By Nancy Spannaus
December 7, 2023—It’s hard to come up with good news on the international front these days, but this week’s call by U.S. Climate Representative John Kerry promoting an international drive for achieving nuclear fusion power definitely qualifies. Declaring that recent breakthroughs in fusion energy research have demonstrated its ability to create a world with an abundant, clean energy source, Kerry used his December 5th speech at the COP28 conference on climate change, to call for nations to come together around an International Engagement Plan for Fusion Energy to solve the climate crisis.
Viewed historically, this U.S. initiative is a weak echo of President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace proposal of December 1953. Speaking at a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, Ike urged the creation of an official body which would stockpile fissionable materials as part of an effort to allocate them for peaceful purposes. “Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine, and other peaceful activities,” he said. “A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.” The atom, Eisenhower said, “this greatest of destructive forces, can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind.”
President Eisenhower’s effort to reorient foreign relations toward international cooperation for lifting up the conditions of life for all humanity had very limited success, unfortunately. But it testified to the fact that the foreign policy tradition of American System presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt was not yet dead.
Could Kerry’s initiative signal such a revival of international cooperation on life-saving science today? Simply to make such a proposal for global collaboration flies in the face of the directionality of U.S. government policy today, which has led to the blacklisting of Chinese scientists and tight restrictions on technology sharing, to name only two instances. “Science is international,” Kerry declared, and the realization of recent exciting progress on fusion power requires bringing nations together to work on realizing this promise.
Asia Times Projects Optimism
In a Dec. 4 Asia Times article, nuclear expert Jonathan Tennenbaum and nuclear scientist Florian Metzler assert that there is reason for optimism that Kerry’s speech will “change the world.” The speech signals a national policy commitment of the United States, they say, as it represents the adoption of a “fusion strategy” for the country.
The background to this initiative, Tennenbaum writes, is the rapid advance being made in fusion research. The United Kingdom, Japan, and China have all made progress in this field a national priority, and there have been a “skyrocketing growth of private investment into fusion companies.”
Drawing on his own experience in the fusion field, Tennenbaum then describes the shift in the U.S. approach to fusion research over the last two decades. Initially, this scientific field was the exclusive purview of the national laboratories, he explains. But, with the crippling budget cuts to those labs, starting under President Reagan, along with the tendency of the labs to stick to a few large projects at the expense of smaller ones, the efforts faltered.
The 2010s brought a major change, Tennenbaum reports. “The face of fusion research in the US has been radically transformed from insular research activities pursued by decades-old entrenched lab groups toward the cultivation of a topically and organizationally diverse research ‘ecosystem.’
“The change reflects a new philosophy of fusion research, one that acknowledges that, in the absence of a single frontrunner among reactor concepts, a diversity of physical and technological approaches as well as a diversity of organizational forms is prudent.”
Not that the U.S. government has been absent from this process. Highly respected physicist Dr. Scott Hsu works from the Department of Energy to coordinate the efforts of the private firms, serving as what Tennenbaum describes as a “central node” in the process. In addition, under the Biden administration, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has issued greatly simplified regulatory requirements, and federal funding has been increased for fusion research programs, as for nuclear fission, the U.S.’s largest source of clean energy.
All this leads to the Asia Times authors to see great potential for the international effort advanced by Kerry.
Progress requires a fight
It is beyond the scope of this article to summarize the scientific advances which have been achieved in fusion research over the recent years, or to detail the ways in which nuclear fusion represents a new, more advanced, and necessary stage of human progress. To obtain that information, I refer you to recent articles by Tennenbaum in Asia Times, as well as a recent Reuters article on the Kerry initiative.
We in the United States have stood at such an optimistic moment before. It was 1980 when the U.S. Congress passed the Magnetic Fusion Engineering Act (HR6308). That act, according to the summary put out by Congress:
Declares it to be the policy of the United States to: (1) establish a national goal of demonstrating the engineering feasibility of magnetic fusion by the early 1990’s; (2) achieve, no later than the year 1990, operation of a magnetic fusion engineering device based on the best available confinement concept; and (3) establish as a national goal the operation of a magnetic fusion demonstration plant at the turn of the twenty-first century.
Shocked? Yes, 43 years ago, the U.S. Congress not only realized the need to develop nuclear fusion, as the next advance beyond nuclear fission, but also was prepared to commit the resources to making that advance. Think Apollo Project. Progress was being made in the labs, and the scientists were making headway. Clean, abundant energy was on the horizon.
What happened? The era of irrational budget-cutting took over, along with a well-funded campaign of anti-nuclear hysteria and opposition from leading Wall Street firms. Money poured instead into subsidizing inefficient wind and solar. The United States not only lost its scientific edge in the fusion field, but the whole world is suffering the consequences of a backward and inadequate electric power system.
We cannot afford to make the same kind of mistake again.
 Progress was clearly made in nuclear medicine, and the International Atomic Energy Association was founded. Yet its efforts have been mostly directed to trying to control atomic weapons proliferation, rather than applying nuclear science to human betterment.