Fusion Research on the Cheap

Scientists say cuts could cost US its lead in study of stars' power source

DARK budget clouds over Washington threaten global efforts to harness the energy source that lights the sun.

A bout of lobbying this summer by scientists and key members of Congress so far has failed to soften the impact of major cuts in the $363-million fusion program.

At stake, claim scientists, are some 1,300 fusion research jobs and America's now-dwindling historic lead in developing a fusion reactor. The penury could also undermine a next- generation project that has been held up as a model of international scientific cooperation.

"Our partners are very upset about this. My European colleagues tell me that this is the last straw," says Milos Porkolab, head of the Plasma Fusion Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Mass., referring to Washington's growing reputation as an unreliable ally in international scientific efforts. "The danger is that if the US cuts its contribution, European governments may cut theirs" when EC ministers meet in October to plan their budget.

Fusion has long been one of the El Dorados of science. Fuel for fusion reactors - lithium and deuterium, a form of hydrogen - can be taken from sea water, so the fuel source is virtually limitless. While fusion reactors produce radioactive byproducts, the volume, radioactivity, and longevity of the waste is estimated to run anywhere from 100 to 10,000 times less than that of the waste produced in today's nuclear power plants. And fusion energy has neither the impact on the atmosphere of fossil fuels nor the ecological and land-use conundrums posed by other forms of renewable energy.

Throughout the 1980s, the US led the world in fusion research, says Dr. Porkolab, a physics professor at MIT. "But it no longer is the preeminent program it was."

While other DOE programs are taking major hits (solar energy funding will be cut by as much as one-third), fusion is taking the biggest whack.

To some extent, fusion research may be a victim to its own early hype. When civilian fusion research began in earnest in the 1960s, some of its most ardent proponents held that practical reactors were only 20 to 30 years away.

The government has spent $9 billion on fusion research to date, a congressional source says. Lawmakers were concerned that pouring more money into fusion megaprojects would undercut funding for smaller basic-research programs.

In March, the White House asked the President's Committee of Advisers on Science and Technology to name a panel to review the DOE's fusion program in light of the budget climate in Congress. Last month, the group submitted its report, saying that the US must spend at least $320 million a year to ensure that the fusion program had "a modicum of momentum" toward the goal of a practical reactor by the middle of the next century.

By the end of last week, the House has appropriated $229 million for fusion research for fiscal 1996 and the Senate $225 million. Both figures are less than half of Japan's fusion budget.

While the House version looks slightly more generous, it contains a $50 million budgetary time bomb, according to Dr. Davies. The spending drop between this year and next will likely force the layoff of some 1,300 scientists and engineers - by some estimates nearly half of the plasma-fusion researchers in the US. Including severance pay and terminating contracts, she says, total cuts to US fusion research reach 55 percent. The remainder, adds Porkolab, would not pay for the operation of the two remaining experimental facilities in the US.

When the House and Senate return from the August recess, some fusion researchers are putting their hope in the Senate version. Although the Senate appropriated less money for fusion, its bill allows the DOE to pay for close-out costs by cutting other parts of its budget. In addition, a last-minute amendment allows the DOE to use money saved from its restructuring to keep a premier fusion reactor at Princeton University's Plasma Physics Laboratory running for another three years. The reactor was scheduled to shut down in October to allow work to begin on a newer machine. Now the future of the new US machine is in doubt.

If the budget travails have left US fusion researchers antsy, they aren't making life easy for their counterparts in Europe, Russia, and Japan. These nations, including the US, have joined forces to design a facility known as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, a $10-billion project to ignite a sustained fusion reaction. The project is halfway through a six-year design phase. By agreement, Washington's contribution was to rise from $70 million to $82 million next year. Under likely scenarios, the figure will be about $45 million.

Fusion research is expensive, concedes Rush Holt, assistant director of Princeton's Plasma Physics Laboratory. But the investment is starting to pay off.

"In 1976, the record for a fusion reaction was a tenth of a watt for milliseconds," he adds. "Now we can reach 10 megawatts for seconds. Not even computer-chip density can point to orders-of-magnitude improvements like that. We're at the point where fusion isn't looking for breakthroughs. We're making incremental advances along a fairly clear path."

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