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Kathy McCarthy: Science in the sweet spot

As the world grapples with climate change, there’s never been a more exciting, urgent time to be working in nuclear energy.

“We're perfectly positioned for contributing to clean energy to help us meet those long-term goals,” said Kathy McCarthy, associate lab director for fusion and fission energy and science. “We are in the sweet spot.”

McCarthy’s unique career in fusion and fission seems almost custom-made for this place and time. Over the years, she has gravitated toward the intersections between disciplines, people and ideas, gaining a fresh perspective on issues and building valuable bridges among key players.

After studying fission as an undergraduate, McCarthy shifted to fusion in her graduate studies, researching the use of liquid metals to remove the heat produced by ultrahot fusion plasmas. She worked her way up the research and development leadership ladder at Idaho National Laboratory in a variety of roles. Later, she served as director of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, where, building on her experience with DOE’s Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program, she cultivated ties with industry, translating fundamental nuclear science to power plant operators while absorbing their views and feedback. She is also a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

“That really helped me understand how important practicality is,” McCarthy said.

At ORNL, her directorate is accelerating integration and deployment of next-generation fission technology, from concept to industry and regulatory adoption. The directorate is also poised to lead solutions for key science and technology challenges that are essential to economical fusion energy. US ITER provides practical reactor-scale fusion design, fabrication and integration experience for the international ITER fusion reactor in France, while technology-focused experiments such as the Material Plasma Exposure eXperiment, or MPEX, slated to begin assembly in 2023, will support materials studies for post-ITER fusion devices.

“We have the most diverse team of fusion experts that you’ll find in the U.S., and unique breadth and integration in fundamental nuclear science,” McCarthy said.

Earlier this year, a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine urged the U.S. to move quickly toward developing and building a fusion pilot plant, targeting 2035–2040 for operations. This timeline is driven by the goals of maintaining U.S. fusion leadership and supporting the transition to carbon-neutral energy. Scores of thorny issues must be resolved for that goal: How do we maintain and control “burning” (self-sustaining) plasmas? Can we produce economical fusion power? What exactly is going on in that critical, 10 cm space between the sun-like plasma and the exponentially cooler wall surrounding it?

For these and other issues, ORNL stands at the ready. Said McCarthy, “We envision being the place where the private companies and government come to get their problems solved.”— Kristen Coyne