Webinar

Nuclear Fusion and the Future of Energy

Tuesday, September 26, 2023
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Speaker

Director, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Presider

Associate Dean and Professor, NYU Center for Global Affairs

Introductory Remarks

Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Kim Budil, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, discusses the recent achievement of a net energy gain from a nuclear fusion reaction and its implications for the future of global energy. The discussion is moderated by Carolyn Kissane, associate dean and clinical professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. 

TRANSCRIPT

FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations State and Local Officials Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach at CFR. We are delighted to have participants from forty-nine states and U.S. territories with us for today’s conversation, which is on the record.

CFR is an independent and nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher focused on U.S. foreign policy. CFR is also the publisher of Foreign Affairs magazine. And as always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. Through our State and Local Officials Initiative, CFR serves as a resource on international issues affecting the priorities and agendas of state and local governments by providing analysis on a wide range of policy topics.

We appreciate your being with us today. Again, this conversation is on the record. We will make the video and transcript available after the fact at CFR.org.

And we are delighted to have Kim Budil and Carolyn Kissane with us for this conversation on “Nuclear Fission (sic; Fusion) and the Future of Energy.”

Kim Budil is the director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. She leads a team of approximately 8,400 employees and works to ensure the successful execution of programs and operations which enhance national security through the application of cutting-edge science and technology. And she serves as a liaison between the laboratory and the Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Lawrence Livermore National Security Board of Governors, the University of California, and other government, public, and private organizations.

Carolyn Kissane is the associate dean of the graduate programs in global affairs, global security, conflict, and cybercrime at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. She also serves as director of the Energy, Climate Justice, and Sustainability Lab in the School of Professional Studies at NYU. And she is also a member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and serves on boards of the New York Energy Forum, New York Energy Week, and the Clean Start Advisory Board, and is a member of CFR.

So, Kim, Carolyn, thank you very much for this. I’m going to turn it over to you to have the conversation, and then we will invite all of you on the call to share your questions and comments after we have that initial conversation. So, Carolyn, over to you.

KISSANE: Irina, thank you so very much. And, Dr. Budil, thank you so much for being here. I am truly honored to have the opportunity to preside over this conversation. And many thanks to the Council on Foreign Relations for organizing.

So, Dr. Budil, it has been quite an extraordinary year for nuclear fusion, with the December 2022 extraordinary success of the—of your—the work that you’ve been doing at Lawrence Livermore and then again in July. Can you tell us—can you give us kind of some background for those who are not familiar with nuclear fusion what it is, and also what those two advancements mean for nuclear fusion?

BUDIL: Sure. Thank you, Carolyn. And thank you for moderating this conversation and to the Council for inviting me. I’m really excited to be here today.

So, as you mentioned, we have been working—hard at work on understanding the fusion process. Fusion is the process that powers the sun and is only in other stars in the universe. In terrestrial applications, fusion is the process that powers modern thermonuclear weapons. So for many, many decades, there has been a quest in the scientific community to create a platform in a laboratory where we could really study this very fundamental process.

So the way fusion works is you take two isotopes of hydrogen—an isotope means it has an extra neutral particle so it’s a little bit heavier than regular hydrogen: deuterium, which has two neutrons; tritium, which has three—you put them under high pressure, and squeeze them together, and if you can hold them together at high enough pressure and temperature for long enough they fuse together. When they fuse together, they create a helium nucleus and release an energetic neutron. And so that energy that’s released is much greater than the energy, potentially, that’s required to create the fusion process. The trick is it’s very hard to get those conditions where you can make that fusion process self-sustaining.

So sixty years ago, one of our researchers, John Nuckolls, who later became director of the lab in the early ’90s, proposed that a new technology that had just been invented, the laser, might be used to create these conditions in a lab. Sounded very straightforward: You would use lasers. You’d shine the lasers into a small can, gold can to create X-rays. Those X-rays would bathe the outer surface of a little tiny capsule about the size of a BB. When you blow the outer surface of the capsule off because of the heating of those X-rays, the inner surface moves in. And in the center of that capsule, you put this hydrogen fuel, the deuterium and tritium.

So for sixty years we’ve been working to figure out how to get those little capsules to squeeze up very fast and hold together for a long time so that they would create more fusion energy than the laser energy required to drive it. Today, we have a laser that produces 2 million joules of laser energy. It’s in a facility that’s three football fields in extent and ten stories tall at its greatest extent, so it’s the world’s largest, most energetic laser at the National Ignition Facility. We take all of that energy and a hundred ninety-two laser beams and focus it down into a small gold can that’s about a centimeter in scale. So that’s the trick; you take all this energy in a short pulse, a few billionths of a second, and you put it in this very, very small volume. The little capsule in the center is made out of diamond. Turns out diamond has very special properties that help in this process.

And in the experiment in December, we were able to use those 2 million joules of laser energy to produce 3.15 million joules of fusion energy out. So that’s the first time anywhere by any technique that an experiment—a fusion experiment has achieved gain greater than one. So really a big deal and an enormous scientific advance. Of course, we do this work for national security purposes. We want to study that fusion process, use it to create very extreme conditions in materials and things like that, so our system is not very efficient. This is not yet a power plant. It takes about 300 million joules off the U.S. grid to power the flash lamps that drive the laser to make those 2 million joules of laser energy, so we have a long way to go to make an efficient power-producing source. But the fundamental building block of what could be a fusion energy source has been demonstrated in this experiment.

