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Page added on July 24, 2012

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US fusion in budget vice

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For years, US researchers have been steadfast in their support of ITER, the world’s largest fusion-energy experiment, which is under construction near Cadarache, France. But with funding commitments to ITER now putting the squeeze on three existing facilities in the United States, enthusiasm for the international project is becoming as difficult to sustain as a fusion reaction.

“I think we should ask whether this is the right path,” Earl Marmar, head of the Alcator C-Mod fusion experiment run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, told colleagues on 18 July. The venue was a meeting of a US Department of Energy (DOE) group tasked with setting priorities for the non-ITER portion of the US fusion programme. At the meeting, in Bethesda, Maryland, Marmar pointed out that when US fusion researchers signed on to ITER in 2003, the project’s total construction cost was projected to be about US$5 billion, of which the United States would provide 9% over ten years. Now, the construction costs are projected to be roughly four times as much. Furthermore, the funds to support ITER were not supposed to be siphoned from existing facilities — yet if the total budget for US fusion science remains flat, as is expected, that is precisely what will happen (see ‘Death by ITER’).

Marmar’s facility houses one of three US tokamaks — doughnut-shaped vessels in which physicists magnetically confine hydrogen nuclei in a plasma and heat them until they fuse and liberate energy. Alcator received $29 million in federal funding this year. But as ITER payments increase, US President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget proposal for the DOE would chop Alcator’s allocation back to $16 million, shutting down operations and forcing the experiment to lay off more than half of its 120 staff members.

Source: D. Brunner/MIT

Stephen Dean, president of Fusion Power Associates, an advocacy group in Gaithersburg, Maryland, says that DOE officials have little choice but to cut Alcator, the smallest of the three US experiments, to afford an overall US ITER commitment that has grown to about $2.2 billion. “Why can’t we get by with two?” asks Dean. “It’s not an insubstantial argument.”

Yet leaders at the three experiments insist that all provide unique science (see ‘Tokamaks under pressure’). Marmar says that Alcator, for example, can operate at extremely high magnetic-field strengths that mimic those planned at ITER. And whereas most tokamaks have inner walls made of graphite, Alcator researchers have pioneered the use of tungsten — a more durable material that ITER is planning to adopt. Current experiments at Alcator also explore the use of special radio-wave antennas to heat the plasma in ways that reduce erosion of the walls.

Stewart Prager, director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in New Jersey, has a different argument for keeping all three experimental facilities running. If the United States is to spend all this money on ITER, he says, then it must maintain domestic plasma-science expertise that can take advantage of what is learned there. “Otherwise, the results from ITER will only benefit the rest of the world.”



Tokamaks under pressure

US President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget proposal for the Department of Energy would cut funding for the three US tokamak fusion reactors by US$24 million and put one, Alcator C-Mod, on a path to cancellation.

Name DIII-D Alcator C-Mod National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX)
Location San Diego, California Cambridge, Massachusetts Princeton, New Jersey
Year completed 1986 1993 1999
2012 funding $69 million $29 million $50 million
Plasma volume 20 cubic metres 1 cubic metre 11 cubic metres
Peak magnetic field 2.2 tesla 8 tesla 1 tesla
Peak duration of plasma heating 10 seconds 4 seconds 5 seconds
Unique science Because DIII-D has a similar shape to the international ITER reactor, it is a test bed for working out design kinks in the larger project. Alcator pioneered tokamak walls made of tungsten, an approach now being used at ITER. The nearly spherical plasma could allow fusion in lower magnetic fields than required by other reactors — and with lower magnet costs.

Source: DIII-D/Alcator C-Mod/NSTX


It seems that some members of the US Congress are listening. On 6 June, the House of Representatives voted to boost ITER funding and to support the domestic programme at almost 2012 levels. The Senate’s version of the bill, which has not yet been voted on, currently agrees with the cuts in the Obama administration’s budget request — but directs the DOE to explore the impact of simply withdrawing from ITER.

US fusion researchers do not want that — yet. But if the 2014 budget looks at all like the 2013 one, Dean predicts, the knives will be out for ITER. “They’re not trying to kill ITER just yet,” he says. “If this happens again in 2014, I’m not so sure.”

3 Comments on "US fusion in budget vice"

  1. DC on Tue, 24th Jul 2012 10:27 pm 

    If you look at the numbers being floated in this article its pretty clear the US is NOT serious about fusion in a serious way. The Fossil-fuel cartel receive billions every year for a century now, alledgely to fund ‘research’. As if the toxic oil cartel needs more research to find out..what? That oil stinks and kills? Needless to say, its all been just another gift to the oil and coal companies. Fusion will requires 100s of billions of dollars in funding, with the chances of sucesss uncertain even if they did get all the funding they wanted.

    So no, the US is clearly not serious about fusion when even wind and solar get more public funding and the US is barely even serious about those technologies, despite the awkward fact they are proven and were available 30 years ago…

    In any event, all the funding being cut around the US, is being funneled towards the military. No schools, no trains, no fusion, but plenty of bombs and bullets.

  2. BillT on Wed, 25th Jul 2012 1:07 am 

    DC, Fusion is NOT going to happen. Even the most optimistic dreamers admit that at best, IF it works, it is decades away and maybe longer to be commercially viable, if ever. Those billions need to be spent to upgrade our rail service and electric grid, not be wasted on a few high priced dreamers. The fission/fusion decision was made for us 70 years ago when the Manhattan Project was started.

    If there is ever an honest history written of the last century, by open minded, educated authors, it will look at all the stupid and self-destructive things we did that ruined our and their future. Our descendants will probably hate us for what we wasted.

  3. triangleman on Wed, 25th Jul 2012 1:14 pm 

    There is much work to be done before fusion power is on the grid, but it is incorrect to say that fusion will never be commercially viable. The ARIES-AT reactor design study (available for free online) performed a detailed cost analysis showing that its design would be competitive with other forms of energy production.

    Graduate students at MIT have created a website with more information about fusion as an energy source and how to help reverse the current budget situation. Check out if you want to learn more.

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