Image Source: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory / Flickr
On December 5th, a team at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) achieved ignition, creating a nuclear reaction which generates more energy than it consumes. The breakthrough was announced by the Biden administration on December 13th, once again sparking conversation surrounding nuclear fusion and its potential as a source of clean energy.
In contrast to nuclear fission, which derives its energy from the splitting of two atoms, nuclear fusion generates massive amounts of energy by combining two atoms, the same process which powers the sun and the stars. The process of nuclear fusion offers a lot of advantages: an end to reliance on fossil fuels, access to cheap, clean energy without producing radioactive waste, and a guarantee of safety, as the fusion reaction is innately self-limiting. Because it could potentially generate four time more energy per kilogram of fuel than nuclear fission, and nearly four million times more energy than oil or coal, fusion promises a revolution in the energy sector—and whichever country achieves the feat of nuclear fusion first will gain a massive amount of geopolitical power amidst the oncoming energy crisis.
The prospect of being the first nation to achieve a virtually inexhaustible source of energy has resulted in a boom in nuclear fusion investment. Becoming a leading energy supplier would be a major economic boon for whichever nation first achieves self-sustaining nuclear fusion. Furthermore, fusion will also engender benefits in other scientific areas, ranging from cancer therapy to hazardous waste treatment. Many countries are taking part in fusion research, with the United States, Japan, China, Germany, and the United Kingdom in the top five. The world’s largest international fusion facility, ITER, opened in France in 2020, a global collaboration between China, the 27 member-states of the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States.
In addition to fostering global cooperation around nuclear energy, nuclear fusion is another aspect of US-China competition that has massive implications for the fight for supremacy in the 21st century. Professor Peng Xianjue of the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics has been quoted as saying, “Fusion ignition is the jewel in the crown of science and technology in today’s world,” indicating the level of interest China has in nuclear fusion. Air pollution from coal-fired plants has contributed to China’s desire to invest in nuclear energy. In September of this year, the Chinese government announced that they approved the construction of the world’s largest pulsed-power plant in the Sichuan province, with plans to generate nuclear fusion by 2028.
In total, China is outspending the United States when it comes to nuclear energy. In the case of the United States, since 2009, the DOE “has awarded less than $900 million to improve nuclear infrastructure and resilience.” The vast majority of investment in nuclear fusion is private, with only $117 million of a $4.8 billion industry coming from public funds as of 2022. However, the Inflation Reduction Act, passed in September 2022, promises $280 million for “fusion energy science construction and major items of equipment projects.” In contrast, China reportedly plans to spend $440 billion to build more than 150 new nuclear power stations over the next 15 years, and is devoting much of its resources into new fusion testing.
China’s recent “artificial sun” project, part of its Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) reactor, broke world records in early 2022 by sustaining a nuclear fusion reaction for over 17 minutes. During the experiment, superheated plasma reached 126 million degrees Fahrenheit, laying a “solid scientific and experimental foundation towards the running of a fusion reactor” according to Gong Xianzu, a researcher at the Institute of Plasma Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The process does not require fossil fuels, does not leave behind radioactive waste, is a safer alternative to fission, and promises a cleaner, greener energy future for China.
With China on the cutting edge of fusion innovation, more attention must be paid to what exactly the geopolitical implications of China achieving nuclear fusion before the United States are. Especially in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which has resulted in soaring energy prices and energy scarcity throughout Europe, interest in nuclear fusion as an alternative has increased. Should China be able to corner the market on a limitless, cheap, clean energy alternative, they will hold an enormous amount of leverage by effectively controlling the nuclear energy sector. Commercial fusion energy technology has the potential to combat the climate crisis, meet the electricity needs of the rest of the world, and revolutionize the energy industry as a whole, making first-mover advantage a prize to be won. Energy has long shaped the international system, determining alliances, rivalries, and even the outcomes of wars. With the rapid changes in the energy sector in the last few years, it would be prudent for the United States to further bolster its investment in nuclear fusion and begin to properly rival the other nuclear energy titans, China included.