Does Fusion Have a Future?

U.S. funding reversal for ITER suggests that fusion energy--"always just a few decades away from reality" as the joke goes--may have finally run out of decades

ILLUSTRATION: ITER

14 February 2008—The 2004 report ”Burning Plasma: Bringing a Star to Earth,” from the U.S. National Research Council, sold Washington on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a massive R&D project that proponents predict will be the breakthrough project for fusion energy. In its fiscal 2008 budget, however, Congress drove the United States’ role in ITER right into the ground, slashing US $160 million promised for this year to $10.7 million. U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) officials are expected to provide an update on how the United States plans to work around the budget shortfall at a meeting of the agency’s Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee next Tuesday. But the United States’ paltry participation has some wondering if fusion research, considered since the 1960s one of the great long shots for a sustainable and relatively clean energy supply, has run out of time.

ITER, set to begin construction in Cadarache, near Marseilles in southern France, aspires to produce the first self-sustaining fusion reaction. Like most fusion experiments to date, ITER will use formidable electric currents and magnetic fields to induce fusion in isotopes of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium) and to contain the resulting burning plasma—akin to a tiny star and exceeding 100 million C. But where existing fusion reactors have produced heat equivalent to just a few megawatts of power for fractions of a second, ITER should put out 500 megawatts—10 times as much as the external power delivered—for several minutes.

Getting there requires a scale of investment that only international consortia can support. The 27-meter-high magnetic confinement chamber required will take a decade to build and cost an estimated $2.76 billion. Including design, administration, and 20 years of operation, the project’s total expenses will be nearly $15 billion. The European Union has agreed to cover half that cost, with the other half shared by the United States, China, India, Japan, Russia, and the Republic of Korea.

U.S. support has waxed and waned before. In 1998, Congress pulled the United States out of ITER, judging the design too pricey. ITER got Congress back on board in 2005 with a redesign that cut the cost in half, only to see the United States trim the cap on its contribution for ITER the next year from $1.4 billion to $1.1 billion.

This year’s budget cut will prevent the DOE from lining up contractors for the design and assembly of the hardware that it committed to supply, which includes conductors for the magnets, a pellet injector to deliver solid deuterium fuel, and an exhaust system for tritium gas. The $10.7 million provided by Congress will cover only U.S. personnel posted to ITER in France and a skeleton staff in the States.

ITER supporters say the setback is temporary. They note that congressional committees fully funded ITER in draft legislation last fall, only to see the funds shed in the course of a larger budget battle between President Bush and Congress. At the last minute, Congress slashed $22 billion to avoid a threatened veto, and ITER was an obvious target as a new and nondomestic project. ”It’s just one of those things that happen because of this financial mess we’re in,” says Stephen Dean, president of Fusion Power Associates, a nonprofit research and educational outfit based in Gaithersburg, Md.

Dean says that slowdowns at ITER, as officials grapple with more than 200 proposed design changes, will blunt the effect of U.S. delays. ”The impact is going to be relatively small, provided that it doesn’t happen again next year,” says Dean.

But some observers say it could happen again if the ”financial mess” endures, because ITER—the core of the U.S. fusion program—appears to be low on Congress’s list of priorities. James Decker, a principal with Alexandria, Va., lobbying firm Decker Garman Sullivan and former director of the DOE’s Office of Science, notes that Congress instead provided extra funding for shorter-term energy solutions. For example, Congress gave a 23 percent raise to the DOE’s energy R&D programs, covering such areas as carbon sequestration and solar energy.

If the United States does drop out of ITER, that could weaken support among other ITER players. Britain pulled its funding for another international R&D megaproject, the $6.7 billion International Linear Collider, after Congress effectively froze U.S. participation in the project. The International Linear Collider is the successor to the CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) Large Hadron Collider, which is to begin operations this year.

Proponents of renewable energy would shed no tears if ITER came apart. Ed Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says governments today must determine if energy technologies—including fusion—are ”going to be realistic large-scale energy sources on a timeframe needed to mitigate global warming.” Lyman says fusion, which even supporters agree is still several decades from fruition, flunks that test and has no place in tight budgets: ”R&D resources just aren’t there to support projects that are so expensive and have shown so little potential for promise in the near term.”

About the Author

Contributing Editor Peter Fairley has reported for IEEE Spectrum from Bolivia, Beijing, and Paris. His last Spectrum article was a report about an electric vehicle with a lithium-ion battery pack its makers claim can be recharged in 10 minutes.

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