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Fusion energy is a critical component of a balanced energy research portfolio

Fusion energy, similar to a cure for cancer, unification of the fundamental forces, and human space exploration, is a long-term scientific endeavor undertaken to benefit humanity; the ultimate outcome is, by the very definition of the challenge, uncertain. The desire to expand the boundaries of our understanding and improve our quality of life through science and technology, often in the presence of substantial uncertainty, has been the driver behind what scientist and historian Jacob Bronowski famously called “The Ascent of Man.”

Therefore, when Keith Yost writes in his March 6 opinion that the future of fusion energy is uncertain, he may be right; however, when he dismisses fusion energy as a worthless pursuit, he reveals a profound misunderstanding of the quintessence of the long-term scientific research that will be critical to solving many of the major issues in the 21st century. His argument can be easily summarized: “Failure to solve X problem in Y years with Z dollars means quit.” To demonstrate the absurdity of this argument, I challenge the reader to reread Yost’s article, replacing “fusion research” with “cancer research” where appropriate.

Yost correctly identifies many of the challenges inherent in fusion energy as well as many of its benefits, including abundant fuel, baseload power, inherent safety, and no long-lived nuclear waste. However, three critical corrections must be made to Yost’s article, which is essentially a carbon copy of a then-flawed and now-outdated opinion (“The quixotic search for the silver bullet.” The Tech, Volume 129, Issue 16, 2009.) that he already published in The Tech in 2009.

First, U.S. fusion research — which includes theoretical, space, laboratory, and industrial plasma physics — received approximately $300 million–$400 million per year for the past decade, an order of magnitude below the “few billion dollars” that Yost claims is “tossed” to U.S. fusion each year. Under fiscal year 2010 appropriations, in fact, fusion funding was on par with other energy research in the Department of Energy: efficiency ($629 million), coal ($404 million), solar ($247 million), biomass ($220 million), wind ($80 million), and geothermal ($44 million). (The Department of Energy; The FY11 Department of Energy Budget Request to Congress. Available at http://www.cfo.doe.gov/budget/11budget.)

Second, numerous peer-reviewed studies of fusion energy costs have been published, with most studies finding a cost of electricity between 5 and 12 cents per kilowatt-hour (e.g. F. Najmabadi et al. Fusion Engineering and Design, 80:3-23, 2006.; T. Hamacher and A. M. Bradshaw. “Fusion as a future power source.” “Proceedings of the 18th World Energy Congress”, 2001.) highly competitive with present forms of electricity and grossly at odds with Yost’s unsubstantiated claim that fusion will never be economical. Furthermore, under the four factors that Yost himself believes will make nuclear fission cost competitive at 8.4 cents per kilowatt-hour (reduced capital costs, reduced borrowing costs, a carbon tax, increased natural gas prices) , fusion energy would flourish, without even considering its advantages in nonproliferation and minimizing radioactive waste (K. Yost. “Did Fukushima kill the nuclear renaissance? No, that renaissance died right here at home.” The Tech, Volume 131, Issue 50, 2011.). Historically, tremendous advances in fusion research have steadily reduced the size of fusion reactor designs (decreasing capital and borrowing costs) while increasing fusion power density and thermal efficiency (increasing revenue for fixed costs). Present research, such as high power density in steady-state scenarios being carried out at MIT’s endangered Alcator C-Mod tokamak, is poised to achieve further crucial breakthroughs.

Third, according to the International Energy Agency’s report “Energy Technology Perspectives,” building a sustainable, global energy economy for the 21st century will require substantial investments in new and existing energy technology coupled to enabling policy. When Yost cites the importance of policy, he gets part of the solution correct: transformative policy must be implemented to capitalize on existing energy technology; however, he perplexingly derides the need for new technology as part of a multifaceted solution, dismissing much of his MIT peers’ life work as nothing more than being “born out of frustration, desperation, and self-deception.” Fortunately, governments around the world are increasingly investing in new energy technology while improving existing technology with retrofits and intelligent policy.

In a well-publicized 2005 report, “Energy Trends and Their Implication for US Army Installations,” the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stated: “Policy changes, leap ahead technology breakthroughs, cultural changes, and significant investment is requisite for [the] new energy future. Time is essential to enact these changes. The process should begin now.” Fusion energy research is an embodiment of this declaration, as recognized by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is an important part of a diverse portfolio of promising, advanced energy technologies that are presently being readied for deployment as the foundation upon which to build the energy infrastructure of the 21st century. More information on fusion energy can be found at http://www.fusionfuture.org.

Zach Hartwig is a graduate student in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering.