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Fusion energy industry calls on policymakers to prepare for future

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Mel Clark, CleanTech Alliance CEO and president, left, moderates a panel on fusion energy with Jessie Barton of Helion Energy and Chris Hansen of the University of Washington at the Technology Alliance Policy Matters Summit, Dec. 14. Not pictured: Ryan Umstattd of Zap Energy. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

SEATAC, Wash. — Fusion energy is real, it’s safe, and it’s poised to change the world. Study up, get ready, and make sure the industry has the right regulatory oversight.

That’s the message from fusion energy industry representatives to legislators and regulators following the Dec. 13 announcement of a historic milestone in the field, the production of net energy in a fusion experiment at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

“We’re sitting on one of the biggest technological game-changers the world will ever see,” said Mel Clark, CEO and president of the Seattle-based CleanTech Alliance, at the Technology Alliance Policy Matters Summit on Dec 14. “So if you’re a policymaker in Olympia, you need to pay attention to this industry.”

Fusion energy was one of five technologies featured at the Tech Alliance event, under the theme of “Innovation Basics,” with other sessions designed to help policymakers and business leaders understand the fundamentals of blockchain, quantum computing, immunotherapy, and the power grid.

But the fusion discussion was especially timely given the news of the week.

Washington state’s role: There are four companies in Washington state seeking to develop and commercialize fusion energy, more than any other state: Avalanche, Helion Energy, Zap Energy and CTFusion.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is the governing body for fusion, but some aspects of regulation could be left to states, Clark said. Washington state is in a position to set standards given the prominence of the industry here.

“It’s really important that Washington legislators are just keeping up to date with what’s going on in the fusion space,” said Jessie Barton, Helion’s communications lead. “That way, whenever that gets handed down, you’re prepared.”

Timing and next steps: Future milestones in the development of fusion energy will involve a combination of scientific and economic breakthroughs, as companies pursue engineering and commercial break-even points.

As an example, Helion expects to demonstrate net electricity from fusion in 2024, Barton said. The company is currently building its seventh fusion prototype.

Graphic recorder David Michael Moore takes notes on the fusion energy session at the Tech Alliance Policy Matters Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

“We’ve all made fusion happen,” said Ryan Umstattd, vice president of product development for Zap Energy. “The question is, can you make so much fusion happen that you get more useful energy out than what you put in?”

Environmental and economic impact: The stakes are high for the planet, given the promise of clean, abundant energy from fusion. Africa is projected to represent half the global market for fusion energy, Clark said.

There’s also a massive economic opportunity, with an estimated market size of $40 trillion globally. The implications could be huge for the first country that’s able to successfully develop and commercialize the technology.

“We need to have urgency, because you don’t want to be second or third or fourth place,” said Chris Hansen, senior research scientist at the University of Washington.

Regulatory approach: Industry representatives say they welcome regulation as a way to move forward. “We know that for us to succeed, we’ve got to be safe and sustainable, and properly regulated,” Umstattd said.

However, they assert that fusion energy should be regulated under a different framework than nuclear fission, given the fundamental differences between them.

Fusion energy “has no long term radioactive waste, and it cannot be regulated like an industry that does,” Clark said.

Time-bound regulations, designed to be updated or replaced after five or 10 years, are one possible approach, Umstattd said. This would create flexibility if policymakers are concerned about setting precedents while the field is still evolving. He likened this to how the FAA has updated its drone policies over time.

Helion’s Barton said it’s also important to recognize that fusion is clean energy, and it should be included as part of the state’s zero-carbon energy incentives.

Workforce development and diversity: Given the potential size and impact of nuclear fusion as an industry, it will be critical to work with the state’s educational institutions, including university and community colleges, to help create a deep and diverse workforce to support the long-term development of the industry, Clark said.

“The clean technology workforce is pale, male and stale,” Clark acknowledged. “It’s a lot of older, white, male engineers. But we also keenly understand that companies that innovate faster are those that are highly diverse.”



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