Putin's War in Ukraine 'Changed the Conversation' Around Nuclear Fusion

Russian President Vladimir Putin's ongoing war in Ukraine has forced the West to scrutinize its energy supply—and there is increasing interest in nuclear fusion as a future energy source.

Russia is a major player in the world's energy markets. In 2021, it exported 14 percent of the world's supply of crude oil and it's also the world's largest exporter of natural gas. It has several pipelines sending gas directly to Europe, and accounted for almost 40 percent of European Union gas demand in 2021.

Amid soaring tensions between Moscow and the West due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Russia has cut its gas supplies to Europe by 88 percent over the past year, causing the wholesale price of gas to soar over the same period.

Several countries have been given a strong incentive to develop a sovereign energy supply that isn't affected by geopolitics, and nuclear fusion has drawn attention.

"As the Russian conflict causes high energy prices and energy scarcity in Europe, we are seeing increased interest in fusion at a time when interest in fusion is already high," Megan Wilson, chief strategy and marketing officer at General Fusion in Vancouver, told Newsweek. "In fact, we've heard from potential investors that the situation is yet another reminder why technologies such as fusion are necessary."

Vladimir Putin and the sun
Russian president Vladimir Putin seen at a meeting in Berlin, Germany, in October, 2016, and a file illustration of a flaring sun. Countries around the world are seeking to develop nuclear fusion, the same process that powers the sun. Adam Berry/vitacopS/Getty

Nuclear fusion is a process in which two atomic nuclei fuse together under intense heat and pressure to form one single nucleus. This new nucleus is not quite as heavy as the combined mass of the two separate nuclei before they fused, and this leftover mass is released as energy that can be harnessed. It's the same process that powers the sun.

Scientists have tried to recreate nuclear fusion artificially for decades because of its many benefits as an energy source: Nuclear fusion doesn't release any carbon as a by-product; it's much more efficient than fossil fuels; it doesn't create radioactive waste other than reactor components; and it doesn't carry any threat of a runaway nuclear reaction that could lead to a meltdown.

In addition, the fuels used for fusion—usually the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium—can both be produced artificially and only small amounts are needed.

"In terms of the fuel supply, you could literally have enough fuel on site to power the plant for a whole 40 years of operation, and close the gates," Nick Hawker, CEO of U.K. nuclear fusion company First Light Fusion, told Newsweek. "That is possible. You wouldn't even need that big of a warehouse. Then you're looking at supply chains. There's no equivalent of gas from Russia, or uranium from Kazakhstan.

"I think the Russia-Ukraine war has changed the conversation about why you might invest in fusion to include energy security… We have always mentioned energy security when we talk, but now, it really is a top concern."

Perhaps due to the sovereign nature of fusion, none of the experts that Newsweek spoke to said there was competitive tension between countries—such as between the U.S. and China—though Hawker said there was "friendly" competition between some leading fusion developers like the U.S. and the U.K.

Person holding atom
A file image depicts someone holding an atom. Nuclear fusion involves fusing atoms together to create energy, and scientists have been trying to use the process as a source of electricity for decades. Natali_Mis/Getty

That doesn't seem to have curtailed investment. According to the Fusion Industry Association's 2022 Fusion Companies Survey from July this year, fusion companies declared over $4.7 billion of private funding since the previous survey a year prior, "more than doubling the industry's entire historic investment in a single year."

"Independent of current geopolitics, the fusion industry has been ramping up, particularly in the private sector," Wilson said. "Ultimately, many countries and companies are pursuing fusion energy because the benefits are vast and benefit all nations. As I've said, the countries and companies that invest in the industry will reap energy security, climate and economic benefits."

This investment will go towards developing a fusion reactor that is capable of net power gain—producing more power than it uses to operate. This is something that no reactor has yet been able to achieve.

Many fusion industry figures are optimistic that this will be achieved by the early 2030s with commercialization the following decade, and Chinese scientists have even said they are aiming for commercialization by 2035 with one of their upcoming reactors.

Russia, too, is working on the technology. The country is a key partner in the multi-national International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, which will see the world's largest experimental tokamak—a donut-shaped machine that uses magnets to confine superheated plasma and achieve fusion—operational as soon as 2025. Russia is also working on its own T-15MD tokamak, which came online last summer.

Whichever country gets there first, nuclear fusion could change the geopolitics of energy supply forever.