Wrecking The Future

Research in controlled fusion has been under way since the 1950s. Why has it not yet achieved success? The answer is a gross failure of political leadership.

In figure 11.2 we show the US fusion budget from 1953 to the present, in both current-year dollars and inflation-adjusted 2006 dollars. It can be seen that the fusion budget was kept very small until the 1973 oil shock, at which point funding was raised to healthy levels of $800 to $900 million per year (in 2006 dollars). Under the impetus of this support from the Ford, Carter, and first Reagan administrations, the fusion program took off, building and operating the ever-better machines that delivered spectacular gains in achievement from the late 1970s through the early 1990s (as shown in figure 11.1).

However, in 1986 OPEC dropped the oil price, and the smart people responsible for ensuring US energy security had a very deep insight. They said, "Oh look, oil is cheap today. Who needs fusion? We can get all of the cheap energy we need just by depending upon our good friends in Saudi Arabia." Acting upon this wisdom, they cut the budget in half. As a result, nearly all parts of the US fusion program except for the tokamak were rapidly shut down. (In one particular atrocity, an extremely important experiment, the Livermore Lab MFTF-B magnetic mirror, built over four years at a cost of some $400 million in today's money, was decommissioned the same month it was completed, with scientists never even given a chance to turn the machine on and see what it could do.)

The surviving tokamak program was allowed to limp into the 1990s, making progress using the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab TFTR machine built with Carter and early Reagan administration money. But then, in 1996, the inestimable Mr. Gore, leading the Clinton administration's science policy, showed the sincerity of his commitment to find constructive solutions to global warming and cut the fusion budget nearly in half again. As a result of these cuts (which were also enthusiastically supported by foolish fiscal conservatives in Congress), plans to build a follow-on machine to the aging TFTR to advance its work to ignition had to be aborted, and the whole program was put on idle.

If you want to get some idea of the mindlessness of the decisionmaking process of the American political class with respect to the fusion program, take a look at figure 11.3, which compares the history of US fusion expenditures to the variation of the price of crude oil.

US Fusion Program Funding

US Fusion Program Funding

Year

Figure 11.2. US Fusion Program Funding, 1953-present. Source: Data courtesy of Fusion Power Associates, www.fusionpower.org.

Year

Figure 11.2. US Fusion Program Funding, 1953-present. Source: Data courtesy of Fusion Power Associates, www.fusionpower.org.

US Fusion Budget vs Price of Oil

US Fusion Budget vs Price of Oil

Year

Figure 11.3. Comparison of the US fusion budget with the oil price, in current dollars. Oil price shown is the price per barrel, multiplied by 10. Source: Data courtesy of Energy Information Administration and Fusion Power Associates, www.fusionpower.org.

Year

Figure 11.3. Comparison of the US fusion budget with the oil price, in current dollars. Oil price shown is the price per barrel, multiplied by 10. Source: Data courtesy of Energy Information Administration and Fusion Power Associates, www.fusionpower.org.

Examining the data in figure 11.3, you can see that for the past forty years, the yearly fusion funding approved by the US Congress has directly tracked the price of oil. The foolishness that this shows is amazing. Effectively, America's yearly fusion research appropriations are being determined by the whims of OPEC. We cannot conduct a successful long-term energy development program on such a basis.

In constant-dollar terms, the US fusion program today receives less than one-third the funding it got in 1980. As a fraction of the federal budget, it is receiving under one-eighth its former support. The US fusion program's total nationwide annual budget is less than one-

quarter of what NASA spends on a single space shuttle launch. With funding levels kept so low, progress is nearly impossible.

But, as harmful as it has been, the feckless denial of necessary funding has not been the only form of mismanagement stifling the fusion program. The other has been a decision to turn the program into a diplomatic plaything under the banner of "international collaboration."

