A significant step in the development of fusion energy took place here Feb. 22 when ground was broken for a new laboratory designed to test materials going into future fusion reactors.
The $105 million Fusion Materials Irradiation Test facility (FMIT) is the first engineering facility desinged to help move fusion out of the laboratory into practical production of electicity.
It is being built by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation under contract to the US Department of Energy (DOE) at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeastern Washington.
The fact that work is beginning on this plant even before the principle of fusion has been demonstrated in the laboratory is considered an indication of the confidence energy planners have that fusion ultimately will produce electric power.
Speaking at the dedication ceremony, US Rep. Mike McCormack (D) of Washington predicted that an electricity-producing fusion reactor can be built before the end of this century.
"That moment is going to be the most important event related to energy in all human history. It will be second only to the first controlled use of fire," said Representative McCormack, a member of the House Committee on Science and Technology.
Although the federal energy budget for magnetic fusion research was boosted from $350 million in 1980 to more than $400 million in fiscal 1981, MR. McCormack has introduced legislation that would add another $100 million and ultimately result in a $20 billion, Manhattan Project-style crash program to bring fusion power into production.
The bill also authorizes the construction by 1986 of a fusion Engineering Test Facility, the next major step in the fusion energy program after actually demonstrating fusion in the laboratory.
Some scientists believe that the first self-sustained fusion reaction may be demonstrated in a machine called the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor, scheduled to be completed at Princeton university in 1981.
Mr. McCormack laid the groundwork for the bill, which he says 135 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, by forming a special panel of experts headed by Dr. Robert Hirsch, manager of petroleum research for Exxon Corporation.
The committee last summer concluded that fusion research had advanced to the point where it would be feasible to build a demonstration fusion power reactor by 1995, about 20 years ahead of the DOE's current fusion timetable.
While not opposing the goal of fusion energy, the Energy Department favors a slower, more deliberate development pace. One reason is concern that a crash program might commit the country too soon to one of the several fusion alternatives.
Before any decision can be made to build an advanced fusion test reactor, however, materials must be developed that can withstand the intensive bombardment of radioactive particles in the fusion process, which is expected to be many times more powerful than found in current nuclear reactors.
And that is the purpose of the new fusion plant being built at Hanford.
The FMIT is a large particle accelerator that works like a big nuclear rifle, shooting charged atomic particles at a stream of liquid lithium. As the particles pass through the light metal stream, they are stripped of neutrons, which bombard a metal "target" of about 2 1/2 by 3 1/2 inches.
The machine is designed so that it will be able to obtain 15 years worth of damage data in three years, according to project manager LeMar Trego.
It also will provide information applicable to both magnetic and laser fusion , the two primary fusion research programs.
The FMIT project is attracting international interest. Japan, which looks on fusion as being critical to its future energy needs, is considering investing $ 50 million to enhance the plant's capabilities, according to DOE sources.