In the subsequent experiment, this most recent one in July, we produced nearly 4 million joules of laser energy. So we’re steadily improving our ability to control the conditions in the laser. The laser has to be very precise, the temporal shape of the pulse has to be very precise, and the energy has to be delivered very uniformly. The little capsule is a tiny work of art. It has to be perfectly smooth, perfectly symmetric so that as it squeezes up it doesn’t get any kinds of bumps and wiggles or tears in it that might let the fusion fuel escape. And holding that fuel together for a long time really requires having those very precise conditions so that the capsule, when it gets squeezed up to those very extreme conditions, can allow the fusion process to begin to proceed and bootstrap, if you will, so the fusions—one fusion begets more fusions.

KISSANE: Fantastic. Thank you so much for that overview. It is beyond fascinating.

So a question. I mean, shortly after, in February of 2023, President Biden in his—in his State of the Union sort of declared a bold vision over the next decade for commercial fusion, and I’m sure many people in our audience are sort of wondering about what the timeline looks like given the two, again, as you pointed out, extraordinary advancements. When you sort of look at it from your vantage point, what do you see as kind of realistic for when we might achieve commercial viability?

BUDIL: That’s a very excellent question. I actually participated in the White House launch for the bold decadal vision on fusion energy.

There’s two approaches to fusion. One is the one I described. We call that inertial-confinement fusion. Basically, you use the mass of that little capsule to hold the fuel together, sort of how the sun works. The sun uses gravity to hold the fusion fuel together and keep that engine running. There is another approach called magnetic fusion where you use a very large metal donut called a torus. The device is called a tokamak. You use magnetic fields to compress a much larger plasma to a lower density but for a longer time. So there’s been a very large worldwide effort in magnetic fusion over many decades, and they also had an interesting breakthrough where they developed a new type of magnet that’s very efficient and uses superconducting technology.

So a number of fusion—private-sector fusion companies have started over the last ten to fifteen years mostly focused on magnetic-fusion approaches. Since our results, there have been several companies that have started based on the inertial-confinement fusion approach. So that’s the first thing, the complex—the landscape is complex. There have been about $5 billion or more of private capital invested in these fusion startups, so there is a lot of excitement on the street.

You know, realistically, there are some very significant technology challenges to translating these scientific results to commercially viable fusion power.

First and foremost for us is the process needs to be much more efficient and the gain needs to be much higher. So you would need—you know, we’re doing gains of one-and-a-half, two at the current moment. You’d need gains of forty or fifty times to really be in the right ballpark.

We do one shot a day. Technically, with the fusion experiments we do one shot every few days because it makes everything very hot for a little while before we can return and to, you know reconfigure the chamber. In order to do fusion power, you’d need to be able to do this ten times a second.

I mentioned these little targets are exquisite works of art. You need to make them robust and cheap to produce because you’re going to need tens of thousands of them, not just a small handful of them.

And then the laser system that delivers the energy needs to be much more efficient. That actually is one of the easier challenges. Our current laser is based on 1980s laser technology. It’s about 2 percent efficient. We know how to make lasers that are 20 percent efficient. So, you know, you can begin to see how that would scale.

The last set of challenges, then, are how do you capture that energy that’s produced. So most of the schemes for fusion power plants by any means use some kind of liquid flowing metal like lithium to capture up those neutrons, convert them to heat, and then it looks like a traditional power plant from that point on. So there are material science challenges—How do you do maintenance? How do you sustain materials in these high-radiation environments?—that, you know, both approaches share.

So that’s a lot of science and technology. We have ideas to address all these questions. But to—(inaudible)—for fusion energy production, time is money. So we need the smartest people really focused on these very hard technical challenges in order to make significant progress.

My best estimate, if we really focused as a nation and the community really came together around these big challenges, is that we’re probably about two decades from a demonstration of power production. There are companies today that are promising fusion—commercially viable fusion power in the next five to ten years. I really hope they’re successful because we really need this technology, but I’m sort of adopting a wait-and-see approach.

KISSANE: Probably—it’s probably healthy. So thank you. Thank you for that.

So a question. I mean, when the announcement—you know, when this sort of news broke to tremendous fanfare for so many reasons—it’s imagining the unimaginable—of course, you know, sort of thinking about how does not just the United States but the world in terms of decarbonization and moving towards net zero—fusion is non-polluting, zero carbon, and it’s—you know, it’s inexhaustible. What would you say to people who are, you know, joining us today in terms of how we can sort of think about this as being a part of a longer-term energy transition?

BUDIL: I think you hit several of the most important points. Fusion affords the opportunity for clean baseload energy at scale. So it really is the only clean technology that provides a constant, steady source of power applicable to any region, any geography. You know, it really is an answer to how you keep that steady baseload power on in the background. The fuel is cheap. Again, hydrogen is a key component of water. And so the economics can look very favorable if we can, of course, develop all the requisite technologies to go along with that. And it does not produce the kind of long-lived nuclear waste that fission approaches do. So it has a lot of really great attributes.

