By Tony Gerillo, EIC Fusion Energy News International
As the only news outlet in attendance at the Fusion Industry Association’s 1st annual policy meeting, it turns out to be a responsibility not to be taken lightly. Unpacking the day’s full agenda deserves a deep look into what the industry has achieved and what the next steps in regulation will be.
It is clear that fusion energy is inherently safe and that regulation will become a matter of getting the wording right so that society can move past the nomenclature of nuclear atomic energy having a negative impact on humans. Positive branding of fusion is difficult due to the negative history around nuclear fission, even though the only trait they share is in that “nuclear” appears in both names.
Where will fusion reactor regulations come from?
This is actually simpler than one might think. There are two U.S. national fusion facilities, the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR) at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and the DIII-D National Fusion Facility at General Atomics. They have both been operating since the 1980s under direction, regulation and monitoring by the Department of Energy (DOE), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as well as other federal and state agencies. This provides most of the understanding needed for regulation. There are also dozens of companies throughout the USA that possess manufacturing and distribution licenses for handling tritium. Tritium is a minor radioactive isotope of hydrogen with a half-life of about 13 years. Fusion reactors use similar quantities of tritium currently used in nuclear medicine and industrial applications. We are talking about grams of material that can power moderate size cities. The current NRC part 20 and 30 rules for general radiation protections and byproduct handling regulations will likely be the basis for fusion energy providers.
What is left to determine is the tailoring of regulations for specific fusion facilities. There are several fusion technologies heading for demonstration and pilot facility level plants including facilities that use no radioactive materials. Each technology will need to be addressed beyond similarities. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicines Report of February 2021, Bringing Fusion to the U.S. Grid, provides key goals and innovations needed for a U.S. fusion pilot plant. Regulatory bodies will use data from this report and on-going topical reports from the industry to assist in forming regulations specific to fusion.
When will fusion energy regulation be implemented?
This may well be the most interesting question to answer. The general public’s awareness of fusion is minimalized by what they don’t see. What the public has seen is decades of scientific and engineering research going on in the background, while fossil fuel is destroying our ecosystem. Fusion energy regulation will help change the public’s awareness of fusion. When the government tells the public it is safe, effective and economically viable, fusion will win greater acceptance.
There are several companies in the US and around the world that have begun building demonstration power facilities to prove that they have reached “Q greater than 1”. The Q equation is the term used for getting more power out than the power used to run the facility. These facilities will be running in the 2025/26 - time frame. This means that the regulations will need to be in place by about 2024. If you haven’t realized, that is just around the corner and the reason that the fusion industry is working hard to have those regulations defined now.
So, what will come from fusion energy regulation?
Why do we regulate anything? Regulation is used to provide rules for handling of any materials from talcum powder to uranium where the public can be affected. It is also used to provide standards for processes, equipment or structures required in any particular industry. In the case of fusion, regulation will mostly provide for a safe work environment similarly to any other regulated industry. While strict security and chain of materials handling will be required, it shouldn’t be overly burdened by any military or national security requirements.
Fusion energy regulation will provide the written, structured evidence that fusion is environmentally safe for humans and our planet.
Further information on Fusion Energy Regulation at the Fusion Industry Association website: