Proposed budget cuts domestic funding for fusion research, may delay 'energy of the future'
President Obama's proposed budget for the 2013 fiscal year would cut funding for domestic fusion research in order to fund ITER, a multi-national fusion research project in France. That could mean lost jobs and a more limited market for physicists at research facilities like the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center.
Nuclear fusion is often referred to as the "energy of the future," but proposed budget cuts in the 2013 fiscal year, which will start in October, threaten to delay the energy future.
Steven Dean, president of Fusion Power Associates, said President Barack Obama's proposed budget would cut $50 million from domestic test fusion reactors, like the Alcator C-Mod at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and reallocate funding to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France.
ITER is an international project funded by seven parties including the European Union, India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea and the United States. Costs are skyrocketing, and Dean is worried about the potential consequences the budget cuts will have.
"It’s going to be a disaster if it comes to pass. It’s a very severe cut. They’re already proposing to shut down one of our three major facilities at MIT, and it will keep us from being prepared to really utilize ITER. It’s going to discourage students from getting into the field because they won’t see the prospects of working here in the United States," Dean said.
The cuts won't just hurt scientists and grad students looking for work, though. While there are other tokamaks — a doughnut shaped device that uses magnetic fields to confine plasma in an attempt to create nuclear fusion — around the world that may be able to provide research for ITER, Dean said the C-Mod is unique in its construction.
"MIT certainly had a unique plasma. Most of the other tokamaks are lower density plasmas, lower magnetic field plasmas, and so the MIT program had staked out a niche of its own. So, to lose that program, I think, is an important potential hole in the international physics development," Dean said.
ITER is designed as a test reactor, meaning it won't ever produce commercial energy. However, Dean said it's a necessary step in eventually creating a commercial reactor. The reactor is expected to cost more than 15 billion euros, and setbacks created by not funding domestic research. Dean does believe ITER will eventually be successful.
"The world scientific community is very confident that this will eventually work out. It’s just the schedule remains unsure, and part of the problem is that fusion is going to be expensive, even when it is successful," Dean said. "And therefore it’s going to have to compete against other energy sources, so exactly when and how it’s going to be able to crack the market is also quite a bit uncertain."
Hosted by Bruce Gellerman, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More about "Living on Earth."