An article in Tuesday's Washington Post described the current funding woes of US research into nuclear fusion, focused on anticipated budget and job cuts at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, MIT and several other sites. Aside from the general challenge of funding all of the Department of Energy's programs at a time of huge federal deficits and ballooning debt, it appears that domestic fusion research is being cut mainly to meet our commitments to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) being built in France. The article goes on to suggest that fusion has been excluded from the list of "all-of-the-above" energy technologies that the administration has embraced. That raises questions that would merit attention at any time but seem particularly relevant in an election year.
Before discussing its proper priority in US federal energy research and planning, it's important to recognize, as the article does, that fusion is very much a long-shot bet. We know that nuclear fusion works, because it's the process that powers our sun and all the stars. However, that doesn't guarantee that we can successfully harness it safely here on earth for our own purposes. I've heard plenty of energy experts who think that the only fusion reactor we need is the one 93 million miles away, which remains the ultimate source of nearly all the BTUs and kilowatt-hours of energy we use, except for those from nuclear (fission) power plants and geothermal energy.
Unfortunately, the challenges of harnessing the sun's energy bounty in real time, rather than via the geologically slow processes that produced fossil fuels or the faster but still ponderous growing cycles of biofuels, are distinctly non-trivial--hence the debate about whether and how to overcome the intermittency and cyclicality of wind and solar power through optimized dispersal, clever use of Smart Grid technology, or with energy storage that requires its own breakthroughs if it is to be an economical enabler of wind or solar. A working fusion reactor would provide an end-run around all those problems and fit neatly into our current centralized power grid, with what is expected to be negligible emissions or long-term waste. Who wouldn't want that?
Of course fusion power isn't easy, either; it's the definition of difficult. Scientists around the world have been chasing it for at least five decades. I recall eagerly reading about its potential when I was in my early teens. Then, it was seen to be 30-40 years from becoming commercial, and that's still a reasonable estimate, despite significant progress in the intervening decades. I admit I don't follow fusion research nearly as closely as I used to, in all its permutations of stellarators, tokamaks, laser bombardment chambers and other competing designs, all pursuing the elusive goal of "net energy"--getting more energy back than you must put into achieving the temperatures and pressures necessary to fuse the chosen hydrogen isotopes.
So where does a high-risk, high-reward investment like fusion fit into the concept of all-of-the-above energy that now dominates the energy debate on both sides of the political aisle, and in the trade-offs that must accompany any serious energy strategy or plan for the US? After all, "all of the above" is an attempt to recognize the widely differing states of readiness of our various energy options, the time lags inherent in replacing one set of sources with another, and the need to continue to supply and consume fossil fuels during our (long) transition away from them. While I've never seen an official list of what's in and what's out, my own sense of all of the above is that it's composed of technologies that are either commercial today or that have left the laboratory but still require improvement and scaling up to become commercial. In contrast, fusion hasn't left the lab and it's not clear when or if it will, at least on a timescale that's meaningful either for energy security or climate change mitigation. No one can tell us when the first fusion power plant could be plugged into the grid, and every attempt at predicting that has slipped, badly.
Fusion wasn't mentioned once in the Secretary of Energy's remarks to Congress concerning the fiscal 2013 Energy Department Budget, and it was only shown as a line item in his latest budget presentation. Yet I can't think of any other new technology that's customarily included in all of the above that has even a fraction of fusion's potential for delivering clean energy in large, centralized increments comparable to today's coal or nuclear power plants. We could spend all day arguing whether that's as desirable now (or in the future) as it was just a few years ago, but from my perspective it contributes to the option value of fusion. No one would suggest fusion as a practical near-term alternative, but with the prospect of a shale-gas bridge for the next several decades, it might be an important part of what we could be bridging towards.
Overall, the DOE has budgeted just under $400 million for fusion R&D in fiscal 2013, out of a total budget request of $27 billion. That's not insignificant, and devoting 1.5% of the federal energy budget to fusion might be about the right proportion for such a long-term endeavor that is decades from deployment, relative to funding for medium-term efforts like advanced fission reactors and near-term R&D on renewables and efficiency. The problem is that DOE is cutting deeply into US fusion capabilities, not just at Princeton but also at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia, in order to boost US funding for ITER from $105 million to $150 million next year. Only the fusion budgets for Oak Ridge Laboratory, which is managing the US role in ITER, and for the D.C. HQ grew.
I'm certainly not against international cooperation in science, which has become increasingly important as the costs of "big science" projects expand. However, even if ITER represented the very best chance to take fusion to the next level on its long path to deployment, the long-term implications of these cuts for US fusion science capabilities look significant. As with the space program, once the highly trained and experienced fusion workforce and teams are laid off and broken up, it becomes enormously difficult to reconstitute them, if needed. This is particularly true of those with advanced degrees in fields that have declined in popularity at US universities, or for which the majority of current graduates are non-US students who will return to their countries of origin in search of better opportunities. I wouldn't support keeping these programs going just to provide guaranteed employment for physicists, but we had better be sure that we won't need them later. I am skeptical that we can be sufficiently certain today of the likely deployment pathways for fusion to be able to make such an irreversible decision with confidence.
I understand that in times like these we must make tough choices; that's the essence of budgeting. I'm also sympathetic to those who might think that fusion researchers have had ample time and support to deliver the goods, already. Yet I can't help being struck by the contradiction of a DOE budget in which US R&D for such a long-term, high-potential technology is cut, at the same time that Secretary Chu and the President are pushing hard for multi-billion dollar commitments to extend the Production Tax Credit for renewable energy and reinstate the expired 1603 renewable energy cash grant program, a substantial portion of the past benefits from which went to non-US manufacturers and project developers. The total 2013 budget cuts for the US fusion labs are equivalent to the tax credits for a single 90 MW wind farm, which would contribute less than 0.01% of annual US power generation. Although we clearly can't fund every R&D idea to the extent researchers might wish, I believe it is a mistake to funnel so much money--about 40% of which must be borrowed--into perpetual support for the deployment of relatively low-impact and essentially mature technologies like onshore wind, when the same dollars would go much farther on R&D.