Fusion is also passively safe. If I turn my laser off, the fusion process stops. Turns out it’s very easy to stop the fusion process; much harder to make it go. As opposed to, again, fission, where you can set up an uncontrolled chain reaction and people have concerns about safety. So fusion has a lot of really great attributes to it.

It also has some nice power plant features. I’ll talk about the approach that we do, this inertial-confinement fusion approach. We have this very large laser and these tiny targets, but they’re decoupled from each other. So you can maintain the plant in a relatively straightforward way. We can improve the driver and build modular lasers that can be easily maintained and changed out, you know, while you keep the target the same, or you can alter the target geometry very easily without changing anything about the driver. Because they’re separate, maintenance issues are much more simple. We’re not going to irradiate the laser, for example, with the fusion process.

So, you know, when you think about the energy landscape, energy is exquisitely local in our current system. For the next couple decades, we are going to have to pull out all the stops on approaches to managing carbon in the environment and transitioning our energy sources to include currently available technologies like fission power; solar; wind; other renewables; geothermal; carbon capture and sequestration, you know, via a wide variety of means; recycling of carbon. You know, a whole host of approaches need to be taken. So the fact that fusion energy won’t be here for ten or twenty or even thirty years, to me, is not a problem, right? We’re going to be on this path for a long time, and this technology presents a very long-term, robust solution to the world’s increasing energy demands.

Also has some nice features from a national-security standpoint, again, because you’re not managing large amounts of nuclear material to do this work. It really does have some benefits where you can imagine bringing power to the developing world, where energy consumption is only going to go up over the next decades.

So, you know, the old joke in the fusion community was fusion is fifty years away from whatever day you ask. You know, that timeline is coming toward us now, which is great. And with focus, with effort, it could be a couple of decades and we could be talking about starting to deploy fusion energy as a meaningful part of our energy system.

KISSANE: Well, thank you for that. That was such a thoughtful and just very pragmatic overview.

So you mentioned national security. So when we think about, you know, nuclear fusion here in the United States, what is the geopolitical landscape for fusion? Do we see developments in, for example, China? What would you—from a U.S. perspective, what does that look like?

BUDIL: The fusion community is very international in character. The biggest fusion project in the world today is the ITER project. It’s a large technology demonstration project building a giant tokamak in France—Cadarache, France—that’s being supported by, you know, many, many countries around the world. And so the magnetic-fusion community, as you go to these very, very large scales, you know, any one country has a hard time supporting a single experiment.

Inertial-confinement fusion also has an international character to it. We have strong international collaborations with many of our allies—countries in Europe, the United Kingdom, France. France is building a laser similar to ours called Laser Mégajoule. It will be a little bit smaller than the National Ignition Facility but, you know, based on the same kinds of technologies. And with researchers in Japan, for example, they’re a big part of the fusion community.

There are competing programs in China and in Russia in inertial-confinement fusion, again, because this is a very strategically important technology. You know, they’re investing in big laser systems and really trying to see what the possibilities are. The Russians have long been leaders in pulse power technology, so they have other approaches that are sort of inertial confinement using magnetic approaches.

So for the U.S., you know, we’ve built over many decades enormous capability, particularly in our national laboratories. In inertial-confinement fusion, it’s Lawrence Livermore, Sandia, Los Alamos National Lab. In magnetic fusion, Oak Ridge, Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, our lab, many others have efforts in that arena. This is an opportunity for us to lead, really lead in the international scene in developing this energy technology, working with partners, building strategic partnerships with our key allies in Europe and Asia to really build strong relationships on this incredibly important technology arena, and to demonstrate our capability. I mean, as a nation, this is a tremendous—should be a tremendous point of pride that we were able to sustain the patient public investment in fusion over these many decades and produce this first-in-the-world result here with our researchers. I just think that’s really a wonderful story.

I think the last thing I would say about fusion in the U.S. and the importance of this is that, you know, these programs have spun incredible amounts of technology out into the world over those many decades. We weren’t just, you know, doing—we were doing great science, but you know, the core technologies that enabled extreme ultraviolet lithography, which is what’s making those tiny chips in your iPhone, came out of the national labs and out of the inertial-confinement fusion program. So my lab played a big role in that. Microwave impulse radar, that annoying beeping sound when you back up, that came out of this program. Laser guide star, which revolutionized ground-based astronomy, came out of this program. So there is a long history of ancillary benefits that have really driven, you know, U.S. technology competitiveness and put us at the forefront of many fields.

KISSANE: Thank you for that.

So as a—as a follow-up, I mean, given—I do consider our national labs treasures across the United States, and I do think it offers the United States exceptional strategic advantage and the opportunity to cooperate. So as someone who’s the director of the Livermore Lawrence (sic; Lawrence Livermore) Lab, what would you—what would be your sort of wish right now in terms of what do you need from the federal government to further advance the work that you’re doing on nuclear fusion, but also just the overall work that’s happening at Lawrence Livermore?

BUDIL: I’d say first and foremost, you know, we built this National Ignition Facility to support the Stockpile Stewardship Program. It’s a cornerstone of our effort to develop a suite a science and technology capabilities that will enable us to never have to return to nuclear testing, which is a key contributor to global stability. And this facility has made enormous contributions over its lifecycle to that effort, and has given us a level of understanding and capability and tested and challenged our experts in ways that are just critical when you think of the high-consequence decisions those people are making.

