Opinion guest column

Fusion research is a wise investment

The United States must not give up its place in the world fusion research program

Course 22 senior Derek Sutherland’s article in last Friday’s Tech did a great job of describing why the Alcator C-Mod magnetic fusion experiment, the largest experiment at MIT, deserves to be funded in the fiscal year 2013 federal budget. But it is also imperative to note how magnetic fusion energy research in the United States as a whole is in serious danger at this time, and how the path proposed for fusion in the 2013 budget is harmful to the future of U.S. energy independence and U.S. scientific leadership.

The proposed budget ramps down the U.S. fusion program at a time when other countries are scaling up their efforts. In China, a new long-pulse tokamak called EAST is now producing scientific results, and the government has announced plans to train 2,000 fusion PhDs this decade. In Korea, fusion funding is guaranteed by law until 2040. Germany has a new stellarator (another type of magnetic fusion device) coming online next year. A consortium of six nations plus the EU is constructing the world’s first burning-plasma device, the ITER tokamak in France, which will produce 10 times more fusion power than external power put in to heat the plasma. The rest of the world sees the tremendous potential of magnetic fusion energy.

Meanwhile, in the United States, despite the recommendations of the National Academies of Science and Engineering and energy-aware think tanks like the American Security Project, the government is eviscerating the domestic research program, starting with Alcator C-Mod, to pay for its nine percent share of ITER construction. In effect, the United States will be subsidizing tomorrow’s foreign fusion industry using its fusion research budget. The U.S. won’t be able to reap the benefits of its ITER investment — research results and skills development ­— without a strong domestic program to capture those gains. It’s also important to note how modest the fusion research budget is: Alcator C-Mod employs 120 skilled staff and supports the jobs of 200 more, and trains 30 graduate students at a time, on an annual budget of $28 million. The entire domestic magnetic fusion program costs the taxpayer $298 million per year. This is a mere 0.03% of the U.S. defense budget, or about the cost of buying two of the new F-35 fighter jets.

Magnetic fusion research suffers from numerous misconceptions, dating back to the early years of the research program when, buoyed by the spectacular first results from the tokamak in the late 1960s, a few pundits made optimistic predictions about how long it would take to build an economical fusion reactor. Later, in the 1970s and ’80s, new phenomena were discovered that at first were mostly bad news, like turbulence that caused heat to leak out of the plasma much faster than originally predicted. But more recent discoveries have been hugely beneficial, and have propelled fusion research toward the goal of an economical reactor.

The past few decades have seen spectacular increases in fusion performance, due to discoveries like a region of parameter space called H-mode, which halves the energy leak rate for tokamaks and led to experiments in the U.S. and the U.K. that produced more than 16 MW of fusion power. A more recent development is the I-mode, which promises to keep the plasma clean and hot without edge instabilities that act like solar flares and damage wall components. It was discovered right here at MIT, on Alcator C-Mod, and is being actively studied as an operating scenario for ITER.

Furthermore, every time something new is discovered to better control fusion plasmas, our designs for fusion reactors drop in cost and size. The state-of-the-art ARIES-AT reactor study concludes that a fusion reactor is cost-competitive with a fission reactor, and has none of the proliferation or high-level waste issues. Further advances will continue this trend, but these advances will only come about with a strong experimental program in place.

The U.S. will only be poised to take advantage of the results from ITER and take the next step to build a real prototype electricity-producing magnetic fusion reactor if fusion researchers exist in the U.S. We do not know exactly how long it will take to reach an economical reactor — indeed, this uncertainty defines scientific research. But the progress that fusion research has made, as demonstrated by the ability to simulate and then build tokamaks like EAST and ITER, shows that this is one research risk that the U.S. would be foolish not to take. The potential reward is far too great to ignore.

The United States should fully fund the domestic fusion research program for fiscal 2013, including Alcator C-Mod at MIT, while simultaneously fulfilling its ITER obligation. The U.S. should support a fusion future.

Further information about Alcator C-Mod and the domestic fusion program, as well as a link to contact Congress, can be found at http://www.fusionfuture.org.

Geoff Olynyk is a graduate student in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. Alcator C-Mod will host an open house for the MIT community on Wednesday, March 7, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., with tours every half-hour starting in NW17.