Most businesses of any appreciable size have a “Plan B” in every area they operate.  This refers to basic risk mitigation and the commonsense view that the “all eggs in one basket” approach is not a judicious philosophy.  Regarding many arenas of risk, including cybersecurity and financial risk, rules have been mandated by governmental bodies forcing companies to comply or face fines.  Outside of strict compliance, however, mature companies manage risk to ensure a steady stream of sustainable, profitable business- that is their agreement with investors.  Of course, not all company leaders deploy commonsense, and we do see notable failures arising from business monoculture.

The “Plan B” notion is naturally more complex than the words themselves suggest: It is hard enough to develop a good strategy for Plan A! Plans B, however, do not have to be grandiose.  One element of a good Plan B is, say, to diversify your supplier base such that there are no immediate points of failure if one or two companies can’t perform.  Another is to build modular businesses that might not hum perfectly in great times but prove to be far more supple in tougher times.

I write these truisms not to be preachy but, instead, because I see the private fusion industry making a set of mistakes in these early innings that will affect the success of the game in the middle and long terms.  Call this piece, then, a clarion call for Fusion companies to think about Plans B.  I don’t think most are there yet.

For the most part, Fusion companies that are building machines that are extrapolatable to FPPs are wedded to a particular type of machine and a particular type of machine design.  In some ways this is understandable- you build a plan, you stick to it, and you make a set of promises to investors and customers along the way.  In addition, these complex machines cannot be willy-nilly “changed” mid-stream in all cases.  While this creates a lag between the latest science and machine engineering, it is an understandable approach.

Until it isn’t.  We’ve never dealt with the conditions that a real Fusion Power Plant will need; we are modeling our test machines on what is manageable today, even though we know that the conditions in a viable fusion reactor will be far more onerous.  In fact, regarding elements like Plasma-Facing Components, we work backwards, holding confinement back to ensure that the current PFCs don’t give-out too soon.  This is just one example of the need to project the future and create a Plan B and not to tailor what we do to only our current experience.

There are so many other parts of the components of a viable reactor for which all companies (and their investors) should have a Plan B. What if X? What if Y?  The Fusion community does not want to see billions of dollars and so much intellectual creativity go to waste if particular designs or parts are not up to the job.

Business strives on people who are driven by certainty- fair enough.  We all believe we have a winning approach; else we wouldn’t have gone into business.  But we all need to understand that we are dealing with such complexity and so much unknown that even on our best days, we are still imperfect.  An industry as important as Fusion must not fail; in other words, we must spread our bets and while marching strongly towards our goals, manage risk as well.