U.S. Rep. Jay Obernolte

The world recently witnessed a major breakthrough in the development of fusion energy. The announcement that U.S. scientists have produced the first-ever successful fusion reaction with a net energy gain puts America in the lead of the race for an energy revolution and establishes the likelihood that this technology can and probably will achieve commercial deployment within our lifetimes.

Our scientific community and all those who helped to propel American research and development to this historic achievement should take a well-deserved victory lap. However, once the revelry subsides, our next task must be determining how we can ensure that America’s success in this field continues.

Fusion power represents a revolutionary opportunity to provide green energy for our nation. It will be the cleanest form of power ever, with a lower emission lifecycle footprint than any other form of energy, and with effectively none of the traditional environmental and social drawbacks of nuclear fission.

Fusion also has the potential to dramatically lower energy costs. According to some estimates, including peer-reviewed research published in the United Kingdom, inertial confinement fusion reactors, like the one used to generate the latest breakthrough at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, could eventually provide energy to the public at a cost four times cheaper than traditional fission-based nuclear energy, and at half the cost of onshore wind power. Magnetic confinement fusion reactors in development by American companies such as Helion could potentially lower costs even further when they reach the same level of development, with reactors that are even smaller and less costly to build.

While nothing is certain until this technology is brought to scale and fully implemented, some scientists estimate a levelized cost of fusion electricity of between 6 and 11 cents per kilowatt-hour ($0.06-0.11/kWh). That means the average electric bill would drop from $122 per month in the United States to only $53.52 without reducing usage, a savings of over $820 per year for the average American household!

In places like my home state of California, those savings could be even greater, particularly as the state continues to push its ban on gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035. In addition, fusion energy would greatly enhance the stability of our electric grid, helping to end the threat of rolling blackouts and brownouts on days when the weather is particularly hot and power consumption across the state exceeds what we currently produce.

All in all, the benefits of fusion power sound almost too good to be true.

Unfortunately, they might be, unless Congress continues to catalyze this vital research and development effort and implements regulatory standards that allow fusion energy to become part of our energy portfolio.

When America’s nuclear energy regulatory framework bill was first passed into law in 1954, commercial fusion power simply wasn’t on the horizon. As a result, the Atomic Energy Act, which forms the basis of current regulation of all nuclear energy in America, fails to even mention fusion energy.

As a result, fusion power faces an uncertain regulatory environment that fails to differentiate fusion energy from the very different risk factors, technology and biproducts of traditional fission. Fusion will need its own regulatory standards independent from fission if we hope to bring this groundbreaking technology to life.

In fission energy — the type we think of as “traditional nuclear” — the nucleus of an atom is split into two or more smaller nuclei. This process releases a large amount of energy (although far less than the amount of energy released by fusion). In fusion energy production, two or more atomic nuclei are instead combined to form a heavier element. This reaction is the source of light and heat emitted by the sun. In a sense, fission and fusion are atomic opposites.

There are other important and practicable differences between fusion and fission energy production. Fusion reactions involve no special nuclear fuel, unlike the exotic materials required for fission (plutonium, uranium-233, or uranium enriched in the isotope-233 or in the isotope-235). Also, unlike fission, a self-sustained chain reaction is not possible with fusion. Therefore, the radiological hazards and risk factors associated with fusion energy are comparatively much lower than those for the large light water fission reactors in operation today.

America needs a regulatory environment that reflects the vast differences between fusion and fission and allows these technologies to be implemented and managed accordingly. We also need a national energy framework that can bolster this emerging technology with research and development and support the integration of fusion energy into an “all-of-the-above” energy portfolio.

Congress has a critical role to play in this transition. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is preparing a report on its plan to regulate fusion in the short term, but the outdated framework of the Atomic Energy Act limits their ability to make the structural changes necessary to support fusion energy.

U.S. Rep. Jay Obernolte was reelected to Congress on Nov. 8 with 56% of the vote in the new 23rd District, which includes parts of eastern Redlands.