Saving Alcator C-Mod
Cancellation of MIT Fusion Lab is a blow to worldwide energy research
The MIT fusion experiment Alcator C-Mod has been slated for cancellation in the presidential budget request for fiscal year 2013, a cut of nearly $18 million to the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) to be enacted in September 2012. The shuttering of this single largest experiment at MIT will be devastating to the research of many of our professional scientists, upwards of 30 graduate students and dozens of undergraduate students at MIT. Luckily, this budget must still be passed by Congress to go into effect, and we need your help now to reverse this decision.
Fusion energy, the power of our sun and other stars, is a promising alternative form of nuclear energy that has the motivating benefits of a nearly unlimited fuel supply in our oceans, zero carbon pollution, and no long-lived radioactive byproducts. Fusion is the energy of our future, and the scientists, engineers and technicians at the PSFC are actively bringing this clean, abundant, secure energy future that much closer to the present. The main fusion energy experiment at MIT, Alcator C-Mod, is one of the major U.S. fusion experiments in operation today. C-Mod is a high magnetic field, compact, high-performance tokamak. Much of current fusion research is dedicated to the development of ITER, a large tokamak that is currently under construction in France that will demonstrate a predominately self-heated fusion reactor system, which is the next step on the path towards an electricity-producing fusion reactor. C-Mod is able to operate with an ensemble of particular conditions that are critical to study for the success of ITER, such as high plasma pressures, which no other tokamak in operation can achieve. Also, necessary current drive methods have been pioneered on C-Mod, such as lower-hybrid current drive, which is very efficient when compared to other methods. To cancel C-Mod is to threaten the success of ITER and ultimately the global fusion reactor initiative as a whole, as well as to remove a critical part of the domestic tokamak fusion research collaboration consisting of three tokamaks, NSTX at Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, DIII-D at General Atomics, and C-Mod here at MIT.
C-Mod is currently the largest single experiment at MIT, and supports a myriad of different types of personnel: approximately 30 graduate students, 40 undergraduates in the last three years through the undergraduate research opportunities program (UROP), 120 directly employed individuals, and nearly 300 indirectly employed personnel throughout the United States. The effect of closing C-Mod is not only a threat to scientific collaboration by eliminating the most extensively connected experiment to various other fusion projects in the world, but is also a threat to the leadership of our professional scientists, graduate, and undergraduate students in this global field. In addition, over 40 years of technical experience that has been developed here at MIT will be lost while these committed, high-tech technicians are laid off from jobs they have held honorably for many years. Thus, the cancellation of C-Mod will result in the loss of hundreds of MIT jobs, and with them the loss of the irreplaceable expertise that has been developed over decades.
In addition to the injurious effect of shuttering hundreds of jobs here at MIT, a cancellation of C-Mod will be effectively cripple U.S. student involvement in ITER through the elimination of the main training ground in the United States for students interested in fusion research and development. Cutting edge research on the C-Mod project has led to hundreds of groundbreaking theses over the past decades, but this cut will require current graduate students to either be sent to other institutions to complete their PhD research, or be forced to finish with a Master’s degree. The immediate result of this cancellation would result in an exodus of some of the brightest future leaders in the field of fusion energy, and most likely many of our professionals who are the current leaders. Also, as I have personally found during my undergraduate experience, many undergraduate research projects become the foundation for PhD work, and the continued great beginnings in the field of fusion energy during undergraduate careers will be eliminated if this proposed budget is passed. With these combined detrimental effects on both graduate and undergraduate research here at MIT, we can expect MIT to have a lesser role in the global fusion energy initiative and the United States will not receive an appreciable return on investment in ITER by eliminating one of the main, domestic experiments supporting this burning plasma experiment currently under construction.
I’m sure many of us remember our science classes during our primary education, learning about the phases of matter, solid, liquid, gas, and sometimes plasma, but we really don’t need to worry about the last one, right? Considering upwards of 99 percent of the known universe is in a plasma state, I feel like the 99 percent should occupy a bit more of our study than the one percent. C-Mod hosts the largest public education and outreach program of any U.S. tokamak, with nearly 1,300 people visiting C-Mod last year alone. Also, C-Mod’s “Mr. Magnet” Program has brought fusion and plasma physics to thousands of students of all ages through on-site C-Mod tours and classroom visits, with nearly 3,000 students a year participating! The MIT PSFC is not only focused on furthering the field of fusion energy, but has a strong focus on student involvement and increasing the public’s awareness and understanding of important issues concerning science and energy and how fusion can play a major role in securing a carbon-free, safe, and secure energy future.
With our concerns presented, we call upon the MIT community to help us reverse this proposed budget cut to C-Mod, both to ensure a fusion energy future and to maintain MIT’s status in this cutting-edge field as a leader rather than a follower. Scientists at the PSFC and other fusion facilities have created a website, http://www.fusionfuture.org that provides additional information about C-Mod’s contributions to science, example letters to send to your representatives in Congress, and a link to a petition on change.org under the “Important Links” side column that is the quickest way to have your voice heard. Also, please visit and join our Facebook group, Save Alcator C-Mod. On March 7, C-Mod will be open to the MIT community from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. with tours departing every 30 minutes from NW17-218. If you would like to see this amazing experiment firsthand, please come visit us during open house!
As Stewart Prager of the Princetion Plasma Physics Laboratory has said in a recent interview, “We have a clear choice before us: The United States can either design and build fusion energy plants or we can buy them from Asia and Europe.” Though Asia and Europe are important collaborators in the field of fusion energy, I believe MIT should continue leading the effort to ensure the United States is a leader in this field. We owe our support to the committed professionals, and graduate and undergraduate students at the PSFC to continue bringing this clean, abundant, more secure energy future for our nation and the rest of the world that much closer to the present.
Derek Sutherland is a senior in the Department of Nuclear Science & Engineering