Dec 13, 2022
U.S. Officials Announce Major Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough Transcript
U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and other officials announced Tuesday that scientists for the first time produced more energy in a fusion reaction than the energy used to start the process. Read the transcript here.
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Secretary Granholm (02:36):
Welcome everyone. So great to see members of Congress here. Senator Reed, so glad you’re here. Congressman Swalwell, Congressman Fleischmann, Jerry McNerney, thank you so much. I don’t think Congressman Lofgren, is she? Not yet. Okay. Connor Lamb, of course, and Jamal Bowman, thank you so much all of you for your support of this. And I know there are others who are supportive as well, who were not able to make it, but this is a great day.
Today we’re here to talk about fusion. Combining two particles into one. Last week at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, scientists at the National Ignition Facility achieved fusion ignition. And that is creating more energy from fusion reactions than the energy used to start the process. It’s the first time it has ever been done in a laboratory anywhere in the world. Simply put, this is one of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st century, or as the president might say. Right? I do think he probably did say this is a BFD. Researchers at Livermore and around the world have been working on this moment for more than 60 years.
So what does this accomplishment do? Two things. First, it strengthens our national security because it opens a new realm for maintaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent in an age where we do not have nuclear testing. Ignition allows us to replicate, for the first time, certain conditions that are found only in the stars and the sun. And the second thing it does, of course, is that this milestone moves us one significant step closer to the possibility of zero carbon abundant fusion energy powering our society. If we can advance fusion energy, we could use it to produce clean electricity, transportation fuels, power heavy industry, so much more. It would be like adding a power drill to our toolbox in building this clean energy economy.
So today, we tell the world that America has achieved a tremendous scientific breakthrough. One that happened because we invested in our national labs and we invested in fundamental research. And tomorrow, we’ll continue to work toward a future that is powered in part by fusion energy. Fortunately, private sector investment and fusion research is already booming. It has reached nearly $3 billion in last year alone. And we’ve heard from professors that interest among students has never been higher, which is terrific. And that’s why the Biden-Harris administration is aiming to capitalize on this moment.
Today’s announcement is a huge step forward to the president’s goal of achieving commercial fusion within a decade. But there’s still a lot more to do, so much more. We’ll continue to work toward that goal and find other ways to progress to reach fusion energy. For example, in September, the Department of Energy made a $50 million investment for public-private partnerships to start working toward fusion pilot plant designs. And we’re partnering with the Office of Science and Technology Policy to map out the president’s bold vision for driving that commercial fusion in the next decade with the highest safety standards, with cost effective, equitable deployment that positions American businesses to lead and communities to thrive. And with a skilled workforce that’s diverse and inclusive. This is what it looks like for America to lead. And we’re just getting started.
Another big congratulations to Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Their team is here. Where are you team? There you are. And they’ll be… Yes. They’ll be joining us after this for a technical panel, for those of you who wish to stay to learn more. Big applause and thank you to the NNSA, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and everybody who has been involved in this fusion breakthrough that will go down in the history books. You’re going to hear more about the details of the experiment from Administrator Ruby and Director Bedilot. But first I’m going to turn it over to the president’s Science Advisor and Director of the OSTP, Dr. Arati Prabhakar.
Dr. Arati Prabhakar (08:41):
Thank you so much. Thanks Secretary Granholm. What a pleasure to be invited to come celebrate this amazing moment here at the Department of Energy. It’s really a privilege to be here. So when I heard this news, for me, the years fell away and all of a sudden it was 1978. I was a summer student in the middle of my college years, 19 year old kid. And I got the chance to go work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. I showed up, and so you got a picture this, I’m wearing my bell bottoms, I’ve got long black hair, and I show up and I’m a 19 year old kid and they give me a laser to work on. And I said, “This is cool. I like lasers, but what’s this laser all about?” And they said, “We think that if you point enough lasers at a pellet of fuel, we want to see if we can get more energy released from fusion than the amount of energy that the lasers deliver into that pellet.” And I said, “Well, that’s cool.”
