Hydrogen fusion -- US quickens drive to harness 'star power'

In a year when the US Congress is eager to cut federal spending, the program to harness hydrogen fusion -- the power source of the stars -- has "turned golden." Both the House and the Senate want to boost the fusion budget.

A consensus has emerged within the Department of Energy (DOE), and in both the United States and international scientific communities, that this difficult research has achieved enough progress in recent years to be ready for a major step forward. This conclusion resonates with congressional impatience over what has been perceived as an overly conservative development timetable for the US fusion program. Thus, there is strong support for giving DOE the mandate and the money to step up the research pace.

Last month the House of Representatives, in a 365-to-7 vote, passed a bill that would authorize $20 billion in funding for fusion research over the next two decades. Specifically, it would increase funding for so-called magnetic fusion, at present the most advanced controlled-fusion approach, from the $350 million authorized in the 1980 budget to $434.5 million in fiscal 1981. The bill directs the DOE to set up a program to build a facility for testing engineering aspects of fusion power reactors and have it in operation by 1987. It also would have the department aim for a commercial fusion power demonstration plant by the end of this century.

This contrasts with what had been the DOE strategy of waiting until scientists have ignited fusion in the laboratory, probably within the next five years, before making a decision on an engineering test facility (ETF). The DOE has not anticipated having a demonstration power plant until sometime in the first quarter of the next century, if it were to prove feasible to build such a plant at all. DOE fusion experts themselves now believe such a stretched-out timetable is no longer prudent or technically justifiable.

Meanwhile, the Senate is expected to act shortly on a fusion bill ot its own. This is a little more modest (DOE experts would say more realistic) in its goals than the House measure. It calls for demonstrating the engineering feasibility of magnetic fusion -- fusion in which the fuel is confined by magnetic fields -- by the early 1990s and having an ETF in operation by 1990, if not sooner. It also set "as a national goal the operation of a . . . demonstration plant by the year 2000."

But the Senate bill, despite sounding a little less ambitious than the House measure, would still mandate proceeding at all deliberate speed and would provide funding comparable to that authorized by the House bill. Among other provisions, it calls for doubling the fusion budget "in real terms" over the next seven years and boosting it 25 percent in each of the next two years.

Moreover, no one expects the sponsors of either bill to quibble much in resolving what really are secondary differences. There is a common will to get on with the job of harnessing hydrogen fusion, and there is little doubt that DOE soon will be given the mandate and funding to do it.

This is a moral, as well as strategic, victory for Rep. Mike McCormack (D) of Washington, chairman of the House Sub-committee on Energy Research and Production and principal sponsor of the House bill. He has been fusion's chief prophet on Capitol Hill, lobbying hard in Congress and with the Carter administration to get the fusion program moving faster.

Congressman McCormack found much sympathy, but was widely considered to be trying to reach for too much too soon. Although things were looking up for fusion when he introduced his bill last January, conventional wisdom in Washington held that Congress would be disinclined in this election year to vote large sums for a project that wouldn't pay off in this century. Instead, the House has given McCormack's vision what amounts to an overwhelming vote of confidence.

This doesn't seem so startling in retrospect. It has become increasingly obvious over the past year that fusion research is at a major turning point. Last December, in a study organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency, 400 fusion scientists from Europe, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States concluded that "it is scientifically and technologically feasible" to move quickly to build a fusion engineering test facility, called INTOR, and have it running by the early 1990s.

This reflected what was by then the widely held opinion that enough had been learned about fusion to expect that an ETF reacotr would work as planned. It no longer made sense to wait for more laboratory data before moving ahead with an ETF.

Other studies in the US have reached the same conclusion. The most recent, conducted for the DOE by a panel chaired by Solomon J. Buchsbaum of Bell Telephone Laboratories, was released in final form in early September. It, too, concluded that "this next step in the fusion program is both sound and timely." It urged doubling the magnetic fusion budget, again in real terms, over five to seven years.

After decades of hard, slogging research, fusion experts believe they have reached a point where, in this decade, they can progress from speculation to defining concretely what a fusion power plant should be. Looking at the result of those years of often discouraging effort, the Buchsbaum panel observed: "The taxpayers are receiving their monies' worth."

Next: Igniting the star fire

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