In the 2023 Appropriations bill, expected to pass Congress this week, the U.S. government would provide record funding for fusion energy. This funding comes on the heels of the breakthrough fusion results from the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, announced on December 13.
The Fusion Energy Sciences program within the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which funds most of the U.S. government’s fusion research, would receive $763 million for the coming year, $50 million (about 7%) above 2022 funding levels, and $40 million above what the Biden Administration requested. Inertial Confinement Fusion research, which supported the breakthrough at the NIF, comes from a separate budget allocation, through the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Congress would fund $630 million for Inertial Confinement Fusion, a $50 million increase over 2022, of which at least $380 million will go to funding the NIF. Put together, the $1.4 billion funding for fusion will be a record amount from the U.S. government. It is also less than is needed to capitalize on the scientific breakthroughs happening in fusion around the world.
More Funding is Still Needed
Even though this funding is the most that the U.S. government has ever allocated to fusion energy research, there is broad agreement in Congress, the fusion science community, and the private fusion industry that more funding is needed to to accelerate towards a fusion power plant.
In the CHIPS and Sciences Act, Congress authorized funding for Fusion Energy Sciences at $1.025 billion for 2023, so the allocation of $763 million is only 74% of the funding necessary to achieve the aims laid out by Congress.
In March, 2022, the White House held a summit on fusion energy, calling for a “Bold Decadal Vision” for commercializing fusion energy that would accelerate beyond the plans outlined in the fusion community’s plan. Achieving this accelerated pathway will be ambitious, but it must start by funding at least at the amount authorized by Congress in the CHIPS and Sciences Act – $1.04 billion.
An important section of the funding in the Omnibus bill will provide “not less than $25 million” for the Milestone-based Development Program, a public-private partnership that supports private fusion companies as they meet their milestones towards a fusion pilot plant. This program was initiated in the fall, with applications due on December 15. DOE will announce the recipients of funding in 2023.
Applications to the milestone program were significantly oversubscribed, with more that 15 applications requesting more nearly three times as much funding as the $50 million program had allocated. The initial program duration is 18 months, and new funding will be required to accelerate the program and move towards pilot fusion power plants. All money spent in this program would be matched by private-sector investments. In the CHIPS and Science Act, Congress authorized the program for $415 million over 5 years. The Fusion Industry Association supports significant increases in funding for this program – industry and investors could support over $1 billion in funding.
Other earmarked funds in the FES program include: $130 million for research at General Atomics’ DIII-D, $104 million for NSTX-U operations at Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, and $242 million for ITER.
Prospects for Funding in the 2024 Budget
While the record funding for fusion in the budget can be seen as a qualified success, the next budget cycle starts again in February, when the President delivers his budget to Congress. Fusion energy research, development, and commercialization presents an opportunity for bipartisan support. Senator Booker of New Jersey led a letter with his colleagues in the Senate requesting funding of fusion in the Fusion Energy Sciences program at the full authorization level of $1.04 billion, sent last week to Shalanda Young, Director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Achieving a bold vision for fusion will take innovative thinking and new programs, along with full funding of the existing program. The FIA stands ready to support Congress and the Administration as they push this forward.
This article will be updated to reflect progress.