I spent three months working on this fun laser and after my adventure with the laser that summer in Livermore ended, I went off and did completely unrelated things. But I have always kept an eye out and watched to see what was happening at Livermore as they pursued this idea of ignition, of achieving
Dr. Arati Prabhakar (10:00):
This kind of controlled fusion reaction for decades. I went off and didn’t do anything more about fusion, but the people I worked with and their successors kept going and they went through periods of triumph and they went through tremendous struggles and setbacks. They never lost sight of this goal. Last week, lo and behold, indeed, they shot a bunch of lasers at a pallet of fuel and more energy was released from that fusion ignition than the energy of the lasers going in. I just think this is such a tremendous example of what perseverance really can achieve.
I had the great pleasure of meeting the team whom you’ll talk with when you hear the panel in a little while. They have come from many different parts of the world. They’ve studied many different fields. Many of them were summer students at Livermore, but decades after I was. It took not just one generation, but generations of people pursuing this goal. It’s a scientific milestone. Scientific energy breakeven to achieve this. But of course, as with all of these kinds of complex scientific undertakings, it’s also an engineering marvel beyond belief. This duality of advancing the research, building the complex engineering systems, both sides learning from each other, this is how we do really big hard things. So this is just a beautiful example.
I also have been reflecting on how long the journey can be from knowing to doing, because it’s a century since we’ve figured out that it was fusion that was going on in our sun and all the other stars. In that century, it took so many different kinds of advances that ultimately came together to the point that we could replicate that fusion activity in this controllable way in a laboratory. I think it’s just a reminder that sometimes, even when we know something, it’s a very long time before we can turn it into something that we can actually harness and start to be able to use. As the secretary described, I think that prospect now is one step closer in a really exciting way.
Okay, so let me just finish by saying I think this is an amazing example of the power of America’s research and development enterprise. This is what the Department of Energy works every day to support and to drive. It’s what our Office of Science and Technology policy at the White House focuses on every day, is how do we strengthen and advance this enterprise? And it is an enterprise that President Biden has championed in a way that no one really ever has before. He submitted a budget for supporting federal R and D that is the biggest ever that we’ve had in this country.
I want to take a moment and congratulate the entire Department of Energy with Secretary Granholm’s tremendous leadership, the National Nuclear Security Administration here that has championed this effort for so long, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and especially in particularly all the scientists and engineers across many years who got us to this moment.
President Biden loves to say that the one word that defines America is possibilities, and this is such a wonderful example of a possibility realized, a scientific milestone achieved, and a road ahead to the possibilities for clean energy and even deeper understanding of the scientific principles that are at play here. So thanks again. Congratulations and all the best from the White House. And now… Thank you.
Thanks so much. Now, it’s my privilege to get to introduce Jill Hruby. She is the under secretary for nuclear security here at the Department of Energy and also the Administrator of NNSA.
Jill Hruby (14:12):
Well, good morning. Thank you, Dr. Prubacher, for joining NNSA to celebrate our incredible achievement. And thank you Secretary Granholm for kicking us off and being such a tremendous supporter of science. This success would not be possible without the strong support for foundational research by the US government and by the sustained investment in our national laboratories.
Monday, December 5th, 2022 was an important day in science. Reaching ignition in a controlled fusion experiment is an achievement that has come after more than 60 years of global research, development, engineering, and experimentation. The people at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories National Ignition Facility reached this ignition milestone because of the work others did before them. Their analysis of data and models, their continued pursuit to have the best possible facility, and their sheer excellence and grit.
I would like to thank the members of Congress. Thank you so much for being here today that supported the National Ignition Facility, because your belief and the promise of visionary science has been critical for our mission. I’d also like to thank the international partners that worked with us on this, because their collaboration demonstrates the power and possibility of advancing scientific pursuits. But finally, a giant thank you to the talented federal defense programs and national security enterprise teams that supported this work at Lawrence Livermore. We are so proud of the accomplishments of our Livermore’s National Ignition Facility.
The National Ignition Facility is the world’s largest and most energetic laser system. During experiments, 192 high energy lasers converge on a target about the size of a peppercorn, heating a capsule of deuterium and tritium to over three million degrees Celsius and briefly simulating the conditions of a star. In achieving ignition, the researchers at Lawrence Livermore have opened a new chapter in NNSA’s science based stockpile stewardship program, enabling us to study new regimes. Along with this, we have taken the first tentative steps towards a clean energy source that could revolutionize the world.
