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The fusion opportunity is enormous — it would be a shame to waste it

More mature technologies are the best hope for staving off a climate disaster. But there are good reasons for Congress to still go big on fusion.

Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm announces a major scientific breakthrough in fusion research that was made at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, during a news conference at the Department of Energy in Washington on Dec. 13.J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

The news last week of a fusion breakthrough at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California has been met with a mix of wonder and warning.

Wonder at a milestone in the decades-long quest to create a source of clean, limitless energy; warning that the quest may not be complete for several decades more, when it will be too late to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

The skeptics are right to suggest that it’s a long way from the recent breakthrough — the first-ever fusion reaction in a lab that produced more energy than was required to create it — to real-world deployment of fusion energy.


Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm’s claim that President Biden’s call to build a commercial fusion reactor within 10 years is now within reach strains credulity.

The Livermore experiment fired 192 lasers at a tiny pellet and produced a small amount of energy. A full-fledged power plant would have to vaporize thousands of pellets in rapid succession and safely convert the energy to electricity — an enormous technical challenge that could take many years to meet. The other major approach to nuclear fusion, involving large electromagnets, faces comparable hurdles.

The counsel of many of the skeptics, then, is to focus on the clean energy technologies we have now, such as wind and solar, rather than wait on fusion to save us.

But that either-or framing isn’t right.

Faced with a problem as dire as climate change, an all-of-the-above strategy is a moral and economic imperative.

The truth is, decarbonization by turbine and photovoltaic panel is not working out very well. Greenhouse gas emissions are higher now than they were before the 2015 Paris climate accord, which committed the world to reaching “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050.

And a recent report from the World Resources Institute found that nations’ current pledges to cut back on oil, natural gas, and coal would trim emissions by just 7 percent from 2019 levels. Even if those nations actually make good on those pledges, the world needs six times that amount — cuts of 43 percent — to meet the Paris goal of limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.


“Here’s what I’ll say to the skeptics [of fusion energy]: ‘Show me the other solutions,’” says Dennis Whyte, director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center. “Because it ain’t happening. Go look at the world. We’re failing. We’re failing at decarbonizing our energy sources. Our percentage of carbon use has gone down essentially zero.”

Hopefully, the world will get its act together, ripping out the carbon IV and making a massive turn to wind, solar, hydropower, nuclear power, hydrogen, and fossil fuel plants that capture their emissions instead of releasing them into the atmosphere in the next couple of decades. That should remain the goal of public policymakers.

But it would be prudent to keep developing other options if those efforts continue to fail. And even if the world does manage to slash its emissions in the next 28 years, the world would still benefit from the option of an energy source that doesn’t require the massive amounts of land and resources required for renewable energy, or create the waste of nuclear power.

Indeed, there’s good reason to believe that fusion energy will one day be the world’s dominant power source — even if it comes later than we’d like. And that alone is reason for the United States to take a leadership role.


In the last few years, some $5 billion in private capital has flowed into America’s burgeoning fusion industry from the likes of Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. And an MIT spin-off, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, has emerged as one of the leading firms.

If the task of building a fusion energy future weren’t so urgent, these companies could be left to their own devices. But with so much riding on their success, government assistance is a necessity.

The Biden administration has shown real interest in forging a public-private partnership — starting with a federal grant competition to design a pilot fusion power plant.

The US Department of Energy is expected to dole out $50 million to a few teams of private fusion companies, university scientists, and national laboratory researchers. The teams will have to meet a series of technical milestones to stay in the program. In the long run, the plan is to ramp up federal funding, fuse it with substantial private dollars, and produce a working plant that can persuade the big utilities to invest in massive projects of their own.

This sort of staged funding, contingent on continued progress, is smart. But it will require Congress, which has fluctuated in its enthusiasm for fusion, to keep with it — and to steadily increase funding.


A committed government could help with all sorts of challenges — from developing critical materials to building a pipeline of highly skilled workers. And universities that pivot to the urgent task of commercializing fusion energy could be enormously useful, too.

The Livermore breakthrough was a great moment for science. Now we need to get out of the lab.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.