The facility, of course, though, has been operating full tilt for a decade. Construction actually started in 1999. So it really needs sustained investment, and it’s at a moment where it needs some significant investment for maintenance and sustainment of systems. So we really need the country to reinvest in this amazing capability to make sure it remains viable into the future, and then we have the opportunity actually to expand its capabilities. We believe that we could take the energy up to about three megajoules, which is well beyond where anyone else in the world can operate, because of the advancements we’ve made. And again, you know, this is an enormous capability for the nation, and I—you know, those investments will beget many benefits for basic science, for energy science, for national security across the board.

I think for fusion energy, I think it’s important that there be public investment because there are a whole host of challenges that these private-sector companies are just too small to really solve on their own. So building on this very large-scale science program that we’ve built over many decades across magnetic and inertial fusion, we have the chance to help speed this transition and speed the deployment of this technology by focusing on materials science challenges, by understanding the fuel cycle for these reactors. They need tritium. How do you capture and recycle tritium and make sure that that fuel cycle is viable, for the target design and capability, for, you know, understanding the physics of how to scale from one per day to ten times a second shot operations? So keeping that public program as a key partner to this private enterprise effort to take the technology through to energy deployment is just critically important. This is—this is a moment to lean in, not a moment to step back.

KISSANE: So we’re joined today by state and local officials. So what would be your—I mean, I think you just really, you know, put forward a strong message. But if you were to make an ask, right, when we’re thinking of the state and local levels, what would that be?

BUDIL: I would say it’s not too early to start thinking about what this technology means and what the regulatory environment needs to look like to enable it. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is already thinking about fusion. You don’t want to wait on these issues. To think about, you know, the kind of workforce that’s going to be needed for this technology to really have the kind of impact we know is important. To think about the role it could play in your community or your region relative to other energy sources you might have. As I said, energy is exquisitely local, so thinking through what a different delivery method for baseload energy looks like and how that fits into your plans and your infrastructure thinking about the future. And as we’re making large-scale investments in reinvigorating a lot of our supporting infrastructure like the grid, like all the enabling infrastructure that goes along with this, thinking about what this future technology might mean as you make those plans. You know, these once sort of generational investments in large-scale energy infrastructure really need to be a little bit visionary at the margin, because you don’t know what’s going to be in hand thirty years from now but you want a system that’s flexible and adaptable to new technologies being added.

And I would say, you know, learn. Engage with researchers at my lab, at the other national labs. We are here as a resource to the public. With local academic institutions to, again, help understand what the science is, what the technology really means, what the workforce should look like, and you know, what the opportunity might be for your region.

KISSANE: Well, thank you. Well, you are a very eloquent communicator on all of these issues.

So we’re going to now move to taking questions from the audience. So, Dr. Budil, again, thank you for that wonderful overview and introduction. So we’re going to open it up. And as a reminder, we are on the record.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

So, as I’m not surprised, questions are quickly coming in. Let me just—so we have a question from CFR member Roger Henderson, who has his hand raised. Roger?

OPERATOR: Mr. Henderson, if you could please accept the unmute now prompt. Looks like we’re having technical difficulties. We can move on to the next question.

KISSANE: Sure. Well, we have a question that’s here that also—we have a couple of questions about this, about the private fusion companies going into this space at this—as you pointed out, this very early stage. How can they work either with your national lab or how can they work with—what’s the most meaningful way for them to sort of—to sort of move this forward?

BUDIL: That’s a great question. They have a wide variety of approaches and, therefore, a wide variety of needs for help and support. Some companies have, you know, very strong internal technologies that they’re pursuing and feel, you know, somewhat independent. Department of Energy has now several programs to support public-private partnerships in this arena, really to spur the ability of these companies to get access to the national laboratories. So we’re involved in several of these—it’s called the Milestone Program, run through the Fusion Energy Sciences Program. And of course, ARPA-E has also had a fusion program for some time where they’ve supported early-stage research and development in these companies.

Depending upon where they are at in their technology journey, they may be licensing interim technologies that they develop. So one of the biggest early magnetic-fusion-focused companies, Commonwealth Fusion, spun out of MIT, where these superconducting magnets were developed. So they’re working on, you know, building up their infrastructure to build magnets and build a tokamak demonstration facility. Other companies, like the inertial-confinement fusion companies, which include Focused Energy and Longview Fusion, they’re trying to work with us to really understand how to translate this scientific result into something that puts us on a path toward an energy future.

So wide variety of approaches, many with academic partners in addition to the national labs and private-sector money. And some of them have very significant investment, you know, sort of billion-dollar scale investment. And for hard tech, you can do something with a billion dollars.

KISSANE: A billion dollars can go far. OK. Excellent.

We’re going to take another question, from Councilmember Roger—oh, I’m sorry. We’re going to go to Supervisor Gary Neights from Lower Providence Township, Pennsylvania.

Q: Hello. Can you hear me OK?

KISSANE: Yes, we can.

Q: So my question is, do we know yet what the future footprint of fusion might look like? For example, might it be swapping out a fusion reactor for a fission reactor, assuming reactor is the right term for it, and leverage the existing grid? Or do we think that fusion will, like, have a much larger capacity, therefore—or much smaller capacity where we need many more of them? Just trying to get a feel if we know yet what that might look like.