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to remember the 30th anniversary of Divider, the last explosives nuclear weapons test conducted by the United States. In reflecting on Divider, I spoke of how far our stockpile stewardship program has come and in how many ways we now understand our nuclear weapons better than we did when we were testing. Unlocking ignition at NIF will allow us to probe the extreme conditions found at the center of nuclear explosions and address significant long-standing stewardship questions. The unprecedented nature of reaching ignition confirms what I and previous administrators of the NNSA have been saying for decades. There is no more dedicated or a more talented group of scientists in the world, as it should be. The tireless efforts of thousands of people from around the National Security Enterprise, Nuclear Security Enterprise and their predecessors are responsible for this breakthrough. We honor their intelligence, their commitment, and their determination.
Going forward, we know we will make further breakthroughs, we’ll have further setbacks. But all of this is in the interest of promoting national security, pushing towards a clean energy future, and redefining the boundaries of what’s possible. Thank you for being here. I’d like to introduce Marv Adams, the deputy administrator for defense programs, to speak on this achievement.
Marv Adams (18:47):
Thank you Administrator Hruby. A paraphrase of Abraham Lincoln strikes me as fitting here. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did at the National Ignition Facility.
Let’s recap. A team at Lawrence Livermore National Lab National Ignition Facility made the following happen. There’s a tiny cylinder here at the end of this that you probably can’t see. It’s about so tall and this wide. Inside that was a small spherical capsule about half the diameter of a BB. 192 laser beams entered from the two ends of the cylinder and struck the inner wall. They didn’t strike the capsule. They struck the inner wall of this cylinder and deposited energy. That happened in less time than it takes light to move 10 feet, so it’s kind of fast. X-rays from the wall impinged on the spherical capsule. Fusion fuel in
Marv Adams (20:00):
… When the capsule got squeezed, fusion reactions started. This had all happened before, a hundred times before, but last week for the first time, they designed this experiment so that the fusion fuel stayed hot enough, dense enough, and round enough for long enough, that it ignited, and it produced more energies than the lasers had deposited. About two megajoules in, about three megajoules out. A gain of 1.5. The energy production took less time than it takes light to travel one inch, kind of fast.
So this is pretty cool. I have a special message to listeners who want to work on exciting, challenging, and important problems. We’re hiring.
So fusion is an essential process in modern nuclear weapons, and fusion also has the potential for abundant clean energy. As you have heard, and will hear more, the breakthrough at NIF does have ramifications for clean energy. More immediately, this achievement will advance our national security in at least three ways. First, it will lead to laboratory experiments that help NNSA defense programs continue to maintain confidence in our deterrent without nuclear explosive testing. Second, it underpins the credibility of our deterrent, by demonstrating world-leading expertise in weapons-relevant technologies. That is, we know what we’re doing. Third, continuing to assure our allies that we know what we’re doing, and continuing to avoid testing will advance our non-proliferation goals, also increasing our national security.
The achievement we celebrate today illustrates that big, important accomplishments often take longer and require more effort than originally thought, and that these accomplishments are often more than worth that time and effort that they took. With that, I would like to welcome my friend and colleague, Dr. Kim Budil, the director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to speak about her laboratory’s achievement.
Dr. Budil (22:42):
Madam Secretary, Dr. Provauker, Administrator Ruby, and Deputy Administrator Adams, thank you for your remarks today and for your support. This is a historic achievement for the team at Livermore, our collaborators in academia, and labs in the US and abroad, our industry partners, the fusion community writ-large, and the many supporters and stakeholders in the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Department of Energy, and in Congress, who’ve ensured we could reach this moment, even when the going was tough.
Over the past 60 years, thousands of people have contributed to this endeavor, and it took real vision to get us here. Building the National Ignition facility was an enormous scientific and engineering challenge. I liked Dr. Provauker’s emphasis on the importance of bringing those two together. In the end, after all that work, the laser has exceeded its performance goals, opened whole new areas of high energy density science to exploration, and delivered the data we need to keep our nuclear deterrent safe, secure, and effective.
Our pursuit of fusion ignition, over the past decade, at NIF was an incredibly ambitious technical goal. Many said it was not possible, the laser wasn’t energetic enough, the targets would never be precise enough, our modeling and simulation tools were just not up to the task of this complex physics. Progress has taken time, but last August, when we achieved a then record yield of 1.35 megajoules, putting us at the threshold of ignition, many took notice. And last week, our pre-shot predictions, improved by machine learning and the wealth of data we’ve collected, indicated that we had a better than 50% chance of exceeding target gain of one.
