Alacator C-Mod remains operational

Budget cuts threaten funding in 2012, future of tokamak uncertain

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The neutral beam accelerator at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center’s Alcator C-Mod tokamak.
Christopher A. Maynor—The Tech

MIT’s tokamak, Alcator C-Mod, has faced the threat of losing all of its federal funding throughout 2012. The experimental fusion reactor, which relied on $24 million from the Department of Energy for operation in 2012, was unexpectedly slated to lose all federal support in March in the President’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2013. The loss of these funds, nearly the entire budget of C-Mod, would force the closure of the experiment, one of just three such devices in the U.S.

Under the proposal, C-Mod’s funding would be instead be used toward the U.S. portion of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), an international collaboration on a large fusion reactor, expected to begin operation by 2019 in France.

In April, the bill dealing with 2013 energy and water appropriations reached the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations. Though the funding cuts had originally been part of a Department of Energy recommendation, the committee chairman, Rodney Frelinghuysen, said, “Funding for the domestic fusion program is restored to last year’s level, and the international fusion program is increased to come closer to our commitments,” suggesting the cuts were perhaps not likely after all.

In September, Congress passed a continuing resolution to provide six months of funding to C-Mod in an effort to bridge the interim until the actual FY 2013 budget is passed or the project receives funds from another funding resolution. According to Nuclear Science and Engineering professor Ian Hutchinson, C-Mod is currently in “maintenance mode” rather than producing plasma, and scientists on the project are analyzing previously collected data. Members of the MIT Alcator C-Mod team hope to resume full operations once the FY 2013 budget is passed.

Of the three U.S. fusion reactors, Alcator C-Mod receives the smallest portion of federal funding and would be the only one completely shut down under the current proposal. The presidential proposal would send $150 million to ITER and $250 million to domestic programs. However the House Energy and Water Committee proposed allocating $300 million to domestic programs and $180 million to ITER. There is still no final decision on FY 2013 Alcator C-Mod funding.

About 120 people are employed directly by Alcator C-Mod, but full budget cuts would cause all staff and technicians to be laid off. All graduate students would have to finish their research and graduate by October 2013.

MIT fusion faculty have argued that closing Alcator C-Mod will have a detrimental effect on the entire U.S. fusion program, foreseeing a decline in graduating fusion PhD students who could work on ITER or domestic experiments in the future. Alcator C-Mod graduate students also spoke out, highlighting the importance of the reactor. They say it is the largest experiment at MIT in terms of both funding and employees.

Alcator C-Mod’s condition will likely remain uncertain until Congress passes a FY 2013 budget, but there are no plans to dismantle the device or lay off staff yet.