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Fusion program in doldrums

By Robert C. Cowen / January 13, 1983

When an experimental fusion device passed an early start-up test at Princeton University Christmas Eve, it was hailed as a milestone in the US effort to control the ''fire'' of the stars. But that momentary elation hasn't eased experts' concern for the future of this highly successful program.

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A report of a fusion workshop, distributed recently by the National Academies of Sciences and of Engineering, praises the program's scientific progress. Yet it warns that engineering knowledge needed to turn this basic understanding into an operating fusion power reactor lags.

This reflects Reagan administration cutbacks in what, by congressional mandate, was to have been a fast-paced fusion engineering development effort.

The Magnetic Fusion Engineering Act of 1980 envisioned sharp budget increases. It called for an experimental device to test materials and other engineering aspects of fusion reactors. Construction was to start by 1987. It urged, hopefully, that an experimental fusion power reactor be operating by the year 2000.

Instead, the budget has been held down strongly. The engineering test device has been canceled with a promise of building it in the 1990s. And the prospect of a prototype power reactor has again been postponed to sometime in the next century. This has led Alvin W. Trivelpiece, director of the Department of Energy's Office of Energy Research, to observe that ''the economic conditions are such that, regardless of the merits of the activity, substantial new growth in fusion is unlikely.''

Magnetic fusion - the most advanced type of fusion control - refers to devices in which magnetic fields contain the hot (100 million degrees C.) gases in which fusion takes place. The academy report says the US has a magnetic fusion program based on ''mature science'' but on engineering knowledge that is ''less mature.'' It warns: ''. . . those concepts based on the best physical understanding lead to reactor embodiments with engineering complexities that will be very difficult to resolve. Conversely, those concepts that apparently offer attractive reactors are ones lacking a mature basis in physics.''

In short, the report makes a strong case for developing the needed engineering knowledge as rapidly as possible. This is unlikely with the present budget trend.

The Magnetic Fusion Advisory Committee (MFAC) has reached similarly disturbing conclusions. Trivelpiece assembled the MFAC hastily last year to assess the program. He asked it to consider the outlook under three different constant annual funding levels of $400 million, $500 million, and $600 million. The fiscal 1983 magnetic fusion budget request was $444 million.

A recently distributed summary of the MFAC report warns that meaningful progress can be made only at the $600 million funding level. At $500 million, there would be delays in developing engineering knowledge ''marked by a substantial increase in technical risk in establishing the necessary data base for an early . . . decision (on building an engineering test reactor.) The report adds that the $400 million funding level would have ''a major negative impact.''