THE DECADES-LONG QUEST to produce inexpensive carbon-free energy from nuclear fusion is making tangible progress. There is much work ahead but recent research is bringing the elusive goal into clearer focus. Unfortunately, non-scientific barriers – political, funding, and management issues that won’t yield to the skills of the even the best physicists – have emerged to impede US progress towards fusion energy.
The main impediment to domestic fusion research is the commitment made by the United States more than a decade ago to participate in a huge multinational fusion experiment that has ballooned in cost, is many years behind schedule, and is absorbing a disproportionate share of federal research funding. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) under construction in southern France is now expected to cost more than four times its original $5 billion cost estimate and will probably not be completed for another decade. It is the largest international science project ever undertaken. In addition to the United States, the project participants are the European Union, Russia, China, Japan, India, and South Korea. The United States is responsible for slightly more than 9 percent of the construction cost and 13 percent of the on-going operating cost. The United States has already spent more than $1 billion and is expected to contribute at least $3.9 billion to the project. In addition to the cost overruns and delays, some observers fear that ITER is using 20-year-old technology that may not perform as well as recently developed approaches.
When the United States joined the international consortium overseeing ITER, it was viewed like a treaty obligation. It was expected that Congress and the administration would fund the US portion of the costs of ITER as a net increase in the Department of Energy’s funding for fusion research. That funding has not happened, but the obligation hasn’t gone away, causing the Energy Department to reduce support for domestic fusion research to pay for ITER. The massive cost overruns and delays have compounded the problem.
Fusion research is funded by the federal government through the Department of Energy’s office of Fusion Energy Sciences, which distributed $438 million in fiscal 2016, of which $115 million went into the construction of ITER. The proposed fiscal 2017 appropriation for Fusion Energy Sciences, not yet enacted by Congress, is $40 million lower than the previous year but the requirement for ITER stepped up to $125 million. Thus, it was necessary to propose cuts of almost $50 million across all other types of fusion research to fund the ongoing ITER construction.
Scores of universities and labs receive funding through the Fusion Energy Sciences budget but the focus was on three US sites which operate fusion reactors capable of conducting cutting-edge experiments. Those three sites were MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center; the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory; and the fusion facility operated by General Atomics in San Diego. These are the places where many of the advances in the US effort to develop practical fusion energy have occurred.
The fusion reactor at MIT was closed at the end of September when its funding was zeroed out. The MIT reactor on its last day of operation set a new world record for plasma pressure, a major accomplishment that attracted significant attention in the fusion community where the irony did not go unnoticed.
At the same time, it was revealed that the Princeton reactor had to shut down for at least a year because of a design flaw embedded in its recently completed modifications. The lab director quickly resigned. The Energy Department had hoped that the Princeton site would absorb some of the experiments that would otherwise have taken place at MIT but, suddenly, the United States research effort was left with only one functioning fusion reactor, operated by General Atomics.
General Atomics is a privately-owned defense contractor with a wide range of businesses but perhaps best known as the manufacturer of Predator drones. The company has extensive experience with nuclear power, both fission and fusion research. Its fusion program is tied closely to ITER because the company has contracted to build and ship to France some key components of the project. General Atomics is an enthusiastic supporter of ITER.
That enthusiasm is not universally shared. The Senate Appropriations Committee has attempted to defund ITER for three years in a row. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander and Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, key leaders on the energy subcommittee, produced a bipartisan bill that, in Alexander’s words, “cuts wasteful spending. This year we have again eliminated the funding the US contributes to a fusion project in France called ITER.” Feinstein explained the committee’s rationale: “This decision was carefully considered and absolutely necessary in order to make key investments in our national laboratories and universities.”
The House of Representatives has successfully worked to keep ITER funding in the budget but last year the recurring conflict led Congress to direct Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to prepare a report and recommendation as to whether the United States should remain in the consortium. In the report, Moniz noted that “since the beginning of the ITER project, there have been management problems, cost overruns, schedule delays, and budget increases.” He said a newly appointed management team had made improvements that, “while promising, still require additional time to determine if they will be sustained and lead to the long-term success of the project.” With that, he deferred, urging that the United States stay in the project for another year and revisit the issue at the end of 2017 or beginning of 2018.
The administration that takes office in January must address critical questions about the future of fusion research. Is it a high priority? Should the United States continue to invest in ITER with the hope that, in 10 or 15 years, it will produce research useful to the subsequent commercialization of fusion power? Is funding ITER in the name of international cooperation compromising the ability of the United States to make progress on its own? Based on current research, what is the most realistic way to advance the prospect of commercially available fusion energy? Given the stakes involved, isn’t a dramatic increase in funding warranted?
One can imagine practical fusion energy as the most influential scientific and technological advance of the 21st century. Generations of effort have blessed the United States with institutions capable of this level of innovation. Rather than diminish them for the sake of international bureaucracy, we should give them the mission, fund them, and get unnecessary barriers out of the way.
Edward M. Murphy worked in state government from 1979-1995, serving as the commissioner of the Division of Youth Services, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, and executive director of the Health and Educational Facilities Authority. He recently retired as CEO and chairman of one of the country’s largest providers of services to people with disabilities. His previous story on fusion can be found here.