BUDIL: That’s a great question, I think. In terms of scale, I would say the goal is to be similar in scale to a fission power plant. The actual on-the-ground footprint will look a little bit different, but the energy production scale is anticipated to be similar, and so it will integrate into the grid in a similar way. So I think from that perspective not necessarily special, but the associated balance of plant will look quite different for a fusion power plant than it might for a fission power plant.

KISSANE: Great.

So we have three questions in the—in the Q&A regarding infrastructure. And in your comments, you did touch upon the energy infrastructure investment. So what types of future forward energy infrastructure do you recommend?

BUDIL: So it depends what time scale you’re looking at. If you’re looking at today, you know, we really need to understand how to transition our grid to a more resilient construct that makes it easier to integrate renewables and other sources of energy into it, right? Our grid was not designed for distributed energy production. It certainly wasn’t designed—I live in California. We went through the early phases of the rooftop solar revolution very fast, and I would say we weren’t really completely prepared for what the implications of that are in terms of distributed energy production and resilience of the overall system in that environment. So thinking about that not as a bug, as it were, but as a feature—building grids that allow you to utilize that distributed energy production in unique and dynamic ways with modern, you know, artificial intelligence tools and things like that to manage energy production. You know, all those electric vehicles on the grid, they’re a potential storage network for you that you can draw upon in times of need. So building a grid that’s not thought of as just a monolithic way to connect everybody to a giant power plant, but as a distributed system of energy producing and storing capabilities I think is the first and foremost, and in a way that, you know, is resilient against the extreme weather events that we’re seeing. And the issues that we’ve had in California, the issues that we’ve seen in Texas and other parts of the country show how brittle some of our infrastructure really is and the need for those investments. So that’s one.

In the near term, we need a carbon management economy. So we have opportunities now to begin deploying technologies to better manage the carbon that’s already in the environment or that’s continuing to be produced. We’re going to be using oil and gas and other fossil fuels for a long time, so we need to manage that. So that could be anything from direct air capture and storage underground. We’re working—we have long history in underground storage due to our expertise in subsurface science that came from nuclear testing. So, you know, we have lots of technologies for long-term safe storage of carbon underground. But also recycling carbon, turning it into useful chemicals—so taking that CO2 and putting it back into the—into more of a closed-loop system. Managing biomass. You know, using our land differently, thinking about the role that land management can play in carbon management. So for the next decade, it really is bringing new sources of energy online, managing the carbon that’s already in the environment, reducing the impact of emissions from existing sources, and beginning the process of thinking about what electrification really means—because, as many people have pointed out, if you simply electrify all the vehicles, you still have the problem that the sources of electricity aren’t necessarily clean. So it’s not—it’s not simple. It’s a very complex problem.

Nuclear power, traditional fission power, is going to play a role in this period because it really is a source of clean, carbon-free baseload energy, and that’s very important. So sustaining our current fleet is really important, and a lot of effort is going into that arena. And I think technologies like small modular reactors are a great next step as we move toward deployment of newer technologies like fusion. So as we build this new infrastructure, as we change the energy mix, as we change the grid and evolve the sophistication with which we manage our energy assets, I think we just need to keep in mind that there’s this next set of revolutionary technologies, either better long-term storage or new—really new gamechangers like fusion, that need to be integrated into that system in the future. But, you know, the ability to control and manage energy sources, much like we saw with the energy efficiency revolution that started in the ’70s, you know, now the ability to really fine-tune how we make/use/distribute energy with these automated systems is going to be a big deal, I think.

KISSANE: Well, thank you for that.

So we have a question from Ken Romney, mayor of West Bountiful, Utah.

Q: OK. Can you hear me? I have—

KISSANE: Yes.

Q: Excellent. Thank you.

So I—two things. One, I was just curious, obviously, we’re a decade—you know, I think decades away, and I appreciate your discussing all—you know, all the different sources of power that we’re going to need until this gets perfected. Do you see this technology resulting someday in smaller, perhaps more localized, you know, generation?

BUDIL: For sure. I think, you know, in the near term the effort to develop small modular reactors—sort of nuclear batteries—are a great solution to that, where you can—you know, they could be potentially factory-built and deployed to a site. And so the biggest challenge right now for deploying nuclear power really is cost, cost of capital. You know, putting a plant together costs $20 billion or so, and that’s really a very difficult situation if you think about trying to be an economically viable power producer. These smaller reactors, where you could potentially site multiple reactors based on the scale of need in the area, is a really good idea.

I think exploring—particularly for smaller communities, there’s an opportunity to pilot some of this enabling infrastructure like microgrids and distributed energy storage utilizing, you know, electric vehicles or everybody’s Powerwalls or whatever is available. And thinking about what your local renewable options are—could be geothermal, could be solar, or could be wind. There are many—you know, depending on how you’re—what region of the country you’re in, you have different sources of power.

And I think it’s important for communities to think about the opportunities for this carbon management period that I talked about. We’re working with communities right now, oil and gas communities. So California is an oil- and gas-producing state, and we were, you know, the biggest oil and gas producer in the world at the turn of the last century. (Laughs.) But those reserves are being depleted, and so what is that infrastructure useful for? Turns out those are very useful sites to store carbon. So beginning to think about how you can manage a transition of workforce and jobs and, you know, economic opportunity from one type of energy production to another—be it from, you know, oil and gas production to carbon management or from, you know, renewables to fusion in the future—I think is important. And everyone will have a different solution set that looks best for your community.

