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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fusion Confusion

Air Date: Week of
Atop the Alcator C-Mod tokamak, MIT researchers show MA Governor Deval Patrick and U.S. Representative Jay Inslee the technology involved in running the machine. (Photo: Paul Rivenberg/MIT)

The Obama Administration recently called for steep cuts to domestic fusion programs in order to offset money earmarked for an international research effort in France. Dr. Stephen Dean, president of Fusion Power Associates, talks to host Bruce Gellerman about what this means for the future of fusion energy in the United States.


GELLERMAN: Petroleum powered our past and fuels our present but many scientists and policy makers hope fusion will power our future. Half a dozen years ago I visited MIT to learn how scientists were trying to create and control the ultimate energy source. The Fusion Plasma lab looks like the control room for a lunar space launch:

COUNTDOWN: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six…

GELLERMAN: But physicists here are aiming higher than the moon…

COUNTDOWN: Three, two, one

GELLERMAN: They want to create the power of the stars.

COUNTDOWN: Entering pulse. Entering re-cool .

GELLERMAN: The Alcator C-Mod experimental fusion reactor at MIT is the most powerful of the three so-called Tokamak devices in the United States. They use giant magnets, shaped like donuts, to control the intense plasma energy inside. Earl Marmar, head of the MIT C-Mod reactor, says fusion promises unlimited clean energy free of greenhouse gases and fears of a meltdown.

MARMAR: Can’t happen. An uncontrolled reaction is not possible. It’s so hard to make fusion happen you don’t have to worry about that.

GELLERMAN: What physicists do worry about these days is making fusion happen at all in the United States. President Obama’s proposed budget for next year cuts funding for two of our test fusion reactors, and entirely guts the MIT C-Mod lab, laying off scores of scientists and grad students. Instead, the money would be used to fund ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor being built in France.

The planned ITER facility: the scientific buildings and future Headquarters (bottom left) of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project. (Photo: ENGAGE)

The U.S. is one of seven national parties committed to ITER, and physicist Stephen Dean, president of Fusion Power Associates, says the escalating cost for ITER is the reason the U.S. fusion program is being cut.

DEAN: Originally, say ten years ago, it was supposed to cost like five billion dollars. Today, it’s around 20 billion, maybe a little bit more. It’s proposed by the President in fiscal 2013, which starts next October, to cut 50 million dollars out of the domestic program to help pay for ITER.

GELLERMAN: So, how does that affect what’s being done research-wise here in the United States in terms of fusion energy?

DEAN: Well, it’s going to be a disaster if it comes to pass. It’s a very severe cut, they’re already proposing to shut down one of our three major facilities at MIT, and it will keep us from being prepared to really utilitize ITER. It’s going to discourage students from getting into the field because they won’t see the prospects of working here in the United States, so it’s a very serious matter if it comes to pass.

GELLERMAN: As I understand it, there are a bunch of powerful Tokamaks, these doughnut-shaped magnetic confinement magnet experiments, going on around the world, but the one at MIT, the C-Mod, is the one that has the same kind of power that ITER will have.

DEAN: Magnet-wise it has the high field magnets and a high density, and so for a small machine it does have many of the features that ITER will have in the large machine.

GELLERMAN: So, by cutting the program at MIT, will that affect the program at ITER in France?

June 2010. An aerial view of the ITER construction site in Cadarache, France. In the foreground we see the (still empty) storm water basin and the four water control basins. (Photo: © Altivue)

DEAN: It can. It can, because, you know, after the program gets running, you have to decide how to operate it and what physics' regimes to study and the MIT research results underpin the planning for the operational phase.

Of course there are other programs around the world that are also feeding into the physics of ITER, but MIT certainly had a unique plasma, most of the other Tokamaks are lower density plasmas, lower magnetic field plasmas, and so the MIT program sort of had staked out a niche of its own. So, you know, to lose that program, I think, is an important potential hole in the international physics development.

GELLERMAN: Were you surprised by the proposed budget cuts?

DEAN: Yes. Nobody expected this to happen because we thought we had a commitment from the administration that the domestic program would not be cut in order to pay for ITER. But what happened was, we had to meet this international commitment to ITER, and that’s what caused us to have this problem. The fact is, though, that this has become very political.

GELLERMAN: But if the funding for ITER is driving the budget crunch in our domestic fusion energy projects, should we kill it?

DEAN: You see, ITER is an international agreement amongst state department people, among science advisor people, among energy secretary people in these various countries, and this is something that's got, almost, like a treaty attached to it. And so the U.S. feels, at the very highest levels, like Holdren and Chu, that they have to keep their oar in.

The official ITER Organization logo. (© ITER Organization) (Photo: CREDIT)

GELLERMAN: That’s Stephen Chu, the Secretary of Energy, and John Holdren, the science advisor to the President.

DEAN: Yup, they are the keys here. I think what they’re hoping in the next few years is that they can just hold everything at a marginal rate in the next year, and then the election is over and then they can get lots of money in 2014. I think that’s their game plan, I don’t think they want to hurt the domestic program or ITER, but they’re stuck in 2013 with a real budget problem.

GELLERMAN: But by then these programs, these experiments at MIT, the other labs they’ll be mothballs!

DEAN: They’ll be gone, and ITER will have been delayed some more, and I have no reason to think that it won’t eventually be successful. But the question is, what are we going to be doing in the meantime if all of our facilities get cut back or shut down because the current generation of scientists will all be retired by the time ITER really is up and running at the rate we’re going.

GELLERMAN: So we won’t have U.S. physicists being able to run ITER?

DEAN: You know, if it takes the next generation and we don't train ‘em, that’s a possibility.

GELLERMAN: In terms of ITER’s promise, it doesn’t hope to produce energy on a commercial basis, it just wants to prove the concept.

DEAN: It’s an engineering test reactor so yes, it will not produce electricity, but it will produce 500 megawatts of thermal energy for long periods of time and so you’ll be able to test the liability and maintenance and operating procedures and all of this that will be required before you could build a commercial plant, so it’s a necessary step on the way to a commercial plant.

GELLERMAN: Technical success is not guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination here, right?

DEAN: No, that’s right. It’s a very demanding engineering venture, it’s a huge project, nothing on this scale of this advanced technology has ever been built before and it’s still an experimental facility.

GELLERMAN: Do you think it’s going to work?

DEAN: Yeah, I’m hopeful that it will work, I don’t expect to be alive to see it, unfortunately, at the rate that it’s going! (laughs.)

GELLERMAN: I’m reminded of that old saying, you know: fusion is the energy source of the future, and always will be.

A detailed cutaway of the ITER Tokamak. The pink in the center is the hot plasma. (Photo: © ITER Organization)

DEAN: Well, so far that still seems to be the adage, but there’s nothing’s been found in the last 50 years that would prevent it from eventually being successful. We get more sophisticated every year in terms of the accomplishments and the technologies and the physics that we’ve learned. The world scientific community is very confident that this will eventually work out, it’s just the schedule remains unsure, and part of the problem is that fusion is going to be expensive, even when it is successful and therefore it’s going to have to compete against other energy sources, so exactly when and how it’s going to be able to crack the market is also quite a bit uncertain.

GELLERMAN: Well, Dr. Dean, thank you so very much!

DEAN: OK thank-you!

GELLERMAN: Physicist Stephen Dean is president of the non-profit organization, Fusion Power Associates.



Listen to Bruce Gellerman’s previous Hot Fusion story

Listen to Bruce Gellerman’s previous Cold Fusion story

The ITER project in France

Fusion Power Associates

Plasma Science and Fusion Center at MIT

Fusion Future


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