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China and the Race for Nuclear Fusion

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China and the Race for Nuclear Fusion

Nuclear fusion is the next frontier in both climate change and great power competition.

China and the Race for Nuclear Fusion
Credit: Depositphotos

In April 2024, China released the draft of its amended Atomic Energy Law, nearly seven years after initial discussions began. The law will serve as the guiding document for the regulation of nuclear power, including research and development of the nascent nuclear fusion industry. In the past year, the Chinese government included nuclear fusion development in its annual government work reports for the first time. Zhang Jianhua, head of China’s Energy Administration, also called for establishing a “forward-looking strategy” for China’s nuclear fusion industry.

China is not alone in its growing interest in nuclear fusion. At the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28), former U.S. climate envoy John Kerry unveiled a new international partnership initiative on nuclear fusion involving 35 country partners. Although specific details about the partnership have yet to be disclosed, this groundbreaking initiative represents the first time that nuclear fusion, once considered in the realm of science fiction, has been presented as a viable climate solution at a U.N. climate change conference. 

A flurry of nuclear fusion legislation has mushroomed globally in the past few years. Within the United States, the Department of Energy set out a 10-year plan in 2022, which includes an initiative that coordinates all fusion-related work under a single program to streamline fusion research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) activities. Data from the International Atomic Energy Agency indicates that there are 96 nuclear fusion pilot projects worldwide, with an additional 11 under construction and 29 planned. Most of them emerged in the last two years. 

Controlled nuclear fusion emulates the process that powers the sun, merging two lighter atomic nuclei into a heavier one under extreme pressure and heat, releasing immense energy. This process is the exact opposite of nuclear fission, which involves splitting a nucleus into two lighter ones and is the basic mechanism for power generation in nuclear power plants. Like nuclear fission, nuclear fusion is emission-free, but it surpasses fission in one crucial aspect: It produces no long-term radioactive waste. 

Utilizing two heavier hydrogen isotopes, abundant in seawater, nuclear fusion could provide humanity with an almost inexhaustible energy source. The energy yield from nuclear fusion is also incredibly high: according to the IAEA, fusion could generate four times more energy per unit of the weight of fuel than nuclear fission and nearly 4 million times more energy than oil or coal. These advantages make nuclear fusion the celebrated “Holy Grail” of 21st-century technological advancement.

Climate Crisis and Geopolitics Driving the Hype of Nuclear Fusion 

The surging enthusiasm for nuclear fusion is driven by two goals: the urgent need to identify substantial, low-carbon energy solutions to mitigate the climate crisis, and the strategic imperative to gain a competitive advantage amid escalating geopolitical tensions.

In recent years, many countries have rolled out decarbonization plans outlining a path to net-zero emissions, which involves significant decarbonization of power generation. In the U.S., the Biden administration set a target of 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 and net zero by 2050. However, reaching this target would require a significant overhaul of power generation infrastructure. 

The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s “Annual Energy Outlook 2023” projects that the United States will continue relying heavily on coal and natural gas for power generation until 2050. These projections raise concerns about the feasibility of achieving net-zero emissions by mid-century. 

In light of these challenges, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences suggested that the country should start the operation of its large-scale fusion power generator around 2035 to 2040 to achieve net-zero emissions in the power sector by 2050. By incorporating nuclear fusion into the energy mix, the United States could potentially overcome the obstacles posed by its current reliance on fossil fuels and make significant progress toward achieving net-zero emissions in the power sector by 2050.

China faces an even more dire need to abate emissions in its energy mix. The country’s pledge to reach net zero by 2060 means that it must either eliminate or neutralize emissions from its coal power sector by then. In 2023, coal still accounted for over half of China’s power mix. Although China has made substantial progress in installing renewable power capacity with unmatched speed and scale, the variable nature of renewable power, like solar and wind, poses new challenges for its grids. Intermittent power output from solar and wind, which varies daily and seasonally due to changes in weather and sunlight, requires greater market flexibility and more adequate long-distance transmission systems. 