KISSANE: So on that note, we have a great question from Robert Cantelmo, who is the councilmember from Ithaca, New York. And he asks: As municipalities begin to move investment away from oil and gas, how do you recommend we balance investment in existing renewables against the potential of fusion?

BUDIL: Mmm. That’s a good question.

I think fusion’s at a stage where if we have the scale of federal investment that will really enable solving these technology challenges and continuous support from these private-sector companies that have really gone all-in on this technology, we’ll continue to steadily move the fusion technology forward for the future. So the most important thing for communities to do with respect to fusion, I think, is to be involved in the conversation. To stay cognizant of where the technology is going and what the opportunities might look like. The different approaches to fusion may have, you know, different timelines associated with them. So, you know, we’re trying to build—we’re trying to be sort of a hub where we bring together industry, communities, philanthropies, federal support, et cetera, so that we can have a good information exchange. So stay apprised, understand where we’re at, and keep moving.

And in the meantime, really think about this local need question. You know, we’ve been—we did a report for the state of California called Getting to Neutral, which looked at strategies to achieve carbon neutrality on California’s timelines. And it looks feasible with today’s technology. That’s currently being turned into a nationwide look called Roads to Removal, which is going to look at strategies based on all the different needs of different regions around the country. So using that as a vehicle to really understand what the near-term strategies are, and making decisions that don’t preclude, you know, future integration of this new baseload source, let’s say, is the most important.

KISSANE: Great.

So I have a question here that I’m going to read to you from Cara Honzak. And I’d probably just add a piece, because we have gotten a couple of questions about regulation and how city and state officials can be thinking about sort of smart regulation, as we—as we think about these issues: I’m a councilmember from the city government in Maryland. We have a local policy that establishes our city as a nuclear-free zone. And it has been in place since the 1980s. At present, our city happens to be in the process of updating our policy, but the reasons are unrelated to issues like nuclear fusion. Do you have any advice for a city like ours in terms of what you would hope—what you would hope would not appear in policies like this that might have existed since the 1980s?

BUDIL: Yes. I think the first and most important thing is the nuclear fusion is not nuclear fission. It’s completely different. You know, the safety considerations, the waste considerations are in an entirely different category between the two technologies. So using umbrella terms, like nuclear-free zone, is going to be very problematic in this environment. And I can’t change the fact that it’s nuclear particles that make nuclear fusion. So that’s just the way it is.

But we really want to get ahead of the public perception of this technology, because I think, you know, as a nation, as scientists, I feel we really lost the trust of the public. And we really haven’t been very effective in building an understanding of what the safety considerations really are surrounding fission power. So kind of being very proactive in thinking about safety considerations. You know, if there are specific types of risks that your community does not want to take, I would think about that, you know, in terms of the risk basis.

The risks, the safety risks associated with fusion, are very low and very manageable with, you know, simple engineered controls. And the systems, as I said, are passively safe. There’s no—there was no worry of having an uncontrolled runaway, you know, fusion system. So, you know, that is—that that requires you to be a little more sophisticated in how you think about laying out what the community is really concerned about.

I think it’s a good opportunity too to have a conversation with the community about what is it we’re trying—what’s important to us? What is it we’re trying to protect the community from? What are the values we’re trying to express with a statement like that? Because I think that’s very important. That says something about the community’s values and its desire to protect its citizenry. It just needs maybe a little more precision to allow for these technology opportunities in the future than it did when the original thought was had. There was no—you know, it was meant for a very specific set of considerations.

KISSANE: Excellent.

And as a quick follow up, when you think about land use and what would be required as compared to sort of more traditional energy, is this a—what kind of a footprint would it have in terms of a fusion power station?

BUDIL: So it wouldn’t look very different from a large scale generating power generating station today. The specifics would be a little bit different. But as I said, the outside of the fusion engine part, the way you make the power, as we envision it today, is the same. You make heat. Heat turns turbines. And you make steam, it turns turbines, and then you make—put power on the grid. So I think thinking about it and as sort of a—it’s not quite the right word—but, like, a drop-in replacement for a large-scale standard power plant today is probably a reasonable expectation.

The other thing that happens all the time—so I mentioned the size of our laser. You could make a laser that produced—today, you could make a laser that produces the same amount of energy as our laser in a smaller footprint, because technology tends to get smaller over time. We get smarter and we figure out ways to make things more compact. So it’s, you know, drop-in replacement maybe is my—I may regret saying that, but. (Laughs.)

KISSANE: OK. (Laughs.)

BUDIL: That’s what I’m going to go with. That’s my final offer.

KISSANE: OK, thank you. So we have a raised hand from David Wunsch, director and state geologist, the Delaware Geological Survey. David.

Q: Yes. So thank you very much for an interesting presentation.

My question, Dr. Budil, you mentioned, I think, using molten lithium for your heat transfer mechanism. But are there any other critical minerals or rare earths, or things that would be needed for this technology, you know, in mass compared to other technologies?

