Diagram of China's EAST tokamak fusion reactor.

Diagram of China's EAST tokamak fusion reactor. S. L. Chen, F. Villone, B. J. Xiao, L. Barbato, Z. P. Luo, L. Liu, S. Mastrostefano & Z. Xing

China’s Fusion Research Is Heating Up

The EAST reactor in Hefei broke records last month as it edges toward the sustained stellar temperatures needed to generate fusion energy.

The hottest thing in the solar system is usually the Sun, with its core temperature of 15 million degrees Celsius. But for nearly two minutes on May 28, the title was held by an experimental fusion reactor in Hefei, China. The implications for global politics and security are monumental.

Unlike nuclear fission, which slams a neutron into an atom to yield two smaller and generally radioactive atoms plus energy, nuclear fusion combines two atoms. The outcome is far more energy, but without the radioactive waste. Though some doubt the prospects, the concept of safe, clean, renewable power from fusion has been the holy grail of energy experimentation. 

A key approach has been the Tokamak reactor, the first of which was powered up in 1958 in Moscow. These reactors follow a toroidal design, akin to a donut, in which plasma is generated and contained using extremely powerful magnetic fields. Atoms within the field are forced together until their cores fuse, forming heavier elements and releasing tremendous amounts of energy. Research programs at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and Joint European Torus in England follow similar approaches. 

China launched its first effort to design and build its own tokamak in 1998, as a part of the country’s Ninth Five-Year Plan Major National Scientific Projects. The Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak, or EAST, reactor was first brought online in 2007; it has been achieving stable plasma generation for nearly 11 years. This year, the reactor broke terrestrial records when it reached sustained plasma temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds and temperatures of 160 million degrees for 20 seconds.

This progress toward the sustained superhot conditions necessary for fusion is key to China’s strategic push to sustainable energy self-sufficiency. The country's economic growth requires reliable sources of energy and creates new vulnerabilities, as recently highlighted by straining electric grids in Guangdong provinces, one of China's economic powerhouses. 

In 2019, China consumed 14 million barrels of petroleum per day. Over 70 percent of this came from abroad, mostly shipped from OPEC countries in the Middle East through a series of maritime chokepoints. Price fluctuations make this foreign dependence a strategic vulnerability even in the best of circumstances. Should those imports be threatened, as through blockades or military actions during a crisis or war, it could cripple China’s industrial production and its broader society. 

Energy independence is thus a top priority for decision-makers in Beijing. Further, the development of viable fusion reactors will have many added advantages yet unforeseen in the military and civilian economy, much the same way that nuclear fission power did.

In addition to tokamak reactors, China is also investing heavily in research related to inertial confinement fusion, an alternative approach that initiates fusion reactions by compressing fuel with high-power lasers. Currently under construction in Shanghai is the Station of Extreme Light, a facility for experiments with a 100-petawatt laser. 

The importance of fusion was also illustrated by continuing concerns over traditional fission reactors, as recently illustrated when the Taishan nuclear power plant in Guangdong province made headlines due to a possible radiological leak caused by damaged fuel rods. Notably, the leak was reported to the United States by the Taishan plant’s French partner company Framatome. Officials with the French company were concerned when, instead of shutting down the damaged plant, the Chinese regulatory agency reportedly doubled the levels of venting gas deemed acceptable to the public. If fusion technology can be properly developed, these types of events may become a thing of the past. 

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Besides alleviating the strategic and safety concerns of its existing energy sources, implementing clean energy is also important to the Chinese government’s desire to reduce health effects from pollution. A Lancet study of China estimated that 81 percent of its population lives in regions exceeding the WHO’s targets for air pollution, which has reduced overall life expectancy by 1.25 years. 

Thus, while fusion technology is still in its infancy, the implications of this research, and this latest breakthrough by their indigenously designed and built device are immense. The countries that can develop and wield this technology have the potential to see massive windfalls in terms of reliable and renewable energy, and the reduced vulnerability that comes with it. 

Thomas Corbett is a research analyst with BluePath Labs. His areas of focus include Chinese foreign relations, emerging technology, and international economics. 

P.W. Singer is Strategist at New America.

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