U.S. Fusion Energy Scientists Warn That the Future Is on the Line
December 8, 2012 • 9:49AM

Presentations and side conversations at the two-day annual meeting of Fusion Power Associates, held in Washington D.C. on Dec. 5-6, made clear the catastrophic consequences to fusion science and energy research, of the Obama Administration's proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2013. In order to meet this country's international commitment to the ITER tokamak fusion experiment, under construction in France, the Administration has proposed to cut $50 million out of the domestic fusion program, which, at about one-sixth of the total magnetic fusion budget, represents the funds for research in the U.S. national laboratories, industry, and universities. The proposed shutdown of the MIT AlactorC-Mod tokamak reactor, which would leave 100 of the 120 scientists and graduate students working on the experiment without a job by the end of March, is just the most dramatic of the proposed cuts. As Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory director Stewart Prager mentioned in conversation, 10% of his staff will have to leave the fusion program. Or, as the Department of Energy has stupidly suggested, will go to work on the pace-setting experiments, in China and South Korea.

One operative question, mentioned by numerous speakers, was, if we lose the graduate students and young scientists in the program, who will be the American scientists that carry out experiments on ITER, when it becomes operational 15 years from now? Without the pipeline of new scientists, what is the point in the U.S. participating in ITER, at all?

The push-back against this policy has come largely from young fusion scientists and plasma physics professors, from the "under 40" group. In addition to a letter sent to the Department of Energy, graduate students, spearheaded from MIT, have organized visits to key Congressional members, to explain that the nation's future is at stake. The University Fusion Association, with 184 members who are almost entirely fusion researchers and university faculty, reported that post-doctoral students are already resigning from university programs, and that "smaller research programs have already been shuttered."

Congressional staff members from the appropriate House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees, who spoke at the conference, offered no serious help. Although the House has added back the $50 million cut to the domestic fusion programs, this is a cynical and totally unserious proposal, since the money was taken entirely from Department environmental programs, which the Senate will not go along with. "Make your own priorities" so the Congress doesn't make them for you, was their only advice, on where to make the cuts.

Until March, the Congressional continuing resolution for this fiscal year keeps last year's funding levels. Unless there is a radical change, stretching from the White House to Capitol Hill, say goodbye to the future of the U.S. fusion program.