60 years ago, when John Knuckles and his team proposed that lasers could be used to produce fusion ignition in the laboratory, it was beyond audacious. The laser had just been invented, and was far from the mature tool we know today. But this is really what national labs are for. Tackling the most difficult scientific challenges head on, learning from the inevitable setbacks, and building toward the next idea. Lawrence Livermore has been at the center of the ICF community across these many decades, and ICF has been a centerpiece of our lab. Indeed, people often say that LLNL stands for lasers, lasers, nothing but lasers. But I think our motto sums up our approach nicely, science and technology on a mission.
This achievement opens up new scientific realms for us to explore and advances our capabilities for our national security missions. It demonstrates the power of US leadership in science and technology, and shows what we’re capable of as a nation. And as the secretary mentioned, breakthroughs like this one have generated tremendous excitement in the fusion community, and a great deal of private sector investment in fusion energy. But this is only possible due to the long-term commitment of public investment in fusion science. The science and technology challenges on the path to fusion energy are daunting, but making the seemingly impossible possible is when we’re at our very best. Ignition is a first step, a truly monumental one that sets the stage for a transformational decade in high energy density science and fusion research, and I cannot wait to see where it takes us. Thank you. And I’ll hand the podium back to Secretary Granholm.
Secretary Granholm (26:09):
Great, thanks. We will open up for a few minutes of questions, and I think that our public affairs team, Chad, is going to be navigating that, and of course we have the experts.
Speaker 1 (26:22):
And just give your name and your outlet, please. We’re taking questions on this topic. Thank you.
Yeah. Hi. Thanks. Ari Nat from Bloomberg News. I’m curious how long you think it’ll be until we see commercialization of this technology, and also as a followup, if this happened on last Monday, why are we just hearing about it now? Thank you.
Secretary Granholm (26:43):
It’s going to take a while before we see this commercialized. I don’t know if you want to say a word about that.
Dr. Budil (26:51):
Sure. Yes. There are very significant hurdles, not just in the science but in technology. This is one igniting capsule, one time. And to realize commercial fusion energy, you have to do many things, you have to be able to produce many, many fusion ignition events per minute, and you have to have a robust system of drivers to enable that. So probably decades, not six decades, I don’t think, I think not five decades, which is what we used to say. I think it’s moving into the foreground, and probably with concerted effort and investment, a few decades of research on the underlying technologies could put us in a position to build a power plant.
On the question of what we’ve been doing for the last week, the team has been hard at work analyzing data. It turns out that, when you ignite one of these capsules, it’s unambiguous that something big happened. You make a lot of neutrons, but the data’s not trivial to analyze. And the team invited all of their team members who understand the individual diagnostics to come in and work together to look at all the data, to make sure we had the numbers right. And we brought in an external team of experts to do a peer review before we were ready to release the numbers. It’s really important that we tell you the facts, and that we get them right before we go public. So that’s what we’ve been doing for a week.
Secretary Granholm (28:20):
You should probably stay there.
Two quick questions. One, I know that the positive net return is the important thing, but how much energy does it take that we talk about the, I guess, the wall plug energy, how much wall plug energy did it take, and are there implications for other types of fusion? Is this something that could inform magnetic confinement fusion as well?
Dr. Budil (28:49):
So the laser requires about 300 megajoules of energy from the wall to drive two megajoules of laser energy, which drove three megajoules of fusion yield. Our calculation suggests that it’s possible, with a laser system at scale, to achieve hundreds of megajoules of yield. So there is a pathway to a target that produces enough yield, but we’re very distant from that right now. So 300 megajoules at the wall, two megajoules in the laser. So this really is talking about target gain greater than one. And then there was a second part to your question.
But does it inform magnetic fusion?
Dr. Budil (29:24):
Magnetic fusion. Yes. So there are many common things about plasma science and the materials you need to work in fusion environments, diagnostic techniques, et cetera. Essentially, magnetic fusion works at low pressures and densities and for long times, whereas inertia confinement fusion works at high pressures and densities for very short times. So there are some similarities in the underlying physics, but the fundamental concepts are quite different.
