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Budget Cuts Force Fusion Lab Layoffs

By Orli G. Bahcall

A $6 million federal budget cut in funding for the Plasma Fusion Center has forced the center to lay off 30 technical and research staff and also threatens graduate research projects.

Two projects of the PFC were directly affected by the federal budget cuts in fusion research. The Alcator C-Mod tokamak, a toroidal nuclear device for heating gaseous plasma to produce fusion, employed about 80 staff and 22 graduate students students before the cuts. A second project, the Tokamak Physics Experiment [TPX] at Princeton University, received no further funding and will be shut down shortly. About 15 MIT employees in each project have already been laid off.

There would be a big problem if Alcator had been closed, since the "22 PhD students we have working on the project would all have been let go," said Director of the PFC Miklos Porkolab said. Some of these students are three to five years into their thesis work, and "this is a very difficult time to switch."

It is important to remember that "students are involved in all of these projects," and there are some who may "lose their potential thesis topics," Porkolab said.

The recent cuts scale back Alcator funding by $6 million from a previous $16 million allocation. The Alcator, the smallest of three high energy fusion research facilities in the United States, was initially slated to shut down at the start of the fiscal year, Porkolab said. However, in November Congress allocated $10 million to the project, just enough to keep the Alcator "operating at a minimal level" he said. This also allowed some of the layoff notices to be rescinded.

Princeton project cut also

The Princeton-based TPX project received no funding. The goal of TPX is to develop the scientific basis for a compact and continuously operating tokamak fusion reactor, according to the TPX research group. The Department of Energy will provide severance pay for the TPX workers and supply the termination costs, Porkolab said.

The budget cuts for the Alcator project were divided between support and professional staff. Cuts were "applied uniformly across engineers, technician, and scientific research stuff," Porkolab said.

However on the TPX project, only the "people specifically involved with TPX were affected. Mostly engineers and one physicist were the ones to go [while the] faculty and staff" stayed, Porkolab said.

"The whole of national fusion is under review right now by acommittee," Porkolab said. "We are hoping that [funding] will be increased back to the previous level." We are "optimistic that it will be re-established for next year."

Other PFC programs spared

The federal budget cuts have taken their toll on the PFC as a whole. "Some other projects have been cut, but not nearly as severely as these," Porkolab said.

"The budget for next year should stabilize, or if anything, rise a bit. We will know by the end of January, when the [committee] has made a final decision, Porkolab said.

"We are exploring other avenues of funding," mostly by other federal agencies, Porkolab said. The PFC is experiencing limited success since "all the funding agencies are being squeezed."

PhD students fear losing projects

This has had a large affect on the kinds of programs and research that the PFC sponsors. In addition to the staff reductions, this "restricts opportunities for students at MIT."

"In principal, these students would have to switch projects" Porkolab said, but fortunately, "we have up until now been able to avoid laying off students. Every possible effort has been made to keep graduate students on."

Robert T. Nachtrieb G, a research assistant working on Alcator, said he has not been affected yet by the budget cuts, but his research stipend is at risk.

Alcator's continuance depends directly upon the funding it receives for fiscal year 1996. Nachtrieb will continue to work at Alcator until October 1996, then he is "not sure what will happen."

"I will be one year into my thesis research," Nachtrieb said, "and will have to start from scratch."

Research with the new budget constraints has proved difficult, Nachtrieb said. "We have to operate very conservatively with the machine. If anything breaks, we are really in trouble."

Since the graduate students "provide skilled labor while costing less than research scientists," students will be the last to go, Nachtrieb said. But even a maintenance of funding at $10 million would likely mean "not being able to hire anyone new." Although this would make it more "difficult to conduct research, it is better then getting shut down."

"I came into fusion because I love it," Nachtrieb said, "so to start over would be very difficult. I would have to drum up enthusiasm for something completely new."

Alcator may survive after cuts

The bleak future of the fusion research projects is "unfortunate, and reflects upon the desire of the U.S. fusion program to reduce in size," Nachtrieb said. "I think this means that the not serious about fusion. They want to keep the program alive, but don't want to pay for it.... Idon't think this is possible."

"Reducing the budget will discourage talent from joining" Nachtrieb said. This represents "short-sightedness on the side of politicians - fusion is a long term goal, while politicians have only a four-year time span."

"I like to think optimistically about the future of our funding," Porkolab said.

"If Alcator receives funding," the project can continue for about 10 years. There are "plans and upgrades for new exciting physics if we can get funding for next year."

"Overall, for whole center, we have taken less of a cut compared to other national labs involved in fusion research" such as the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, Porkolab said.