International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, during the opening day of the 29th IAEA Fusion Energy Conference (FEC) in London, launched the World Fusion Outlook (WFO), a new regular publication providing authoritative information and updates on fusion energy. It is expected to become a global reference for energy R&D, technology development and prospective deployment of fusion.

The 95-page report says that recent progress suggests fusion could be part of the global long-term plan for net zero and climate change mitigation and satisfy rising electricity demands. However, it also lists the many steps still needed to realise this technology.

The WFO explores legal and regulatory perspectives and stresses the need to adapt and develop frameworks for the prospective deployment of fusion power plants. It details how the IAEA supports global efforts towards commercial fusion energy across disciplines and borders. As a hub for fusion R&D and technology development for scientific exchange, the IAEA partners with institutions worldwide and is essential in making fusion knowledge available to all its member states.

The WFO complements a wealth of established IAEA resources for fusion R&D and technology development, including the Fusion Portal, databases, nuclear data libraries, and publications, most prominently the IAEA’s Nuclear Fusion journal, the foremost academic journal in the field. It also details IAEA support offered to nuclear fusion development through collaborative research projects and other mechanisms. 

The major challenges to fusion identified in the WFO are:

  • Plasma heating: achieving and sustaining temperatures in excess of 100m °C;
  • Plasma confinement: confining the hot fusion plasma inside the reactor core;
  • Fusion materials: finding the right materials to withstand the extreme conditions from which to construct the fusion reactor wall and vessel;
  • Fusion fuel: developing the technology to breed the tritium component of the fusion fuel using the neutrons released in an ongoing reaction;
  • Energy extraction: steadily extracting the enormous amount of energy that is produced and converting it into electricity or using it as process heat; and
  • Maintenance: operating fusion power plants with high availability, which requires novel, rapid maintenance schemes, including remote handling.

The section on nuclear law and fusion installations notes:

  • There is no specific international legal framework for fusion technology.
  • The broad principles, obligations, requirements and related mechanisms of the existing international legal instruments for nuclear safety might apply to fusion energy systems.
  • The existing key international legal instruments for nuclear security appear not to be applicable to fusion facilities and associated activities, although the Nuclear Terrorism Convention appears applicable.
  • While potential questions of civil liability for nuclear damage in the context of fusion energy systems are currently not covered by existing international legal instruments, they would most likely be addressed under general tort law.
  • Fusion energy systems designed not to use or have nuclear material, fall outside the scope of the IAEA safeguards framework and the NPT-based non-proliferation regime.
  • Fusion technology appears to present an opportunity to integrate relevant principles and lessons of the existing fission-based legal frameworks, as appropriate, while tailoring them to the specific characteristics and risks associated with fusion.
  • The applicable legal frameworks should serve to maintain safety, security and environmental protection in a way that is proportionate to the magnitude of the intrinsic hazard and risk of the fusion process.
  • These frameworks should ensure public trust and confidence, while also paving the way for investment and development, thereby enabling a smooth transition from fusion research to commercialisation.

Nuclear fusion and plasma physics research are carried out in more than 50 countries and fusion reactions have been successfully produced in many experiments, but without so far generating useable energy, WFO says. Experts have come up with different designs and magnet-based machines in which fusion takes place, including stellarators and tokamaks, but also approaches that rely on lasers, linear devices and advanced fuels were under consideration.

Information on more than 140 fusion devices worldwide, both public and private, either in operation, under construction or being planned, is available in the IAEA Fusion Device Information System (FusDIS). The publication IAEA World Survey of Fusion Devices 2022 compiles FusDIS information with additional information for the status ending in 2022.

“How long it will take for the successful implementation of fusion energy will depend on how fast the industry is able to develop, validate and qualify emerging fusion technologies as well as establish in parallel the necessary nuclear infrastructure, including relevant requirements, standards and good practices,” WFO notes.

The world’s largest international experimental fusion facility is ITER, located in Cadarache, France. Following 10 years of component design, site preparation and construction and manufacturing across the world, the assembly process of ITER started in 2020. ITER is an international experimental project aimed at demonstrating the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion energy production, as well as validating the technology and concepts for future electricity producing demonstration fusion power plants, called DEMOs. “Such a DEMO could act as an intermediate step between the experimental fusion reactor ITER and a pilot fusion power plant,” according to WFO. It lists 12 planned DEMOs.

In 2021 the IAEA launched a new initiative promoting the transfer of lessons learned and knowledge from fission to fusion. The main objective is to identify and analyse, with an international perspective toward industrial deployment of fusion energy facilities, all the possible synergies in technology development and deployment between nuclear fission and fusion and also gaps to plan further specific focused activities. The project will cumulate in a publication analysing the synergies in technology development in the two areas.

WFO says that coolant options for fusion can benefit from shared insight from advanced fission and fusion facilities. The IAEA has started associated activities, tackling the issue of compatibility between coolants and materials, through Technical Meetings covering these main areas:

  • Experiments and modelling on coolant–material interaction;
  • Irradiation effects in cooling environments;
  • Coolant quality control and chemistry;
  • Thermal-hydraulics, magnetic field, and other effects on material behaviour;
  • Tools for characterisation of materials behaviour; and
  •  Additive manufacturing materials behaviour and characterisation in harsh environments.

Legal and Institutional Issues of Prospective Deployment of Fusion Facilities is the topic of a Collaborative Project by IAEA’s International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles (INPRO) started in 2022. It aims to support the fusion community in accelerating the development and implementation of fusion powered facilities and integrated fusion–fission hybrid systems over the next decades. This task includes early identification of possible gaps in long term sustainability and needed capabilities using INPRO assessments and analyses; review and critical analysis of previous experience in developing national legislation and infrastructure; engagement with pioneering new fusion concepts; and identification of appropriate policy options at the global and regional levels in different scenarios.

The INPRO Fusion Study has raised much interest from IAEA member states, with more than 20 international experts from six countries and one international organisation (ITER) joining this study. The INPRO Fusion Study will culminate in a publication, with an envisaged publication date of 2024.

“Advances made in various disciplines, from physics and computational science to engineering and material science and qualification of components, are steadily transitioning fusion energy from vision to reality,” Grossi says in the publication’s foreword. Outlining significant achievements in fusion R&D and technology development, the WFO describes development needs, technology gaps and other obstacles in transforming ongoing R&D into deployable fusion energy technology. Given the formidable challenges associated with fusion science and technology, increased private funding combined with state commitment is needed to drive fusion energy forward, Grossi writes.