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President Obama’s budget request to Congress for fiscal year (FY) 2013, announced in February, proposed to shut down MIT’s federally-funded Alcator C-Mod, a tokamak (toroidal magnetic confinement device). To give itself six more months to agree on a formal appropriations bill, Congress will pass a continuing resolution this month. The resolution will likely sustain funding for Alcator C-Mod at current levels until the final budget for FY 2013 is out. If the final budget passed by Congress is in line with the president’s request, technical, engineering, and administrative staff would be laid off, and some 30 PhD students in Nuclear Science & Engineering (Course 22) would be forced to graduate by October 2013.

The Department of Energy (DOE) has ordered Alcator C-Mod not to operate in the interim. However, researchers at the tokamak will not begin dismantling the device just yet, in case Congress decides to resume funding for research at Alcator C-Mod, which aims to develop a source of clean energy from nuclear fusion power.

“Our best information at this point indicates that C-Mod will be put into a ‘ready standby,’” says Zach S. Hartwig, a Course 22 PhD student, who believes and hopes that there will be no layoffs. “We are essentially buckling down until the next continuing resolution, due in February or March of 2013, or approved FY13 budget, under which we hope to receive funding to resume full experimental operations.”

In June, 12 MIT PhD students, including Hartwig, and an undergraduate from the University of Texas at Austin visited Congress, meeting with almost 30 congressional offices. “Our goal was to educate congressional offices on the situation and ask for support for domestic fusion in the upcoming continuing resolution,” says Hartwig.

The only three tokamaks in operation in the United States are Alcator C-Mod, DIII-D at General Atomics, and NSTX at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. The presidential FY 2013 budget would cut money out of all three to support ITER (International Thermonuclear Expansion Reactor), an international project to build the biggest and best tokamak fusion reactor yet.

Of the three, Alcator C-Mod has received the smallest share of the DOE’s fusion energy funding. Alcator C-Mod is also the only one that would be completely shut down under the presidential budget request.

The budget request allocates about $150 million to ITER contributions (up nearly $50 million from FY 2012) and about $250 million to domestic programs, maintaining the total of about $400 million that has gone to fusion energy sciences in the past few years. The Senate Energy and Water Subcommittee has proposed legislation with similar numbers.

The House Energy and Water Subcommittee, however, has proposed a bill that would supply about $300 million to the domestic fusion energy program and about $180 million to ITER. According to Hartwig, “$300 million is a widely agreed upon ‘minimum funding’ level required to maintain a robust, successful domestic program.”

Does the U.S. need three tokamaks?

The heads of DIII-D, Alcator C-Mod, and NSTX told Nature for the journal’s July article that all three sites contribute uniquely to science and preliminary research for ITER. They have also argued that a strong domestic fusion energy presence will be necessary to benefit from ITER results.

“We must be training the next generation of fusion scientists and engineers, which requires domestic facilities to train them on, as well as maintaining our scientific lead as one of the great fusion powerhouses of the world, which requires our unique domestic facilities to perform the research, if we hope to be ‘building’ fusion power plants in the future rather than ‘buying’ them from China or Europe. Sacrificing the domestic program for ITER makes no sense,” says Hartwig.

The ITER budget has nearly quintupled since the U.S. became an ITER partner, said Hartwig, and at the time the DOE and “the U.S. fusion community” agreed that funds would not be siphoned from domestic programs to support ITER.

Alcator C-Mod is the single largest experiment at MIT, according to http://fusionfuture.org, which was started by graduate students to campaign against funding cuts. According to Hartwig, it’s the largest in terms of both of funding and number of people employed. Alcator C-Mod supports about 120 people directly, including scientists, professors, students, and technical staff. The grant money also supports the equivalent of about 100 MIT staff and another 80 full-time jobs from subcontracting.

Supporters of the domestic fusion program foresee serious consequences if Congress decides to wind down Alcator C-Mod in FY 2013. Hartwig worries that MIT’s plasma physics group will disappear. Hartwig also echoes fusionfuture.org’s warning that “without an increase in funding, the domestic fusion program will be effectively eliminated to pay for ITER.”