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U.S. announces nuclear fusion energy breakthrough: "One of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st century"

Nuclear fusion energy breakthrough announced
Watch: U.S. announces nuclear fusion energy breakthrough 04:27

The U.S. Department of Energy announced Tuesday a monumental milestone in nuclear fusion research: a "net energy gain" was achieved for the first time in history by scientists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

"Simply put, this is one of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st century," Jennifer Granholm, U.S. energy secretary, said at a press conference, adding that researchers have been working on this for decades.

"It strengthens our national security, and ignition allows us to replicate certain conditions only found in the stars and in the sun," she said. "This milestone moves us one significant step closer to the possibility of zero carbon abundance fusion energy powering our society."

The impact of the scientists' work will assist U.S. industries nationwide, Granholm said.

"Today, we tell the world that America has achieved a significant scientific breakthrough," said Granholm. 

U.S. expected to announce fusion energy "breakthrough" 02:48

The hope is that it could be used to develop a clean source of power that would discontinue reliance on fossil fuels.

"The day you get more energy out than you put in, the sky's the limit," American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson told CBS News.

Nuclear fusion has been considered the holy grail of energy creation that some say could save humans from extinction. It combines two hydrogen atoms, which then makes helium and a whole lot of energy. 

It's how stars, like our sun, generate power. 

"We've known how to fuse atoms and generate energy. We just haven't been able to control it," said deGrasse Tyson, author of "Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization."

Nuclear fusion technology has been around since the creation of the hydrogen bomb, but using that technology to harness energy has required decades of research. 

"They took 200 laser beams, some of the most powerful on the planet Earth, converged that energy down to a pellet, a pellet the size of a BB," said Dr. Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York. "And just remember, fusion power has no nuclear waste to speak of, no meltdowns to worry about."

Scientists believe fusion plants would be much safer than today's nuclear fission plants — if the process can be mastered.

That's the goal of a multinational, multibillion-dollar project called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, which is under construction in southern France.

Secretary Granholm Announces Nuclear Energy Scientific Breakthrough
U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm (C) is joined by (L-R) Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories Director Dr. Kim Budil, National Nuclear Security Administration head Jill Hruby, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Dr. Arati Prabhakar and NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Dr. Marvin Adams for a news conference at the Department of Energy headquarters to announce a breakthrough in fusion research on Dec. 13, 2022 in Washington, DC.  Getty Images

Currently, nuclear power plants use fission, which breaks atoms apart to make energy. Even thought it's not burning fossil fuel, meltdowns like Chernobyl and Fukushima are evidence that our nuclear fission can still harm humans — and our environment.

But now, fusion's moment appears to finally be here.

"We're long overdue to have converted something so destructive that finally it could be used for a peaceful purpose in the service of civilization," deGrasse Tyson said.

Granholm said scientists have achieved a milestone that will reach far beyond Tuesday's announcement.

"This is a landmark achievement for the researchers and staff at the National Ignition Facility who have dedicated their careers to seeing fusion ignition become a reality, and this milestone will undoubtedly spark even more discovery," Granholm said, adding that the breakthrough "will go down in the history books.''

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