Dec. 13, 2018


To Benefit From its Investments in Fusion Energy, U.S. Should Remain in ITER and Initiate a National Program of Burning Plasma Research and Technology

WASHINGTON – Along with participation in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project – a large, international burning plasma experiment – the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) should start a national program of accompanying research and technology to build a compact pilot plant that produces electricity from fusion at the lowest possible capital cost, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.  The report provides a strategic plan to guide implementation of the main recommendations.

“We are seeing tremendous progress being made in the path to achieving fusion energy around the world,” said Michael Mauel, professor of applied physics at Columbia University and co-chair of the committee that authored the report.  “Now is the right time for the U.S. to benefit from the investments in burning plasma research and take leadership in fusion energy.”

Burning plasma – an ionized gas heated to extremely high temperatures by fusion reactions, similar to processes that power the sun and stars – is a key requirement to make fusion energy. A magnetic fusion reactor can be thought of as a miniature sun confined inside a vessel.  As an energy source, fusion has environmental advantages, as it produces abundant energy from heavy hydrogen found in water and lithium. Burning plasma research is interdisciplinary and results in technological and scientific achievements that lead to new insights in related fields, like fluid mechanics and astrophysics, and advances our industrial capability for large superconducting magnets, vacuum technologies, complex cryogenic systems, ultra-precise construction, and robotic systems to handle materials.

In its interim report, the committee said that withdrawal from ITER could isolate scientists from the international effort and recommended adopting a national strategic plan for fusion energy.  ITER plays a central role in U.S. burning plasma research activities and is the only existing project that is expected to create and study a burning plasma. It is the next critical step in the development of fusion energy, says the report.

As a partner in ITER, the U.S. receives full benefit from the technologies developed for ITER while providing only a fraction of the financial resources.  If the U.S. is to profit from its share, the nation’s strategic plan for fusion should combine its ITER experience with additional science and engineering research needed to develop reliable and economical fusion electricity, the report says.

“There is a critical need for research in addition to our participation in ITER, or else the U.S. risks being overtaken by other countries that are ramping up their science and technology to achieve fusion energy,” said Melvyn Shochet, professor of physics at University of Chicago and co-chair of the committee. 

By starting a national research program toward building a compact pilot plant, important results can be achieved in a time frame such that, combined with knowledge learned from ITER operation, we may be able to demonstrate electricity production by midcentury.  The strategic value of a new national focus on developing this plant will help set research priorities for the near- and mid-term fusion program, including –

The committee envisions a compact pilot plant that could produce power similar to that expected in ITER but in a device much smaller in size and cost and employing design improvements that would allow net electricity production. As a pilot plant, its purpose will be learning, and the knowledge obtained would be sufficient to design the first commercial fusion power systems, the report says. 

The committee expects the implementation of its recommendations, including both continued partnership in ITER and the start of a national research program for a pilot plant, will require additional funding of nearly $200 million annually for several decades.

For this final report, the committee was also asked to provide strategic guidance on the next steps if the U.S. were to withdraw from ITER.  Without ITER, the committee noted, the U.S. would need to design, license, and construct an alternative means to gain experience creating and controlling an energy-producing burning plasma. As a result, the scale of research facilities domestically would be more costly, and producing electricity from fusion would be delayed.  Nevertheless, if the U.S. does decide to withdraw from ITER, DOE should initiate a plan to continue research that will lead toward the construction of a compact fusion plant, the report concludes.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.  The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine.  The National Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.  For more information, visit

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Copies of Final Report of the Committee on a Strategic Plan for U.S. Burning Plasma Research are available from the National Academies Press at or by calling 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242.  Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above). 


Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences
Board on Physics and Astronomy

Committee on a Strategic Plan for U.S. Burning Plasma Research

Michael E. Mauel (co-chair)
Professor of Applied Physics
Department of Applies Physics and Applied Math
Columbia University
New York City

Melvyn J. Shochet1 (co-chair)
Elaine M. and Samuel D. Kersten Jr. Distinguished Service Professor of Physics
Department of Physics
Enrico Fermi Institute
University of Chicago

Christina A. Back
Vice President of Nuclear Technologies and Materials
General Atomics
San Diego

Riccardo Betti
Professor of Physics and Mechanical Engineering and Assistant Director of Academic Affairs
Lab for Laser Energetics
University of Rochester
Rochester, N.Y.

Ian Chapman
U.K. Atomic Energy Authority
Abingdon, England

Cary Forest
Professor of Physics
University of Wisconsin

T. Kenneth Fowler1
Professor of Nuclear Engineering (emeritus)
University of California

Jeffrey Freidberg
Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering
Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Ronald Gilgenbach
Chair and Chihiro Kikuchi Collegiate Professor
Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

William Heidbrink
Professor of Physics
University of California

Mark Herrmann
National Ignition Facility
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Livermore, Calif.

Frank Jenko
Department of Physics and Astronomy
University of California
Los Angeles

Stanley Kaye
Principal Research Physicist
Princeton University
Princeton, N.J.

Mitsuru Kikuchi
Supreme Researcher
Japan Atomic Energy Agency
Naka, Japan

Susana Reyes
Research Technical Manager
SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
Menlo Park, Calif.

C. Paul Robinson2
President Emeritus
Sandia National Laboratories
Longmont, Colo.

Philip Snyder
General Atomics
San Diego

Amy Wendt
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
University of Wisconsin

Brian Wirth
Governor’s Chair Professor
Department of Nuclear Engineering
University of Tennessee


David Lang
Staff Officer

Christopher Jones
Staff Officer

1 Member, National Academy of Sciences
2 Member, National Academy of Engineering