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The tokamak’s lower current hybrid drive, which supplements the main current with over a megawatt of microwave power, sits behind a safety fence.
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Alcator C-Mod — MIT’s tokamak, a toroidal plasma confinement fusion device — is currently facing the possibility of getting all of its federal funding cut.

Housed in NW21, Alcator C-Mod has been in operation since 1992. It is one of the three major U.S. plasma fusion facilities and can produce the highest magnetic field and plasma pressure of any such device in the world. Nuclear fusion research aims to find ways in which a self-sustaining fusion reaction could provide a viable energy source.

President Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2013, however, would cut all federal funding to Alcator C-Mod, which received $24 million from the Department of Energy in 2012, forcing the termination of the program. That amount, which currently constitutes almost the entire budget of the project, would be instead be used as part of the U.S.’s contribution to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a plasma fusion reactor currently under construction in France. ITER is an international collaboration expected to begin operating in 2019 and designed to be the first fusion reactor to have a net positive energy output.

The proposed unexpected cuts to Alcator C-Mod have been met with criticism from MIT plasma science faculty as well as others in the field. According to Earl Marmar, the current head of the Alcator C-Mod project, plasma research at MIT is highly relevant to ITER. Massive gas mitigation, tokamak wall materials, and tritium retention are among some of the research topics being studied at MIT, which will be important for the ITER facility. Marmar foresees significant problems for all U.S. plasma facilities if domestic cuts are used to pay for contributions to ITER.

“Over the next few years of construction, the U.S. contribution to ITER will be as much as $300 million in peak years,” said Marmar. “The current total U.S. budget for fusion energy sciences is $400 million per year, so domestic research will be left with almost nothing.”

Without domestic programs, he says, there will be a large gap in research until ITER can begin doing serious science in the 2020s, and even then there will be areas of fusion physics it will be unable to test.

Ian Hutchinson, Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering and head of Alcator C-Mod for its construction and first ten years of operation, agrees that it does not make sense for the U.S. to fund an international program by closing down domestic programs.

“What our international partners are doing at the moment is not shrinking,” said Hutchinson. “They’re actually expanding their domestic programs because they want to get strongly into fusion research and be in a position to benefit from their involvement in ITER.”

According to Hutchinson, there is already five years’ worth of high priority research for Alcator C-Mod lined up. The current research is “influencing decisions that have and will be made on ITER,” he said, and the $24 million per year saved by closing MIT’s tokamak would only go a short way toward paying for the United States’ ITER contribution.

Perhaps the most serious issue, said Hutchinson and Marmar, is the effect on the education of U.S. plasma students. At MIT, the Alcator C-Mod supports 100 staff members, and there are currently thirty PhD students whose theses depend on the tokamak’s results. Marmar expects only slightly more than a third to be able to finish their degrees if the facility is closed at the end of the 2012 fiscal year. Students who are not close to done with their project will likely have a hard time finding funding elsewhere to complete their degrees. According to Science, the cuts would also affect the two other tokamaks also currently supported by the Department of Defense (DOE). Additionally, the cuts would cause Princeton University’s Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) to “lay off about 100 of 435 staff,” PPPL Director Stewart Prager told Science.

MIT’s facility is “by far the most important of the three major U.S. plasma facilities for educating graduates,” he said. Losing it would ultimately hurt the U.S.’s involvement in ITER.

Hutchinson suggests the negative impact on education could be long-term as well.

“If we close down the domestic program in order to make our contribution to ITER, the U.S. will have no one left to participate in ITER when it is constructed, and our contribution will in the end be futile,” said Hutchinson. “We will be cutting off the education of future plasma experts.”

Dan Brunner G is feeling the immediate impact of the proposed funding cuts. He expects to finish his data collection in time even if the facility is shut down, but says, “It will be close. I have to get my data this summer, so I can’t take any breaks.”

Even with a degree, however, Brunner expects the funding to present a challenge.

“If the U.S. fusion budget keeps on this path, I won’t have job opportunities in the U.S. If the U.S. is serious about fusion, we need to fund domestic research and ITER because they depend on each other.” MIT graduate students in fusion have actively campaigned against the cuts, beginning fusionfuture.org to outline their position.

Marmar says that contingency plans have been created for the closure of the facility if the cuts are enacted in the 2013 budget, but says he “remains optimistic” that the shutdown can be avoided.

Marmar, Hutchinson, and Brunner said that nearly everyone in the nuclear science and engineering field is opposed to the cuts, but finding funding support has been difficult. Deval Patrick and John Kerry have visited the MIT facilities in the past week to show their support, and hope to get more politicians onboard soon.