Sometimes, it felt like the Bush administration believed blood-letting could purge a man of all evil humors and the universe revolved around the sun. At least government policies supporting scientific research seemed to reflect as much — that we were still stuck in an era where dogma rather than science drove progress.
So what a breath of fresh air it was to hear that the Obama administration was renewing funding for research on all stem cell lines, and that combating climate change would be a top priority. Obama even tapped Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, as his Secretary of Energy.
This is more than enough to convince me that the President understands that long-term solutions are required to ensure the United States has a safe, clean, and independent energy infrastructure. But if the Obama administration is truly committed to exploring a comprehensive set of options for ensuring that kind of energy future, fusion energy must be on that list.
I’m not Course XXII, so I won’t try to explain fusion energy myself. I did, however, recently visit the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC), which describes fusion as “the energy source of the sun and other stars … a reaction process that converts matter into energy.”
Nuclear fusion differs from fission, the type of reaction that provides 14% of the world’s energy today, in several important ways. Fission relies on the principle that energy is released when heavy atomic nuclei are split apart, whereas fusion relies on the fusing of two hydrogen isotope nuclei (i.e. deuterium or tritium) to release energy.
Fusion yields far fewer radioactive byproducts, cannot be easily weaponized, and has the potential to produce large amounts of energy with cheap fuel. In the future, fusion power plants may even be used to dispose of the radioactive waste produced in fission plants. The PSFC claims fusion has “enormous potential as an energy source” and offers a “safe, virtually inexhaustible, long-term energy option with major environmental advantages.”
The problem is, it has thus far proven difficult, and expensive, to build fusion reactors. No current experimental reactor has yet provided a model for a viable energy source and all require large amounts of input energy to operate. Some even claim fusion can never be a viable, cost-effective energy source. Because of this, fusion research has received inconsistent or minimal funding.
So why choose fusion over fission? Nobody denies that modern fission plants are a highly efficient source of energy, are economical, and have much smaller environmental footprints than fossil fuel-based plants. But it is also clear that there is a powerful cultural and political stigma around fission plants — no matter how inaccurate that judgment may be.
For example, in 1998, the City of Cambridge voted by more than 2:1 to move MIT’s research nuclear reactor out of the city, despite the fact that it posed no threat to city residents. Just like fusion, fission plants have their own troubles to contend with. Fusion, however, may prove to be the road towards an efficient energy source that is politically and psychologically appealing to our government and our country.
The very nature of scientific progress suggests that current hurdles to creating a fusion plant may not last. Despite funding difficulties, fusion research has come a long way since pioneering experiments in the 1950s. And it’s impossible to predict what kind of advances in the fusion technology — and related fields — might allow us to build cheaper, more efficient, and viable fusion reactors. The enthusiasm for fusion at MIT and other research centers and its enormous promise as a safe, clean, and abundant source of energy make it impossible to ignore.
But ignored it has been by Congress. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) — a large, multilateral project currently underway — is the world’s first step towards designing a functional, effective fusion power plant. Initially sponsored by the US, EU, India, Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea in 2006, ITER is targeted to begin operation in 2018.
However, in 2007, Congress included “$0 for the U.S. contribution to ITER,” formerly $610 million, in the 2008 budget and provided that “Funding may not be reprogrammed from other activities within Fusion Energy Science to restore the US contribution to ITER” (see HR 2764).
Although it is true that the United States still supports some domestic fusion research, the ITER project is not only an important step in fusion development beyond our projects at home, but it is also symbolic of the international need to cooperate to solve the energy crisis. Participation in ITER, therefore, is partially a matter of investing in a promising yet difficult challenge, but also an investment in our standing on the world stage.
Don’t take my word for it. Twenty leading fusion scientists, in a letter to the Bush administration in 2008, described ITER as “the pathway to the future of fusion energy.” “For the sake of the international and domestic fusion effort and for the sake of the US reputation in the international scientific community, we most respectfully urge that funding be provided for continued U.S. participation in ITER,” the letter stated. The letter was signed by MIT’s own Miklos Porkolab, professor of physics and director of the PSFC.
The letter may have been sent to President Bush, but Obama and today’s Congress should heed its words. Even if a fusion power plant may seem like an economic or physical impossibility today, the promise of a brighter energy future is well worth the risk of failure. In fact, I’d say any promise for a brighter energy future is well worth 0.4 percent of AIG’s bailout money.