BUDIL: That’s an excellent question. Not really. It depends a little bit on the specific technology approach that you take, because they each have different considerations. So for the approach that we use, there aren’t really any significant critical material issues, or even significant supply chain issues for the types of technologies and materials that we use. Of course, it’s an excellent point that we spend a lot of time thinking about. The pandemic really did highlight for us how fragile many of our supply chains are for even some sort of commodity materials.

So it’s not just critical minerals or, you know, the kinds of things we’re using in batteries and whatnot. Even some very simple metals are mostly mined and refined overseas, mostly mined and refined in either Russia or China. And so, global supply chains being what they are, mean we do have to think carefully about particularly domestic supplies. And again, this idea of building relationships with allies and partners in key regions can help. And incentives and regulatory help in making it more economically viable to do more environmentally friendly mining in the U.S. for some of these things would probably help as well. So but nothing comes to mind that’s really exotic.

KISSANE: And tritium is in—we have sufficient supply?

BUDIL: So we make tritium in reactors. So we have sufficient supply. I think the most important point—I didn’t emphasize this enough—is that the vision for a power plant is that it would be—we would recycle the tritium. We would capture the tritium that’s released at the end of the process and just recycle it. So for a(n) inertial-fusion plant, you need very little tritium—fresh tritium to get started. And then we hope it’ll be a closed fuel cycle.

KISSANE: Great. Thank you for that.

So we have a question from Wanchin Chou, chief actuary Connecticut insurance department. Wanchin. Or maybe not. Mr. Chou, are you—would you like to ask your question? OK, well, we’re going to move on because we have lots of questions coming in.

We have a question from John Morley, deputy commissioner of the New York Office of Primary Care and Health Systems Management.

Q: Hi. Good afternoon. Yes, as you said, New York State Department of Health.

I really appreciated the presentation. Really enjoyed it. I think if I were a freshman in college today, I’d probably have a different career path taken. (Laughter.) My question for you—so you mentioned that the technology for the lasers that you’re using is old technology. So when do you think that you will be using twenty-first century technology for lasers, if I may? And do you have any anticipated estimates as to how much of an impact changing from, I think you said 2 percent efficiency to 20 percent efficiency? So does that translate into a tenfold increase, then, in energy generation?

BUDIL: So that’s a very excellent question. So not exactly a tenfold increase in energy generation, but it makes the calculation of how much power you need off the grid relative to how much fusion energy you have to produce much more favorable. So it’s ten times less impact. The amount of energy required from the grid is ten times lower. So it makes that ratio more favorable. So that’s how that works.

And I feel bad because our 1980 laser technology is actually very robust. And many new lasers today are built on the same technology platform. So it’s not—you know, it’s not like we’re, you know, the operating system’s chiseled on stone tablets, or something. Maybe I overstated that. But anyway, it’s a good, robust technology. It’s not very efficient and it doesn’t allow for—it’s a little harder to shrink the technology footprint. The most significant change for lasers is shifting from using—today, the way a laser works is you have a piece of gain medium. For us, it’s glass. The glass is doped with something that lasers.

So in our case, neodymium atoms are placed in the glass. It makes the glass a beautiful pink color. We use flash lamps, which look just like you would imagine, like a giant flash bulb. So it’s a big tube full of gas that you send an electric pulse across and it flashes white light. That light gets absorbed by those neodymium atoms. They go to an excited state. And then when a little pulse of light passes through, they extract that energy from the neodymium. And that’s how you create amplification. That’s how a laser works. So it’s very efficient, because those flash lamps pump white light, and the neodymium only wants light at one wavelength.

So if you use diodes, you can tune the diodes very specifically to the wavelength that you need to pump just those atoms. So that’s the main thing that allows us to increase the efficiency in solid state lasers. And that would be a relatively straightforward transformation. So we can make a much more efficient laser that has roughly the same properties as the one we have today. The trick there is the diode technology really does need to be more economical, and it needs to be scaled to produce the large number of diodes that we would need to produce a system at that—at that level.

So we’re working on it. We’ve made a number of smaller-scale systems using that technology that are very, very promising. They really work well. And the technology is, you know, well within reach. Again, modular economics. There are other types of lasers you could think about using. Some people use gas lasers. I mentioned how precise the laser beams have to be. If you use glass, the glass gets hot when you send a lot of energy through it so that tends to distort the laser. If you use gas as your gain medium, you can cure some of that. So that would be another approach. Of course, then you have to manage gas. So there’s a whole host of questions along with that. So we’re building small-scale lasers based on twenty-first century laser technology and beyond. And with investment, we hope to slowly transform our laser to a little bit more modern platform—(laughs)—so that we can eke a little bit more energy out of it. But, you know, we need—it’s a moment where we really need some investment.

KISSANE: Could you be more clear? Like how much investment would you—would you say would be required at this stage?

BUDIL: So it costs about—all-in, about $3.5 billion to build this facility. That’s the everything—the physical plant, the lasers, the whole nine yards. We estimate it will cost about $350 to $400 million to do this maintenance process over five years. So $50-$60 million a year over five years. And probably a similar amount to do the power and energy upgrade that I described. So in terms of the, you know, reinvestment in the physical plant, as it were, it’s sort of a 10 percent investment on the initial cost of deploying the facility, which is standard for these large high-tech facilities, plus another 10 percent investment to take it to the next level of operation.

KISSANE: Thank you for that.

So we have a question from Rhode Island Representative Arthur, Art, Handy house deputy majority leader.

