Forward on fusion

We welcome the new law, now signed by the President, that boosts funds for hydrogen fusion research and mandates establishment of a facility to explore its engineering problems within this decade. This applies a timely spur to the quest for an energy source whose attainment has aptly been compared to the control of fire.

But it would be a mistake to believe the overly enthusiastic claim of some of its supporters that this is a law "to get things moving" in fusion. As every fusion scientist knows, things have been moving in their work for a number of years. Indeed, it is the progress in laboratories around the world that gives the new law its relevance.

It would be even more mistaken to miss the point that the law's most important aspect is a commitment to sustained long-term support of fusion development at a level that will enable it to progress as swiftly as is technically feasible. Trying to control hydrogen fusion -- the power supply of the stars -- has been called the toughest applied science problem yet undertaken. However, the biggest challenge lies not with the laboratories but with the succession of Congresses and administrations that will sit on Capitol Hill and in the White House during the rest of this century. More than anything else, this difficult but promising research needs continuity of support year after year, whether laboratory results are momentarily encouraging or not.

That is asking a great deal of the United States political system whose time horizon seems more often to be the few years to the next election rather than the decades it will take to make fusion power a commercial reality. The new law does indeed take the long view. But it cannot commit future Congresses or administrations that may find the fusion budget a handy place to "hold down federal spending" if the research runs into unexpected difficulties.

A couple of years ago, responsible opinion held that enough money was being spent on fusion work and that its pace should not be forced by building an engineering test facility before self-sustained fusion was ignited in the laboratory -- an event expected within the next few years. So much has been learned and demonstrated since then that fusion experts now believe it sensible to move ahead with an engineering facility right away.

Furthermore, as John F. Clarke, deputy associate director for fusion at the US Department of Energy, has said, "At last we are confident we will have a package we can deliver in 10 years." That package would be a clearly defined concept of a fusion power plant -- not the plant itself. "By 1990," Dr. Clarke explains, "we should be able to define what can and cannot be done, how much it should cost, and so forth. At that point, we could do an apollo-type [ moon-landing] program. We would have all the facts. We would, so to speak, know where the moon is and how to get there."

A lot of hard scientific and engineering work must be done to deliver that "package." We hope that the commitment to support that work which is embodied in the new law will be honored as the years roll by.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.