Promising Potential:

On 30 July 2023, for only the second time in history, a team of 8,000 engineers and scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California successfully completed a nuclear fusion reaction that achieved ignition. This means that the reaction yielded more energy than was originally put into it. Last December, the same team of researchers first created the star-like conditions of fusion ignition in a lab. Fusion is produced by combining atoms to produce energy. At extreme temperatures and pressures, atoms collide and "fuse," releasing huge amounts of energy. Nuclear fusion has sometimes been described as the "holy grail" of clean energy.

In the words of LLNL director Dr. Kim Budil, "The pursuit of fusion ignition in the laboratory is one of the most significant scientific challenges ever tackled." Although the amount of energy generated in the two recent successful ignitions is small, the US Department of Energy hailed this development as a "major scientific breakthrough" that would "pave the way for advancements in national defense and the future of clean power." The capacity to produce near-limitless clean energy could have profound implications for the global economy, environment, and geopolitics.

Have these two successful ignitions produced unrealistic expectations about fusion energy? Even fusion energy’s boosters admit that it will likely take decades to translate LLNL’s breakthrough into a commercially viable power source. The National Ignition Facility at LLNL is also an incredibly expensive facility. Moreover, the two ignition tests from July and the previous December have only been able to produce slightly more energy than went into the experiment. For this reaction to be put to practical real-world use, there would need to be many ignitions per minute, which would require lasers many magnitudes more powerful than those used at the LLNL facility. To make this feasible, the cost of producing the ignitions would have to be almost a million times less expensive.

We do know something from these two recent ignition tests: Fusion is possible. The task is now to scale up fusion technology and to move from experimentation to implementation. In the coming years, engineers need to figure out how to make commercially viable fusion power plants. To do so, the sector will need large injections of investment. Fortunately, fusion energy is starting to attract private money. Funding has largely come from billionaire investors and venture capitalists, as government support for the private sector has been less forthcoming.

Nuclear fusion energy has considerable appeal for industry, environmentalists, and poverty reduction advocates alike; it appears to have no apparent downside.

The nuclear fusion process produces no harmful emissions or waste fuel. Electricity generation is responsible for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, but nuclear fusion power plants could provide high-intensity carbon-free electrical energy. Significant momentum is gathering behind fusion largely because of the environmental benefits it could offer.

Moreover, if this apparently limitless resource became globally accessible, it could provide the most impoverished regions of the world with cheap and reliable electricity. Fusion energy could lift many families and communities out of poverty while also improving their health and security. But will fusion make us all winners?

As the Georgetown Security Studies Review has noted, "Commercial fusion energy technology has the potential to combat the climate crisis [and] meet the electricity needs of the rest of the world." It is also well-suited for energy-intensive operations such as desalinization, industrial heating, and mining. In short, it could "revolutionize the energy industry as a whole, making first-mover advantage a prize to be won." Rather than becoming a global public good, fusion energy could therefore give a tremendous edge to the country best equipped to harness this resource.

Energy competition has long shaped the balance of power in the international system. Achieving viable nuclear fusion energy will not eradicate geopolitical fights over energy resources. If anything, commercial fusion will transform the world’s energy system by bestowing vast benefits on countries that lead on fusion technology. Becoming a top energy supplier would be a major economic boon for whichever nation first achieves self-sustaining nuclear fusion. Meanwhile, countries that are reliant on exporting hydrocarbons would suffer disproportionately. 

For these reasons, the race for nuclear fusion energy could emerge as a key battleground in the techno-security leadership rivalry between the great powers. The US has already stepped up its investment in this sector as part of the Inflation Reduction Act of September 2022. US governmental backing of nuclear fusion is still dwarfed by Chinese state spending on new fusion testing. The potential benefits of developing nuclear fusion are fully apparent to top scientists. As one leading Chinese researcher observed, "Fusion ignition is the jewel in the crown of science and technology in today’s world."

Fusion could make it much easier for countries to become "green" within a generation. It could also provide a huge economic boon for countries able to lead in this field of energy technology.  However, although the latent potential of fusion ignition is real, limitless cheap electricity remains a distant prospect in today’s world. Commercialization of this energy source remains a long way off, even if the major breakthroughs of recent years offer hope that these hurdles will be crossed in the not-too-distant future. How rapidly this technology matures and who will ultimately benefit from nuclear fusion ultimately depends on which countries are willing to take the risk.