Opinion

Good riddance, Alcator C-Mod

New budget request would rightfully end an expensive and impractical distraction from our energy future

No one likes to hear that their work is a waste of time and money. But the job of government is not to assuage the egos of research scientists — the public welfare, writ large, comes first. In a guest column last week, Derek Sutherland ’12 bemoaned a proposed cut to state funding of the Alcator C-Mod reactor at MIT. I’m sorry Derek, but it needed to be said: your research was not worthy of the public’s money, and to be frank, was also not worth your time and attention as a researcher.

The reason why is simple: there is no future in magnetically confined fusion power. It will never be economical. We know how large the various layers of a commercial fusion reactor would have to be, and we can estimate the construction materials one would need to create such a reactor. Even if the very sizable technical hurdles were surmounted — magnetics, plasma physics, materials, and tritium availability to name a few — the capital cost of fusion’s heat island (the reactor sans turbines and other accouterments), would still be two to three times greater than that of a conventional fission reactor, on a per-MW basis. There is no pot of gold at the end of the long, long fusion research tunnel, and accordingly, little rational motivation to expend the time of Sutherland and his colleagues (and the money of the public) on such a fruitless venture.

One could argue that the other features of fusion power — its lack of a waste product, its sustainability, its steady energy generation rate, its relative safety — are compelling enough features to warrant a roll of the dice. I suppose that if one thought the safety issues of nuclear waste could never be resolved, or that the peakiness of wind power might never find an answer, such arguments could be justified. These assumptions, however, are overly pessimistic — if Derek were to ask his colleagues in Course 22 whether the kinks in fission power (safety, waste, uranium availability) could ever be solved, I think he would hear a chorus of resounding “Yes.” Nuclear reactors are already quite safe, and next generation plants are even safer. The waste is more a political issue than a technological one. And uranium is exceedingly abundant — if supplies seem short, that’s only because the price has not gone high enough to motivate fresh exploration. Certainly, the prospects of mending our existing technologies seem much brighter than the “just give us another 30 years” hope of fusion power.

Research like Derek’s is regularly billed as an investment in our future, but the more apt analogy is buying a Powerball ticket. This is not a sound roll of the dice, this is a move born out of frustration, desperation, and self-deception. It stems from a lack of political will to tackle the policy problems of today’s technology. Instead of bringing disparate stakeholders together to settle energy policy issues, we’d much rather cross our fingers and hope for a technological savior to deliver us from the need for political courage.

The basic premise of economics is scarcity. If you want to spend resources on fusion, then you must necessarily take them from somewhere else. We always like to imagine that the resources will be taken from areas we do not like (personally, I would not mind funding fusion if the money somehow came from, say, reality TV). But that is not how such transfers occur — it’s more useful to imagine the resources being diverted in proportion to current levels of spending. A dollar in fusion comes out of, to varying degrees, education, health care, and, most importantly, other research.

Tossing a few billion dollars a year towards fusion does not sound like a lot in these wild days of government check-writing until you remember that MIT as an Institute “only” spends about $2.5 billion a year in its entire operating budget. With the amount the American government spends on fusion research every year, we could finance an entire MIT’s worth of research.

The Obama administration’s attempt to do away with Derek’s pet project is an exercise in political courage, and should be recognized as such. If the government is going to be productively involved in research and development, it needs to set priorities and draw lines. Fusion, unfortunately, does not make the cut.

13 Comments
1
Mike Nawrot over 6 years ago

First, you claim that there are problems with fusion that can never be solved, then you claim that there are problems with fission, but that's cool, because if we pour enough money and resources into it, we can fix it. And you call people pessimistic, while in fact being a massive pessimist yourself. This article is a brilliant demonstration of bigoted irony and hypocrisy. Claiming that fusion is too hard and not worth pursuing is incredibly pessimistic. What feats of science were ever easy and obvious? You know, fission just fell out of the sky and implemented itself with absolutely no struggle. Modern gasoline engines: if you saw the first one of those, you'd say "it's only 1 efficient, there's no way that will ever be any good, don't waste your time." It's hypocritical word vomit like this that pointlessly bashes electric cars, fusion, wind power, fission, and other forms of technological progress and discourages the uninformed reader from learning more about what is actually going on.