Up through the mid- to late 1980s, the worldwide fusion research field was a vigorously competitive arena, with various national fusion programs vying to outdo and upstage each other with surpassing achievements. The atmosphere was like a race. At every major conference, the Americans, the Russians, the Europeans, and the Japanese would be there, trying to make a splash with their latest results, or astounding the rest by making public announcements of plans for their next bold steps. If people in the West wanted to be complacent about fusion, tough competitors like the brilliant Soviet scientists Andrei Sakharov and Lev Art-simovich were quite ready to shake them up.13 Thus, for example, it was the announcement of spectacular advances by Artsimovich and his Kur-chatov Institute T-3 tokamak team in 1968 that Sputniked the West into abandoning some well-dug-in approaches that were going nowhere and launching its own tokamak program to catch up.

In the mid-1980s, however, a number of bureaucrats in charge of the American, Soviet, European, and Japanese fusion programs conceived the idea that it would be better to end all this messy and expensive competition and instead merge all the world's fusion efforts into a single unified program. So, discarding previously made plans for aggressive furthering of their own national programs, they came together to launch the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project. According to the new plan, humanity would pool its research efforts in ITER and take its further steps toward controlled fusion energy in conjoined collaboration.

In the two decades since its initiation, the ITER program has held scores of "working group" meetings in various prestigious or scenic locations around the world, affording those involved with excellent opportunities to rack up frequent-flier airline miles. Reportedly, the food served at many of the banquets has been excellent, too. The productivity of these meetings has been remarkable. In 2005, for example, after twenty years of deliberations, the ITER committee actually decided where the experiment will be placed (France). With this important milestone behind it, the ITER leadership committee is now positioned to move ahead rapidly. Indeed, it is rumored that in just a few more years, ground may actually be broken to begin construction. In the meantime, several more top-level meetings are planned.

In short, ITER has been a poster child for the argument that in science, as in all other human endeavors, competition is an essential spur for progress. Instead of creating a mighty united alliance to advance worldwide fusion research, ITER has served as a kind of international suicide pact, killing motivation and drive, and enabling mediocrity— or rather, complete program stagnation—to become the mutually accepted standard of accomplishment.

In 2002 a number of laboratory leaders from what was left of the US fusion program saw the writing on the wall and decided to pull together behind a proposal to launch a new American effort separate from the ITER bureaucratic quagmire. The concept was that the United States would take the initiative (imagine that!) to build its own next-generation tokamak fusion machine, called the Fusion Ignition Reactor Experiment (FIRE). In contrast to ITER, whose design was based upon an international consensus to simply scale up a 1980s-style tokamak in size to improve confinement time (which should improve with the square of the reactor's characteristic dimension), FIRE would take the more adventurous approach of increasing both confinement time and plasma density simultaneously. This could be done without increasing the size of the machine at all by ramping up the power of the tokamak's magnetic field. Indeed, since both density and confinement time increase in proportion to the square of the magnetic field strength, doubling the field would allow FIRE to achieve ignition with a machine one-quarter the size of ITER.14 Because its configuration is so much smaller, FIRE would be an order of magnitude cheaper than ITER, and could be easily afforded by America acting alone. It could also be built much more quickly, and thus provide real experimental data sooner, which then could be used to provide the basis for the design of still more advanced machines. Finally, as a number of FIRE advocates have wryly noted, the existence of an independent US fusion program would help, rather than harm, the international effort, by "providing ITER with a useful yardstick against which to measure its own progress." (Translation: FIRE would give ITER a vitally necessary kick in the butt.)

The fortunes of FIRE have waned and waxed since its conception. As I write these lines, the question of whether or not it will be funded is being fought out among various factions in the Department of Energy and the US Congress. Let's hope it wins, through, because unless something like FIRE is started soon, the US fusion program will totally collapse and ITER will stagnate itself to death. Were that to happen, the knowledge and know-how gained from the past fifty years of worldwide fusion research would largely be lost. That is a result we cannot accept, because fusion is vital to a hopeful human future.

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