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What is the significance of the fusion breakthrough?

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Joining us now to talk about what this breakthrough means for the U.S. is Scott Hsu, the lead fusion coordinator at the Department of Energy. Thanks for being here, Scott.

SCOTT HSU: Thank you. Great to be here.

SCHMITZ: As Geoff just mentioned, for the first time ever in a laboratory, researchers were able to generate more energy from fusion than they used to start the process. The total gain was around 150%, which sounds astounding. But how realistic is it that this will be able to create clean, safe electricity anytime soon?

HSU: Well, I think this achievement was a big step in the sense that before, we questioned whether this was even possible, right?

SCHMITZ: Right.

HSU: In theory, we knew it could be done. But it's like flipping a switch. Last week, we didn't - people questioned whether it was possible. Today, we know it is possible. So I think that's the important piece.

SCHMITZ: And this happened in a U.S. Department of Energy lab. What are other countries doing? Are we - it makes me wonder if we're entering into an era where we see a nuclear fusion race.

HSU: Yes, indeed. Other countries are increasing their investments in this area, both because of increasing technical readiness, as we just saw, but also the strong market pull for an energy technology that fusion - of fusion characteristics. So they are investing strongly, many other countries.

SCHMITZ: And which countries are sort of in the lead on this, other than the United States, obviously?

HSU: Well, the U.K. has has declared an ambition to bring a fusion pilot plant online by 2040. And, of course, the People's Republic of China is investing very strongly.

SCHMITZ: And let's talk about the infrastructure that this will require. How much is this going to cost? Are we investing enough money in this now to make this viable in the future?

HSU: Yeah, that's a great question. You know, when people ask, how long will it take? - to me, it's more about our collective will and how much we invest. And so I think we know what needs to be done. And it's a collective will to get there. In terms of infrastructure, I think there's many opportunities and needs. If we are to have a fusion energy economy, there's a lot of opportunities in high-tech components, materials and manufacturing. We would like to be able to secure these supply chains in America and with our allies. But also, we can repurpose existing infrastructure. For example, decommissioning power plants would be a win-win, saving costs for fusion developers and also bringing benefits to local communities because fusion is clean.

SCHMITZ: And are we going to see money in the budget for this in the years to come now that this discovery has been made?

HSU: Well, even if I knew the answer to that, I couldn't say it here. I'd have to refer those questions to the Department of Energy public affairs folks.

SCHMITZ: But, Scott, when we look at the infrastructure that's required for nuclear fusion to actually be viable, we're thinking about things like especially skilled professionals, people who understand how this works. At this stage, do we have enough people trained in this to make this happen?

HSU: So that's a great question. We really do need to build our workforce. I think in the hardcore fusion plasma physics, we have a good number of people. But to do all the rest of the things to get to viable commercial fusion energy, we need to grow our workforce in many different areas to bring fusion to technical and commercial viability. So we welcome people to join this fight.

SCHMITZ: Scott Hsu is the lead fusion coordinator at the Department of Energy. Thanks, Scott.

HSU: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.