US budget battle clouds outlook for fusion energy

The US program to develop hydrogen fusion power, which some hope will fuel America's future, appears to be in trouble.

That is the verdict of Edwin E. Kintner, who, until last month, was head of the magnetic fusion program of the Department of Energy (DOE). He resigned, he says, because of budget cutting and efforts by some federal officials to alter the program - a program mandated by a 1980 law.

Now, a year after Congress nearly unanimously passed the Magnetic Fusion Energy Act to accelerate that program, Dr. Kintner is taking every opportunity to tell the US public that the strategy under which the program had been proceeding is in a shambles.

Speaking at a session of the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), he said he concluded that the fusion program cannot be carried out in an intelligent, structured, and coordinated way in the present political and economic climate. Mike McCormack, former Democratic congressman from Washington, chief architect of the Magnetic Fusion Energy Act, put it even more starkly. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), he said, is refusing to comply with the law. He called this a ''major tragedy'' for the United States and the world.

An OMB official said he could not comment until the fiscal 1993 budget had been presented by the President. ''We will defend ourselves at that time,'' he added.

The concern that has driven these two men to make such strong statements and, in Dr. Kintner's case, take the strong action of resigning after 42 years of federal employment, is rooted in the longtime controversy within science circles on the feasibility of hydrogen fusion power.

Hydrogen fuel for the fusion reaction, which is the power source of the sun and stars, is virtually unlimited. Theoretically, then, fusion power could meet humanity's energy needs indefinitely. By 1980, and after several decades of research, fusion investigators around the world had concluded that it would probably be possible to get a fusion reaction running under control in the laboratory in this decade.

But to make a commercially practical power plant requires solving many tough engineering problems. It is not at all clear that this can be done, but investigators both in the US and overseas have concluded that it is time to tackle the engineering problems likely to arise.

The DOE's fusion program has two principal directions. One is exploring laser fusion in which tiny capsules of hydrogen fuel are compressed by laser beams until they explode like miniature bombs. The other approach, which receives the major emphasis and bulk of the funding, is magnetic fusion. In this, the hydrogen fuel - at temperatures of 50 to 100 million degrees - is confined by magnetic forces. This approach is the subject of the 1980 law.

Such a conclusion was not easily arrived at in the US. Some experts, especially within DOE and its predecessor agencies, long argued that fusion researchers should concentrate on thoroughly understanding fusion physics before working on power reactor engineering. Others argued that enough had been learned for the engineering research to proceed in parallel.

Gradually, through the '70s and after several major reviews of blue-ribbon study panels, a national consensus emerged on the need for the parallel approach. Mr. McCormack, and others, envisioned a working demonstration fusion power plant by 2000. Others were more cautious. However, as Dr. Kintner explained at the AAAS session, there was wide agreement on the need to find out whether or not such a power plant were at all practical. If it wasn't, he said, this should be determined soon so that long-term energy planning would not include false hopes for fusion.

This consensus was embodied in the 1980 law and the resulting DOE fusion research strategy. Thus a program based on a broad, but hard-won, consensus and backed by congressmen and senators of both parties was put in place. It is the integrity of this strategy and the careful balance of its ingredients that Dr. Kintner says he believes is jeopardized.

The main line of research on the basic physics of fusion involves a device called a tokamak. The Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR), being built at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, is to be the main US facility. Principal facilities for studying engineering problems were to include a Fusion Engineering Device (FED), a center for such research, and a facility to test various materials under radiation conditions typical of a fusion reactor. The latter facility is already being built at Hanford, Washington.

Such facilities and the balanced research strategy they represent were mandated by the 1980 law. The law required that the FED be in place by 1990 and that the magnetic fusion research budget be doubled in real terms over the next seven years. Experts, such as Dr. Kintner, believed this to be a workable schedule. They expected to have the knowledge they need to decide on the feasibility of fusion by the 1990s.

Now Dr. Kintner says that schedule can no longer be met. He charges that the OMB, which once had suggested giving more money to the program, now wants to reorder priorities by giving more emphasis to the Princeton TFTR. It would cancel the Hanford facility, which Mr. McCormack called essential and the only one of its kind for the US and its research partners in Europe and Japan.

DOE had rejected OMB's earlier offer of increased funding because this would have come out of other DOE projects. Also, DOE does not want to argue with OMB over the fusion budget and its priorities, since the energy department remains opposed to cutting other programs. This lack of support within DOE finally precipitated his resignation, Dr. Kintner says.

He explained at the AAAS session that, once a long-term strategy with such broad support is established, it must be sustained. He says two to four years have been lost already, and perhaps more in the long run.

Also, he noted that the US has only about a third of the world fusion effort, although it has been a leader. No country will develop fusion alone, he said. Europe and Japan have realigned their efforts following the inauguration of the new US strategy. But if the US lets its leadership slip, Dr. Kintner warned, these research partners will be left somewhat at sea. This is what Mr. McCormack also had in mind when he called the threat to US leadership ''a tragedy'' for the world as well as for the United States.

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