VIENNA (AP) — The Biden administration hopes to create a commercial nuclear fusion facility within 10 years as part of the nation’s transition to clean energy, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said Monday.
Calling nuclear fusion a pioneering technology, Granholm said President Joe Biden wants to harness fusion as a carbon-free energy source that can power homes and businesses.
“It’s not out of the realm of possibility” that the U.S. could achieve Biden’s “decadal vision of commercial fusion,” Granholm said in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press in Vienna.
Fusion works by pressing hydrogen atoms into each other with such force that they combine into helium, releasing enormous amounts of energy and heat. Unlike other nuclear reactions, it doesn’t create radioactive waste. Proponents of nuclear fusion hope it could one day displace fossil fuels and other traditional energy sources. But producing carbon-free energy that powers homes and businesses from fusion is still decades away.
A successful nuclear fusion was first achieved by researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California last December in a major breakthrough after decades of work.
Granholm also praised the role of the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog in verifying that states live up to their international commitments and do not use their nuclear programs for illicit purposes, including to build nuclear weapons.
“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,” she said.
The watchdog organization has agreements with more than 170 states to inspect their nuclear programs. The aim is to verify their nuclear activities and nuclear material and to confirm that it is used for peaceful purposes, including to generate energy.
Nuclear energy is an essential component of the Biden administration’s goal of achieving a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and net zero emissions economy by 2050.
Asked about the difficulty of finding storage sites for radioactive waste, Granholm said that the U.S. has initiated a process to identify communities across the country who may be willing to host an interim storage location. Currently, most of the spent fuel is stored at nuclear reactors across the country.
“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),” she said.
The U.S. currently does not recycle spent nuclear fuel but other countries, including France, already have experience with it.
Spent nuclear fuel can be recycled in such a way that new fuel is created. But critics of the process say it is not cost-effective and could lead to the proliferation of atomic weapons.
There are two proliferation concerns associated with recycling, according to the Washington-based Arms Control Association: The recycling process increases the risk that plutonium could be stolen by terrorists, and second, those countries with separated plutonium could produce nuclear weapons themselves.
“It has to be done very carefully with all these non-proliferation safeguards in place,” Granholm said.
Professor Dennis Whyte, director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the U.S. has taken a smart approach on fusion by advancing research and designs by a range of companies working toward a pilot-scale demonstration within a decade.
“It doesn’t guarantee a particular company will get there, but we have multiple shots on goal,” he said, referring to the Energy Department’s milestone-based fusion development program. “It’s the right way to do it, to support what we all want to see: commercial fusion to power our society” without greenhouse gas emissions.
On other topics, Granholm said that depending on whether the U.S. government shuts down or not, the Biden administration could announce in October details on an $8 billion hydrogen hub program that will be funded by the bipartisan infrastructure law.
A hub is meant to be a network of companies that produce clean hydrogen and of the industries that use it — heavy transportation, for example — and infrastructure such as pipelines and refueling stations. States and companies have teamed up to create hub proposals.
Environmental groups say hydrogen presents its own pollution and climate risks. When released into the atmosphere, it boosts volumes of methane and other greenhouse gases.
“Our goal is to get the cost of clean hydrogen down to 1 dollar per kilogram within one decade,” Granholm insisted.
As fossil fuel emissions continue warming Earth’s atmosphere and extreme weather phenomena occur globally, Granholm was asked her opinion on the announcement by U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak that the U.K. will delay crucial climate targets.
Sunak said last week that he will push back the deadline for selling new gasoline and diesel cars and the phasing out of gas boilers as part of one of his biggest policy changes since taking office.
“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,” she said, while adding that the U.K. has been a “great partner” in pushing modern technologies.
“We want to see everybody moving forward as quickly as possible (on the clean energy transition), including ourselves,” she said.
Daly reported from Washington.