 2027.
The NRC has a well-developed set of rules for the types of fission reactors running today, but many of them aren’t relevant to fusion. For example, many NRC rules are aimed at making sure that the nuclear core stays cool after shut-down, because fuel for fission reactors continues to produce heat after the reaction is stopped. But fusion reactors won’t produce much heat after shutdown.
In January this year, the NRC proposed three options for how to regulate fusion energy systems. None are in full compliance with the 2027 timeline, nor do any meet the risk-informed, performance-based, technology-inclusive requirements of NEIMA. But by adjusting one of them, as per the Breakthrough Institute’s recommendation, the NRC could achieve a useful framework for licensing fusion systems. Namely, it could take current “byproduct” rules to license near-term fusion, while also extending the NEIMA deadline for fusion to allow the time needed to develop a new truly risk-informed, performance-based, and technology-inclusive framework that will allow for rapid innovation using a design-specific license.