No one likes to hear that their work is a waste of time and money. But the job of government is not to assuage the egos of research scientists — the public welfare, writ large, comes first. In a guest column last week, Derek Sutherland ’12 bemoaned a proposed cut to state funding of the Alcator C-Mod reactor at MIT. I’m sorry Derek, but it needed to be said: your research was not worthy of the public’s money, and to be frank, was also not worth your time and attention as a researcher.
The reason why is simple: there is no future in magnetically confined fusion power. It will never be economical. We know how large the various layers of a commercial fusion reactor would have to be, and we can estimate the construction materials one would need to create such a reactor. Even if the very sizable technical hurdles were surmounted — magnetics, plasma physics, materials, and tritium availability to name a few — the capital cost of fusion’s heat island (the reactor sans turbines and other accouterments), would still be two to three times greater than that of a conventional fission reactor, on a per-MW basis. There is no pot of gold at the end of the long, long fusion research tunnel, and accordingly, little rational motivation to expend the time of Sutherland and his colleagues (and the money of the public) on such a fruitless venture.
One could argue that the other features of fusion power — its lack of a waste product, its sustainability, its steady energy generation rate, its relative safety — are compelling enough features to warrant a roll of the dice. I suppose that if one thought the safety issues of nuclear waste could never be resolved, or that the peakiness of wind power might never find an answer, such arguments could be justified. These assumptions, however, are overly pessimistic — if Derek were to ask his colleagues in Course 22 whether the kinks in fission power (safety, waste, uranium availability) could ever be solved, I think he would hear a chorus of resounding “Yes.” Nuclear reactors are already quite safe, and next generation plants are even safer. The waste is more a political issue than a technological one. And uranium is exceedingly abundant — if supplies seem short, that’s only because the price has not gone high enough to motivate fresh exploration. Certainly, the prospects of mending our existing technologies seem much brighter than the “just give us another 30 years” hope of fusion power.
Research like Derek’s is regularly billed as an investment in our future, but the more apt analogy is buying a Powerball ticket. This is not a sound roll of the dice, this is a move born out of frustration, desperation, and self-deception. It stems from a lack of political will to tackle the policy problems of today’s technology. Instead of bringing disparate stakeholders together to settle energy policy issues, we’d much rather cross our fingers and hope for a technological savior to deliver us from the need for political courage.
The basic premise of economics is scarcity. If you want to spend resources on fusion, then you must necessarily take them from somewhere else. We always like to imagine that the resources will be taken from areas we do not like (personally, I would not mind funding fusion if the money somehow came from, say, reality TV). But that is not how such transfers occur — it’s more useful to imagine the resources being diverted in proportion to current levels of spending. A dollar in fusion comes out of, to varying degrees, education, health care, and, most importantly, other research.
Tossing a few billion dollars a year towards fusion does not sound like a lot in these wild days of government check-writing until you remember that MIT as an Institute “only” spends about $2.5 billion a year in its entire operating budget. With the amount the American government spends on fusion research every year, we could finance an entire MIT’s worth of research.
The Obama administration’s attempt to do away with Derek’s pet project is an exercise in political courage, and should be recognized as such. If the government is going to be productively involved in research and development, it needs to set priorities and draw lines. Fusion, unfortunately, does not make the cut.