Secretary Granholm, Pete Bear, with ENE News, Congress has
… charged you and the department with making decisions about the most promising to signs for a pilot fusion plant. And you’re in the middle of that process now. How are you going to approach that and what are your concerns about making those kind of choices?
Secretary Granholm (30:16):
Well, clearly the folks who will be evaluating are the professionals in this, who are the scientists who do this work, and they will likely do, with all of these funding opportunity announcements, do a whole peer review process of each of the applications to determine which ones are most likely to be successful given the challenges. There’s no parameters on whether these are magnetic confinement plants or laser confinement plants. We are just looking at the best proposals that come in and hopefully we’ll have a decision on that first 50 million early in the new year.
Gary Grumbach (31:05):
Hey there, Secretary. Gary Grumbach from NBC News here. There’s questions about the ability to scale here and that was touched on a little bit as it relates to the power plant, et cetera, but can you talk about the ability to scale and who should be in charge of that scaling? Private? Government? Both?
Secretary Granholm (31:19):
Well, clearly we want the private sector and we need the private sector to get in the game, though it’s really important that there has been this incredible amount of US public dollars going into this breakthrough. But all of the steps that we’ll take that will be necessary to get this to commercial level will still require public research and private research. We know that there’s been a huge interest among the private funding community, startups, et cetera, and we encourage that. The President has a decadal vision to get to a commercial fusion reactor within obviously 10 years. So we’ve got to get to work and this shows that it can be done, which has been a question, can you get there? This demonstrates it can be done. That threshold being crossed allows them to start working on better lasers, more efficient lasers, on better containment, capsules, et cetera. The things that are necessary to allow it to be modularized and taken to commercial scale.
Speaker 2 (32:25):
I think one more.
Speaker 3 (32:31):
Thanks so much. I just wanted to clarify, you’re saying there’s a goal to get this in a decade. You had said that there would be decades plural in terms of commercialization. How do you reconcile that and what is the timeline here?
Dr. Budil (32:43):
I think I get that. So there’s two approaches to commercial fusion energy. One is based on magnetic fusion using devices like Tokamak’s. One is inertial fusion. There are private companies pursuing both approaches. The technology development, the foundational technology to begin to scale up toward a power plant is further along in the magnetic fusion community. And it’s building more directly off the work that’s been done in recent decades at facilities like Jet in the United Kingdom, at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab at MIT, to build the foundational technologies up for magnetic fusion energy. The National Ignition Facility has been focused on creating this first step. If we could not ignite capsules in the laboratory, you could not see a pathway to an inertial confinement fusion energy plant, so this was a necessary first step.
But the NIFF is built on foundationally on 1980s laser technology. So we need to bring modern technology approaches to the drivers. We need to think about all the systems questions, and now that we have a capsule that ignites, we need to figure out can we make it simpler? Can we begin to make this process easier and more repeatable? Can we begin to do it more than one time a day? Can we start working toward [inaudible 00:34:00]? And each of these is an incredible scientific and engineering challenge for us. So while magnetic fusion may be a little bit in front, having that portfolio of approaches is really a great place to be because these communities will feed off each other, will learn, will continue to advance the field, and many technologies will grow out of both fields in addition to the path to a fusion power plant.
So I think having both is really important. You’ll hear in the panel about some of the potential advantages of an inertial confinement fusion approach. It’s a little bit different. So I think it really is important to keep us on that pathway. And with investment, with energy – no pun intended, sorry about that – with real investment and real focus, that time scale can move closer. We were in a position for a very long time where it never got closer because we needed this first fundamental step, so we’re in a great position today to begin understanding just what it will take to make that next step. And then where that boundary is, I’m guessing, because I don’t want to give you a sense that we’re going to plug the NPH into the grid. That is definitely not how this works, but this is the fundamental building block of an inertial confinement fusion power scheme.
Secretary Granholm (35:17):
I’d like to acknowledge as well Congressman [inaudible 00:35:22] joined us as well. Thank you so much. DoE has 17 national labs. A number of those lab directors are also populating this audience as well. I know that Kim would say this has been a group project and would acknowledge the other labs that have contributed to this effort as well and are working on their solutions. So thank you everybody so much. And if you hang around for a few minutes, we’re going to break here and then set up for the technical panel for those who wish to stay. Thank you.
Speaker 4 (36:02):
The technical panel will begin in approximately 10 minutes.