View of Wendelstein 7x, the stellarator fusion device in GreifswaldMPI für Plasmaphysik / Jan Hosan

Towards a possible fusion power plant - knowledge gaps and research needs from the perspective of technology assessment

Background of the topic

Advances in plasma physics are attracting increasing public interest in nuclear fusion. At the end of 2022, the National Ignition Facility in the USA succeeded for the first time in "igniting" a plasma using laser/inertial confinement fusion, producing more fusion energy than the laser energy applied. An important milestone in the concept of plasma confinement using magnetic fields was also achieved in early 2023, when a hot plasma was maintained for over 8 minutes at the "Wendelstein 7-X" experimental facility in Greifswald, with an energy turnover of 1.3 GJ. However, the road to possible commercial fusion power plants is still a long one and requires long-term efforts in basic and applied research as well as engineering development. This was emphasised by many experts at the public hearing of the Committee for Education, Research and Technology Assessment of the German Bundestag on 27 September 2023.

The scientific and technical feasibility of energy production through controlled thermonuclear fusion is necessary, but not sufficient, for commercial fusion power plants to be operational by the middle of the century. From a technology assessment perspective, fundamental questions arise, the answers to which will have a decisive influence on the success or failure of fusion technology.

These questions concern

  • the economic viability and competitiveness compared to alternative power generation technologies
  • integration into an energy system based on renewables
  • Environmental characteristics such as contribution to climate protection, resource requirements, radioactive inventory, emissions and waste,
  • Social sustainability, including distribution and acceptance issues
  • Dual-use and potential proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Objectives and approach

By analysing recent scientific publications and about 10 expert interviews, the aim is to identify developments since TAB was last involved in 2002 (Thermonuclear fusion. Summary) and to determine the current state of the art. The results will be summarised in a TA compact study.