Also, your argument about funding would carry more weight if the funds weren't being redistributed to another fusion project being conducted abroad. Are you trying to claim that it's better for the government to send our funds abroad instead of using them to keep education and research alive in the United States? That's a claim I would think twice about making in a newspaper at the best technology school in the nation.

2
John Wright over 6 years ago

Your budget figures are wrong. The US budget for fusion is about 400 million and if you exclude ITER, the domestic spending is about 270 milllion. So you're only off by an order of magnitude. Let us hope your other calculations in course 22 were more carefully done.

3
Anonymous over 6 years ago

http://www.youtube.com/watch?vwoySeSNBL3ofeaturerelated

4
Hanz Reinholt over 6 years ago

Opinion: Bad Fact Checking, The Tech

We like fission as a nation, we're willing to spend 7.5 billion on the NNSA to handle uranium. Fusion research is alive and well, its US funds are just proposed to leave MIT. Other byproducts of these "pet projects" are innovative companies and engineers.

5
Anonymous over 6 years ago

You're basically saying that all unpractical or potentially unpractical research should not be funded. As an example, high energy physics research gets substantially more funding than fusion research in the U.S., and it has significantly less imminent practical potential. Would you suggest cutting that as well, oh ye long shanks? I think people like you should just move to the Sahara, where it's nice and dry, and so there you can be psychologically certain of yourself that you won't waste any of your precious water. You'll also have to drink your own piss to survive, of course.

6
Bayard Gardineer over 6 years ago

When you copy and paste paragraphs nearly verbatim from an article that you wrote almost three years ago without citing yourself, it signals nothing less than a severe lack of journalistic integrity. Some would even call it plagiarism.

http://tech.mit.edu/V129/N16/yost.html

This fact, combined with numerous and blatant factual inaccuracies, make it fairly inexcusable that The Tech decided to run this article in its present form.

7
Anonymous over 6 years ago

The Tech plagiarizes? I'm shocked, shocked.

http://tech.mit.edu/V131/N58/coffee.html

8
Willy Burke over 6 years ago

I picked up The Tech to check the coverage of the MIT Men's Basketball team. And I came across a provocative column by Keith Yost: Good Riddance to Alcator C-Mod. It cries out for a response, but where to begin? Maybe with his opening and closing ad hominem attacks.

No one likes to hear that their work is a waste of time and money. But the job of journalism is not to assuage the egos of columnists the public welfare, writ large, comes first. That is a generic smear that can cut at least two ways.

I am not familiar with Derek Sutherland's research, but we should judge his work on its merits, not on subsequent budgetary decisions at the national level.

And Derek is certainly entitled to spend his time and effort, and express his opinions, as he sees fit.

Alcator C-Mod is so much more than "Dereks pet project." C-Mod represents a capital investment of $200M and a human investment of thousands of man-years by dedicated MIT scientists, engineers and students over the past 40 years. It is and will remain an enormous piece of MIT's legacy.

I would argue that this investment has already paid off handsomely in terms of basic science as well as practical progress toward commercial fusion power.

To suggest that termination of Alcator C-Mod is an "exercise in political courage" is disingenuous if not delusional. The President's Budget strongly affirms US support of magnetic fusion in general and ITER in particular.

If C-Mod is shut down, magnetic fusion will suffer. In terms of magnetic field and plasma density, C-Mod is an excellent test bed for ITER physics and engineering. C-Mod is poised to tackle problems right now that ITER knows it will face in the future. Active areas include MHD stability and disruption mitigation.

We may decide to save money now and postpone progress until later. We may decide to let Europe and Asia take the risks and reap the rewards of fusion. But do recognize that is what is happening.

I started work on Alcator A as a student in 1976. It was the best part of my MIT education, and the impetus and inspiration for my entire career.

9
Jerry Hughes over 6 years ago

Not only is this item poorly informed and lazily written (see previously posted comments), it is a pointed slap in the face to the department that generously awarded the columnist's degree. The Alcator project is a landmark fusion project and a valuable component of MIT's and NSE's research portfolio. The casual reader should not be under any illusion that Mr. Yost speaks for the aggregate Course 22-er.

