Fusion: will haste make waste?

The US Congress is boosting support of hydrogen fusion research. But not all experts consider this an unmixed blessing. Prof. John M. Deutch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, former undersecretary of the Department of Energy, warns, for example: "It is quite possible that overly enthusiastic proponents will adversely affect the technology.It is being pushed too fast."

Speaking at a recent MIT energy symposium, he explained his view by notng that the US system of research support in energy "craves crash programs." This can strain available resources, leading to an overinvestment in concrete as opposed to research operations, he said. The result could be inadequate attention to the basic physics of controlled fusion -- an area of science still not satisfactorily understood. And, Deutch said, it could leave alternative approaches to controlling fusion in neglect.

A couple of years ago, Deutch's reservations were "conventional wisdom" among American fusion scientists. However, rapid progress has been made to the point where many experts now think it sensible to move ahead with facilities to tackle the engineering problems of fusion reactors without waiting for a self-sustaining fusion reaction to be ignited in the laboratory. This latter goal is expected to be realized within the next four or five years.

Congress too is persuaded of this, having passed legislation boosting funding for fusion and mandating engineering test facility. (At this writing, the law was awaiting presidential signature).

The program envisioned emphasizes an approach to controlled fusion in which the hot (100 million-degree) hydrogen fuel is confined by magnetic forces -- so-called magnetic fusion. Within that field, it favors a type of reactor called tokamak. Tokamaks have shown some of the most encouraging results. But it is not at all clear that they would make the best fusion power reactors.

This tendency to narrow the focus of the program somewhat and favor the current fron-inner has raised Deutch's concern. He is aware of the progress made, saying that "magnetic fusion should be taken much more seriously in this country; it has enormous potential." But this does not justify deemphasizing other approaches.

Deutch's view no longer prevail at the Department of Energy, which he left last spring. Several studies -- for DOE, for Congress, and overseas -- all support accelerating fusion research and moving faster with engineering studies in particular. Yet most of these have been made by outside panels, rather than by the fusion research community itself. Perhaps, Deutch suggests, it would be valuable for that community to decide for itself how best to move ahead with magnetic fusion research.

It is a suggestion worth DOE's consideration. One more assessment, made this time by the researchers themselves, could provide guidelines for an invigorated fusion program that would produce more than concrete monuments.

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