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Fusion projects hang in limbo

This rendering shows the proposed ITER fusion
reactor. Click on the image for a larger version.

The current round of financial uncertainty is coming at just the wrong time for America's largest and smallest fusion research programs.

In its simplest form, nuclear fusion involves combining the nuclei of hydrogen atoms to produce helium atoms, plus a smidgen of energy. It's the energy reaction that powers the sun as well as hydrogen bombs. For decades, scientists have been trying to tame the process to produce what could be an abundant, high-yield power source that is less environmentally problematic than nuclear fission.

Federal funding currently backs three strategies for fusion power:

We will have ignition
One of the strategies, known as inertial confinement fusion, involves blasting tiny bits of fusion fuel with focused pulses of powerful laser light. The $4 billion National Ignition Facility in California has been the focus of this strategy, and although the program has faced questions over budgets and benefits, construction seems to be on track for completion next year.

Meanwhile, over in Britain, preparations for another inertial confinement fusion experiment called HiPER began earlier this month, with startup scheduled in the 2010-2012 time frame.

Bottom line: Inertial confinement fusion seems to be in good shape.

ITER up in the air
The biggest U.S.-backed fusion venture is the ITER project, which is aimed at containing power-producing plasma in a giant magnetic vessel to be built in France. This strategy is known as magnetic confinement fusion, and it represents the most mainstream approach to commercializing fusion power. The $13 billion international project is just gearing up for its construction phase, and the experimental reactor is due to come online in 2016.

In the beginning, ITER's name was an acronym for "International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor." Nowadays, the preferred explanation for the name is that "iter" is Latin for "the way," and that ITER marks the way toward more plentiful energy. But for almost a year, the way has been mostly blocked for U.S. contributions to the project.

During the fiscal year that just ended, Congress cut back the funds set aside for ITER support from $160 million to only $26 million. That forced the U.S. ITER project, headquartered at Tennessee's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, to put off consultations with the U.S. companies that could be in line to build more than $1 billion worth of components for the future reactor.

Last month, Congress approved stopgap legislation that freezes spending at current levels until next March. That means the U.S. ITER project will have to remain in survival mode for months longer, just when other countries are ramping up their procurement procedures.

"We were worried that India and China might not be able to fulfill their obligations, but it turns out that the U.S. may be the one that doesn't," Columbia University physicist Gerald Navratil told The Associated Press at a fusion technology meeting in Geneva last week.

Ned Sauthoff, who heads up the U.S. ITER project, told the Knoxville News Sentinel's Frank Munger that his team will proceed with procurement on the assumption that the funding situation will get "significantly better" by April. "We've been advised by the Department of Energy we should expect a better six months" after that time, Sauthoff said.

If the United States can't produce the promised components, other countries would have to pick up the slack. America could theoretically find itself shut out of the energy project, although ITER's Japanese chief said he is hoping that Washington will "overcome this budget situation."

"We do need the participation of U.S. scientists and engineers," AP quoted ITER Director-General Kaname Ikeda as saying. "We hope they could make the necessary recovery early next year."

Bottom line: Further snags could add a black mark to America's record for international science cooperation.

Wild card in the fusion quest
The least expensive and most speculative route to commercial fusion power involves setting up a small-scale, high-voltage cage for electrons and positive ions. The system is designed to produce fusion reactions, ion by ion, and eventually give you more power than you put in.

This inertial electrostatic confinement approach was pioneered by the late physicist Robert Bussard, and a small team of engineers at EMC2 Fusion Development Corp. in New Mexico have been carrying on his work over the past year, reportedly backed by $1.8 million from the U.S. Navy.

Team leader Richard Nebel told me in August that the first phase of experiments was complete, and that he was waiting for guidance from a peer-review panel and his funders on whether to proceed to the second phase.

"We've been pretty busy, but it's the same situation," Nebel told me today. "We're kind of in a holding pattern."

He's been able to keep the five-person team together and "doing a few things" during this holding pattern. There have been some rumblings to the effect that EMC2's results have been encouraging enough to justify pressing forward, but Nebel has declined to make a prediction about the project's future.

Nebel worries about the same kind of budget limbo that the U.S. ITER team is worrying about, even though his budget is an order of magnitude lower. Among the factors on his mind are the change in the White House and the changes in economic circumstances.

"The thing that usually gets hit the hardest is what they call discretionary funding," Nebel said, "and that's what we're looking at here. That'd be the biggest fear everywhere."

Nebel said he sympathizes with U.S. ITER's troubles: "I understand their concerns. They're in turbulent times just like we are, and you don't know how this is going to go. ... I'm not a big ITER fan, but the bottom line is that we're trying to do something different from them, with different sponsors and different time lines."

Bottom line: The fans of this low-cost fusion experiment will have to wait a while longer to see whether more federal support comes Nebel's way. But for now, EMC2's fusioneers are still hanging in there ... even if they're hanging in limbo.

For more about the political prospects for science and technology issues, check out my Briefing Book in the Politics section.