If realized, nuclear fusion would produce power much more steadily and efficiently than solar or wind while remaining emission-free. As a breakthrough clean energy technology, nuclear fusion could bridge the gap in the global effort to decarbonize the power sector and help countries like China meet their ambitious climate goals while navigating the complexities of transitioning away from fossil fuels.

In addition to its potential role in addressing climate change, nuclear fusion is another aspect of geopolitical competition with far-reaching implications for the fight for dominance in this century. Energy has long shaped international politics, building alliances and stoking rivalries. The past few years have seen escalating geopolitical tensions, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Israel-Hamas conflict, and a potential military confrontation in the Taiwan Strait. These disruptions are vivid reminders that a lack of energy self-sufficiency can leave countries vulnerable to the whims of others. As a result, countries are increasingly seeking to strengthen their energy independence and gain a technological edge in the development of next-generation energy sources, and nuclear fusion precisely affords such an opportunity. 

As a net energy importer, China has long sought to curb its reliance on oil and gas by increasing clean energy production. The country has been successful in building out a competitive manufacturing sector across clean energy industries through strong R&D capabilities, manufacturing prowess, and effective supply chain vertical integration. Declaring that nuclear fusion has “strategic importance to economic development and national defense,” China sees the field as the next frontier to solidify leadership in clean energy technologies and strengthen energy security. 

Since 2011, China has filed more patents in nuclear fusion technology supply chains than any other country, according to Nikkei. In 2023, China’s fusion testing facility set a world record for the longest run time for a magnetic confinement fusion device, a crucial step toward operation maintenance. It plans to construct a nuclear fusion reactor independently as a demo project and aims to commercialize nuclear fusion on a large scale by 2050. Meanwhile, the country is assembling a growing cadre of scientists and engineers, with a goal of training 1,000 new fusion physicists to support this program.  

China’s increasingly prominent leadership in clean tech supply chains has heightened concerns among developed countries, as demonstrated by the new rounds of tariffs on Chinese electric vehicle exports. The push toward nuclear fusion is taking place amidst the latest wave of green industrial policy rush, as these countries are learning from past policies that allowed China to become a front-runner in strategic clean tech industries. 

Nuclear fusion has the potential to revolutionize the entire energy industry, combat climate change, and meet the growing energy demand worldwide. The country that can effectively control the nuclear energy sector can dominate the market through a virtually unlimited, clean, and cheap energy source and possess an enormous first-mover advantage. With the rapid transition in the energy sector toward clean energy sources, countries would be wise to bolster investment in nuclear fusion at this critical juncture.

While opportunities abound, technological hurdles are omnipresent in the journey toward nuclear fusion’s commercialization. A common challenge researchers face is developing self-sustaining nuclear fusion in an extremely high-temperature environment (over 100 million degrees Celsius) to generate sufficient energy for a net energy gain. Several other critical issues remain unresolved, such as timely fuel replenishment, materials that can withstand extreme temperatures, and efficient conversion of fusion-produced energy into electricity.

Will Public-Private Partnership Boost Breakthrough in Nuclear Fusion?

Absent a clear roadmap to commercialize nuclear fusion, government-led initiatives alone may not be sufficient to catalyze the necessary investments. This opportunity has invited ambitious entrepreneurs eager to leave their footprint in humanity’s endeavor to harness the sun’s power. 

According to data from the Fusion Industry Association, since 2018, private fusion companies have more than doubled to 43, including nine companies founded in 2022 alone. Some of these ventures are backed by world-renowned business tycoons like Jeff Bezos. Private companies can emulate the SpaceX model by collaborating with government entities while adopting a more flexible, commercial approach to the market. They may be able to provide the extra boost needed to meet the vast investment requirements of nuclear fusion, which might otherwise be too burdensome for government finance alone.

Despite these uncertainties, the potential of nuclear fusion as a revolutionizing clean energy source and geopolitical lever continues to captivate governments and private investors alike. But we need to be cognizant that nuclear fusion is still in a nascent stage and is in no way close to becoming a viable solution for addressing climate change. It is essential not to neglect other critical areas of climate action while pursuing the development of nuclear fusion technology.