The Alcator C-Mod fusion reactor is one of the largest experiments at MIT. It plays a vital role in the scientific community at the Institute, and in the broader nuclear science community. But its future is in jeopardy — the White House’s 2013 federal budget proposes cutting all of the $18 million devoted to Alcator, shuttering the project. The Tech believes that C-Mod’s funding should not be cut and urges Congress to rethink the Department of Energy’s recommendation.
Why should the U.S. fund fusion research at MIT? As Derek Sutherland argued in a March 2 column, C-Mod is a critical component of a bigger research effort to harness fusion energy. For a mere $18 million, our government can continue to drive progress towards what might be, someday, an abundant, safe, and clean energy source. And the C-Mod experiment itself yields data useful to ITER — an international effort to build a more advanced fusion reactor in France. Indeed, the funding for C-Mod will be redirected to ITER under the DoE’s proposal — if the U.S. believes participation in ITER is important, it should still continue to fund domestic fusion research (especially when the two efforts are mutually beneficial).
Some may feel that fusion research is a waste of time and money. After all, we face enormous engineering challenges in actually making fusion a viable energy source — is it a futile effort? We assert that research projects with big challenges should be funded, because history shows that that kind of risk-taking drives progress. The government plays a valuable role in funding long-shot projects. Some are successful, some aren’t. Independent of considerations as to whether fusion research will ultimately yield a viable energy source — and many at MIT believe it will — fusion deserves funding. You cannot anticipate breakthroughs in engineering and science that might make the seemingly-impossible possible.
Cutting the program also hurts the Institute more directly. Students who have not completed their degrees will be forced to finish on a rushed schedule, and those who are only partway done with their projects will have to seek funding elsewhere. And because MIT is one of the top producers of PhDs in nuclear fusion in the United States, terminating C-Mod is a blow not only to MIT but to the United States’s domestic nuclear program as a whole. While other facilities in the U.S. grant fusion PhDs, MIT allows its graduate students more access to the actual operation of the reactor than other schools. Without C-Mod, many young scientists interested in nuclear energy research will leave the country to pursue their ideas elsewhere. The U.S. will lose its ability to train leaders in the field, and will be unable to contribute skilled scientists to the ITER program. When ITER starts producing results in 2020, the U.S. will be unable to effectively analyze any of its data because it will lack the experts.
If you agree that C-Mod deserves funding, how can you help? Massachusetts politicians have already gotten on-board with an effort to save ITER, but cries to save C-Mod from MIT and the Commonwealth may not be enough. Make an argument to your home House representative and Senator as to why C-Mod helps not just MIT, but the U.S. as a whole — by funding domestic fusion research, we position ourselves to take advantage of a promising and clean energy solution. And the government knows well that it can trust MIT to put it’s money to good use.