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Nuclear fusion could power US cities within the next decade

[Oct. 27, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

Nuclear fusion is an atomic process in which hydrogen atoms are fused with such vigor that they merge into helium.. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

In a groundbreaking announcement geared towards a carbon-neutral future, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm conveyed the Biden administration's aspirations to operationalize a commercial nuclear fusion facility within the forthcoming decade. Aiming to propel the nation's pivot to clean energy, President Joe Biden is keen on tapping nuclear fusion, a burgeoning technology, as a pristine, carbon-free power source.

Granholm, during a recent interview, stated, "It’s not out of the realm of possibility” that the United States could realize Biden’s “decadal vision of commercial fusion.”


The Potential of Nuclear Fusion

For the uninitiated, nuclear fusion is an atomic process in which hydrogen atoms are fused with such vigor that they merge into helium. This process liberates vast amounts of energy and heat. An edge that fusion holds over other nuclear reactions is its absence of radioactive waste generation. As proponents vouch for its potential, nuclear fusion emerges as a beacon of hope, promising a future where it might supplant fossil fuels and conventional energy sources. However, harnessing carbon-free energy from fusion to power residences and enterprises is still a vision for the distant future.

U.S. Energy Secretary Granholm. (CREDIT: Getty Images)

Recollecting milestones in fusion research, a notable breakthrough was accomplished at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Last December, the researchers celebrated the first-ever successful nuclear fusion, a culmination of relentless effort spanning decades.


International Oversight and Fusion's Global Implications

During her address, Granholm didn't miss the opportunity to commend the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), for its imperative role in ensuring nations honor their international accords. Particularly, she stressed their role in ascertaining that nuclear projects aren't misused, especially for illicit activities such as weapon creation. Granholm asserted, “The IAEA is instrumental in making sure that nuclear is harnessed for good and that it does not fall into the hands of bad actors.”


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These international pacts, inked with over 170 nations, empower the IAEA to scrutinize nuclear projects, verifying that their nuclear undertakings and material are channeled exclusively for peaceful purposes, including energy generation.

Nuclear energy's relevance has magnified in recent times, aligning with the Biden administration’s ambitious targets. The plan emphasizes a carbon-free power sector by 2035, ultimately aspiring for a net-zero emissions economy by 2050.


Addressing a pressing challenge associated with nuclear energy, Granholm spoke on the issues of radioactive waste storage. She revealed the U.S.'s proactive approach in scouting potential communities willing to accommodate an interim storage locale. At present, nuclear reactors across the nation predominantly store the spent fuel. Delving into specifics, she said, “We have identified 12 organizations that are going to be in discussion with communities across the country about whether they are interested (in hosting an interim site).”

Cooling towers of a nuclear power plant. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

Drawing a global perspective, while the U.S. currently abstains from recycling nuclear fuel, nations like France have pioneered this domain. Recycled nuclear fuel holds the potential to birth new fuel. Yet, critics argue against its economic viability and potential threats, including the fear of atomic weaponry proliferation.


Expert Opinion and Future Projections

Lending an expert voice to the discourse, Professor Dennis Whyte, helming the Plasma Science and Fusion Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, hailed the U.S.'s strategic progression in fusion. By fostering research collaborations and investing in diverse design approaches, the nation hopes for a demonstrable fusion prototype within a decade. “It doesn't guarantee a particular company will get there, but we have multiple shots on goal,” Whyte affirmed.

Whyte's optimism converges with the larger sentiment of harnessing commercial fusion to power our society without contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

Diving into other energy avenues, Granholm shared that the Biden administration is on the brink of announcing details about an $8 billion hydrogen hub initiative, bankrolled by the bipartisan infrastructure legislation. However, environmentalists have raised concerns about hydrogen's potential climate impact, especially its indirect contribution to methane and other greenhouse gas levels.

Responding to global environmental shifts and the U.K.'s recent policy modifications, Granholm reiterated the urgency for swift transitions to clean energy. Emphasizing the alarming climatic shifts, she stated, "When you see the heatwaves that the U.K. experienced this summer, I think it becomes obvious that we need to put on the accelerator.”


The difference between nuclear fusion and conventional nuclear reactors

The main difference between nuclear fusion and conventional nuclear reactors is the type of nuclear reaction used to generate energy.

One route for nuclear fusion is to use atoms of deuterium and tritium, both isotopes of hydrogen. They fuse under incredible heat and pressure, and the resulting products release energy as heat. (CREDIT: Getty Images)

Nuclear fusion is the process by which two or more atomic nuclei join together, or "fuse", to form a single heavier nucleus. This process releases a large amount of energy, as the mass of the resulting nucleus is slightly less than the sum of the masses of the original nuclei.


Conventional nuclear reactors use a process called nuclear fission to generate energy. Nuclear fission is the process by which a heavy nucleus splits into two or more lighter nuclei. This process also releases a large amount of energy.

Pressurised water reactor (PWR). This is the most common type, with about 300 operable reactors for power generation. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

Most of the energy released in fission appears as kinetic energy of the fission fragments. These fragments are slowed by collisions with the atoms in the reactor, which become hot (thermalization). The heat is transferred to a coolant, usually water, which heats up and becomes steam. The steam then drives a turbine connected to an electric generator.


Here is a table that summarizes the key differences between nuclear fusion and conventional nuclear reactors:


​Nuclear fusion

​Conventional nuclear reactors

Type of nuclear reaction




Light elements, such as deuterium and tritium

Heavy elements, such as uranium and plutonium

Waste Products

​Helium, a non-radioactive gas

​Highly radioactive fission products


Inherently safe, as the reaction will automatically stop if the reactor is damaged

More hazardous, as the fission reaction can continue even if the reactor is shut down

Technical challenges

Very difficult to achieve and maintain the high temperatures and pressures required for fusion

Well-established technology, but there are still some challenges to improve efficiency and reduce costs drive_spreadsheetExport to Sheets

Potential benefits of nuclear fusion:

  • Nearly limitless fuel supply: The fuel for nuclear fusion is abundant and can be easily extracted from seawater.

  • Low-carbon energy source: Nuclear fusion does not produce any greenhouse gases.

  • Inherently safe: The fusion reaction will automatically stop if the reactor is damaged.

  • Low-level radioactive waste: Nuclear fusion produces only helium, a non-radioactive gas.


Potential challenges of nuclear fusion:

  • Very difficult to achieve and maintain the high temperatures and pressures required for fusion.

  • Materials development: The materials used in a fusion reactor must be able to withstand extreme temperatures and pressures.

  • Cost: Nuclear fusion reactors are still in the early stages of development, and they are likely to be very expensive to build.

For more science news stories check out our New Innovations section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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