Q: Hey. This is a fascinating conversation. I’m really enjoying it.

One thing, you know, we’re looking at more offshore wind. Rhode Island, New England, the northeast. And so I’m hoping we’re going to see more transmission upgrades because, to your point earlier, I really invest the investment from the IRA, the Inflation Reduction Act, whatever, really we won’t see the results from that without transmission upgrades. Everybody listening should think about that too back in your home states. But I was wondering what other kind of opportunities—because it’s a new technology, you’re talking about bringing something online, there’s a lot of opportunities, I would think, to take advantage of things.

Whereas, you know, if somebody’s got a natural gas plant, it’s sort of working, sort of, in an old model. Like the Pac Man—I’m going to say, Pac Man was the thing I was thinking about for your lasers, as opposed to stone tablets. But, you know, so they’re working on sort of an older-school kind of model and sort of stuck in it, I would think, especially when you look at the ISOs and things like that. What kind of opportunities have you guys seen or might see in terms of being able to take advantage of more twenty-first century ways of thinking about energy transmission, distribution, et cetera?

BUDIL: So, outside—another program that we have at our laboratory is focused on civilian infrastructure, critical infrastructure resilience. And a big focus for that program is how to use automation to better manage cyber physical systems, things like the grid. I talked earlier about this idea of having distributed energy storage and distributed micro grids and smart controls. You can get many things from thinking about the system that way. And you can use tools and technologies like collaborative autonomy and AI and machine learning to make these systems very, very smart.

So in the collaborative autonomy realm, if you have a lot of rooftop solar or say you had a bunch of ganged wind turbines, at if someone wanted to disrupt that system, either maliciously, or through, you know, introduction of buggy code or something, in a traditional system that has a master controller, that’s fairly straightforward. If you take out the master controller, you can just—you can take down the communication between the nodes pretty easily. In a distributed system that uses collaborative autonomy, the instruction set is distributed to each of the nodes in the system, so that they have to talk to each other. That way, if you knock out one node, or two node, or three node, or four nodes, it doesn’t matter. The system can still recoup and continue to send instructions and operate as intended.

So that’s one example of, you know, sort of smart management of assets in the energy space that really gives you resilience to things like potential cyber threats, or, as I said, you know, some significant issue at one node. You can make the whole system pretty resilient to other things. I think this idea of—you know, we’ve deployed smart meters in many areas of the country. Understanding, you know, what it means to manage a distributed energy grid—really distributed, generation and utilization, and how to do that in the most smart and efficient ways. And understanding the cycles of energy production and utilization.

So solar energy works well during the day when energy is not quite so dependent on the sun. (Laughs.) But, you know, thinking about most people drive their cars during daylight hours, they sit at night and they store energy. So again, using systems that can—that can understand what’s happening in all these distributed nodes, and then smartly distribute the energy so that your critical needs—like in a power shortage they would swarm energy toward hospitals and emergency response nodes, as an example—is really within reach. I mean, we have the understanding of how to deploy systems like that today.

We don’t have all the hardware that we need necessarily to take full advantage of that. And, again, energy is complicated because it’s not centrally controlled. So, you know, companies can introduce complexity into this environment as well. So it’s an interesting time to be in your positions and thinking about these local energy challenges, and trying to understand how to take significant steps. I guess that’s the other thing I would say, is we have a lot of—there are some significant resources that have been appropriated by our colleagues in the—in the Congress, which I really appreciate, to allow us to take bigger steps in some of these transitions and to really try these technologies at scale. And I think that’s incredibly, incredibly important. We’ll learn a lot more by doing than by thinking.

KISSANE: So thank you.

We’re just about out of time. There are questions that we’ve received about educational resources, kind of a go-to place to learn more. I think those of us that have children are also thinking, what should our children be studying when they get to college as far as the disciplines. Maybe in about ten seconds, because then I will need to wrap it up, but if you had any resources, maybe, you could also share them with CFR and those will go out to our audience, and discipline to study, or disciplines.

BUDIL: So I’m an experimental physicist. Physicists, chemists, material scientists, engineers, all kinds of engineering, laser science and technology, you know, power engineering, technicians, and technologists. Whole range of disciplines. So really becoming—building our STEM workforce up across a wide variety of disciplines is going to be incredibly important, along with all the people who have the computing, AI, machine learning, data science skills to really build these systems for the future and make them resilient.

The simplest answer to where to go for more information as a starting point is www.llnl.gov. That’s our public-facing website. And we have tons of information on our recent breakthrough and the other things we’re doing at the lab.

KISSANE: Excellent. Well, thank you so very much. It has been a true honor and a pleasure. And I think it is very fair to say that we’ve all learned so much from your—from your expertise and the clarity with which you answered our questions. And I’d like to also extend very special thanks to all of you across the country for joining us.

CFR will send out a link to the webinar recording and transcript soon. Until then, you can follow the work of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at Livermore/lab. And please visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for the latest developments and analysis on international trends and how they are affecting the United States.

Thank you all so very much for joining us and a very, very special thanks to Dr. Budil. It really was—it is extraordinary the work that you are doing. And I we are all really grateful for your teams and the contributions of the national labs to the United States. Thank you.

BUDIL: Thank you very much. And thanks for all the great questions.

(END)

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