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Divvying up a fusion-fund pie.

Divvying up a fusion-fund pie

As the cold-fusion drama becomes fodder for social scientists, research into conventional hot fusion plods toward its long-stated goal of harnessing sun-like fusion reactions to meet future electricity demands.

After decades of congressional funding, physicists have greatly refined their ability to predict how superhot, magnetically confined plasmas behave. In parallel, they have been inventing ways of heating fuel to many millions of degrees and using magnetic fields and lasers to confine the hot plasma to small volumes--one of the requirements for fusion to occur. But advances toward the goal of fusion-generated electricity are getting ever more expensive. And that becomes a dilemma in times of ever-tightening national budgets.

Is it time for Congress to begin authorizing additional fusion dollars, starting in fiscal year 1991, for the next research step--the construction of the proposed $1 billion Compact Ignition Tokamak (CIT)--and for the even larger and potentially more costly International Thermonuclear Engineering Reactor (ITER), now in the early phases of conceptual design? Members of the Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology put this question to more than a dozen prominent members of the fusion research community during three days of inconclusive hearings last week.

The witnesses, assembled from several national laboratories and universities, the Department of Energy and elsewhere, told the committee in various ways that igniting a plasma so that it could burn on its own without additional input of energy would be a historic event and demonstrate the feasibility of fusion power. Harold P. Furth, director of the Plasma Physics Laboratory at Princeton (N.J.) University, said, "Ignition would be a landmark, almost like the arrival of fire."

Decision makers find themselves vexed, however, by an element of uncertainty regarding the CIT's ability to achieve ignition. Although most of those testifying, including Furth and Ronald R. Parker, director of MIT's Plasma Fusion Center, say ignition would be likely with the CIT, they base their predictions on empirical extrapolations -- by scaling data from today's plasma experiments to the kinds of reactor-grade plasmas envisioned in the proposed CIT. These scaling trends, positive as they are, lack the backing of a physical theory to explain them. As MIT nuclear engineer Kim Molvig pointed out in written testimony, the same physical laws may not apply beyond the existing range of data, and so do not warrant confident predictions of ignition in the CIT.

Most other witnesses said parallel efforts toward a better theoritical understanding of plasma behavior and the design and construction of a machine such as the CIT to test and refine those theories is the way to move forward and keep U.S. fusion researchers in a leadership role. But Robert O. Hunter, director of the Department of Energy's Office of Energy Research (which ultimatley doles out congressionally appropriated fusion funds), also argued that scientists should improve their understanding of the underlying physics before Congress commits more resources to the CIT project or shunts funds away from other fusion projects such as laser-based inertial confinement research, much of which is classified.

Further complicating the issue is the ITER collaboration, envisioned as a step beyond even a CIT-like effort. Some witnesses argued that delaying CIT construction could jeopardize the role U.S. scientists and engineers will play in the ongoing global fusion effort. One witness asserted that a CIT effort would be nice, but not necessary, for the success of the global effort. The United States, the Soviet Union, Japan and West Germany are partners in the ITER project, which could enter its construction phase as early as the mid-1990s.
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Title Annotation:cold fusion research
Publication:Science News
Date:Oct 14, 1989
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