10
Keith Yost over 6 years ago

To 1) Your comment is lunacy... to oppose the wasteful spending of public moneys on hopeless R and D is "bigoted" and "hypocritical?" If 50 years from now, natural gas is still providing cheaper power than fusion, will you feel guilty for having not directed that fusion research money toward something more practical, like efforts against malaria or polio? You should look up some of the words you used in a dictionary-- they do not mean what you think they mean.

To 2) You are only counting the DOE's budget-- count the rest of U.S. government and you are equal to the money spent annually by MIT on RD. P.S: An order of magnitude is a factor of 10, not 2.5.

To 3) Sorry your URL got wrecked by the Tech's policy against useful typesets. Trololololol.

To 4) Didn't understand your point.

To 5) Yes, you've hit the nail on the head exactly. Research, development, and all other forms of investment should be measured on rate of return. There is nothing sacred about fusion, and if it cannot deliver benefits to mankind, I can think of a dozen underfunded research efforts that could use its share of society's resources.

To 6) Lazy? Yes. Dishonest? Not in the least. This article has gone through fact-checking twice now, including the parts you don't believe.

To 7) I wrote the article you linked to. Check plagiarism in any dictionary.

To 8) You win the award for most well thought out comment on the list. You didn't have much competition, but you're also well ahead of the peloton, so it balances out. Here is my response:

Derek IS free to spend his time however he pleases, but that statement deserves two clarifying remarks. Firstly, Derek is NOT free to spend taxpayer money however he pleases. And secondly, Derek is not RIGHT to spend his time however he pleases. His moral duty lies in employing himself in the manner that provides the greatest good. Many, like you, think it a GOOD thing that the government can tie up the labor of so many engineers and researchers like Derek, when society's need for them is greater elsewhere. The employment of fusion researchers is not an end, in-and-of itself, it is, at best, a means to an end. All of your claims, all of your arguments, inevitably rest on fusion becoming a viable commercial power source, and even then... what if Europe or Asia figured out fusion for us, and we didn't have to pay a dime? That's called a windfall.

To 9) Degrees. Plural. And I assure you, I earned them.

11
Dan Miller over 6 years ago

Hi Keith,

The title of your article certainly is provoking. And rather harsh to people who have devoted significant time and effort toward fusion research. But that is our concern, you are entitled to provoking article titles.

My views about the prospects of fusion power and its worthiness as a topic of research are similar to those stated in the previous posts. Certainly it is not true that fusion energy research is a "waste of time and money" and "not worthy of your time and effort as a researcher." But as you are not ignorant of the subject and have developed some educated opinions, convincing you of my views and the views of those that have dedicated their lives to this research would not be practical in this comment. That discussion would be more appropriate in person.

What I do want to say here and what Willy Burke was getting at, was that the entire premise of your article is just plain incorrect. The premise being, "If the government is going to be productively involved in research and development, it needs to set priorities and draw lines. Fusion, unfortunately, does not make the cut." This statement and the article at large has nothing to do with the current proposed budget situation. The government is not cutting funding to fusion. This year's proposed DOE budget for fusion stays about the same. And as such, it safe to assume the President and his energy advisors believe fusion is an important investment and would disagree with your assessment. The current proposed budget issue concerns the reallocation of funds from the domestic fusion program to the international fusion program. Your taxpayer money is still being spent on fusion, regardless. The issue is whether or not this reallocation of funds is a sound decision and the best method for pushing fusion energy research forward. Much of the domestic fusion community believes this is not a wise decision.

Thanks,

Dan

12
Anonymous over 6 years ago

Keith Yost demonstrates in his comment that he is unaware of the sin of "self plagiarism". From the NYT:

"Editors Note: This post includes descriptions of the historical background similar to material the same author published in The Daily News in 1998. Had editors known of the earlier article, those passages would not have been used. Two other posts by this author also included descriptions similar to material he had previously written for The Daily News."

http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/23/way-back-machine-air-mail-arrives/

I encourage editors from the Tech to issue a similar statement for the sake of journalistic integrity.

13
Anonymous over 6 years ago

12

The issue with the NYT article was that he had copied passages he had written for a different publication. If he had copied passages he had written for the NYT, it wouldn't have been an issue.