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Paul Rivenberg

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, along with MIT Nuclear Science and Enginering professor Anne White and Massachusetts Congressman Jay Livingstone (not pictured), prepare to officially restart Alcator C-Mod, a fusion research project at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center. The program was set to shut down at the beginning of the year, but funding was recently reintroduced by Congress.

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In a large, press-filled event at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) Monday, scientists and legislators celebrated the restoration of funding to Alcator C-Mod. The ceremony began with the press of a giant red button, signifying the restart of nuclear fusion experiments at the facility.

Alcator C-Mod, MIT’s magnetically confined nuclear fusion device (a tokamak), was a winner in the most recent U.S. budget deal, receiving $22.2 million to continue nuclear fusion tests. The experiment remained in inactive maintenance mode during 2013 due to funding cuts from the Department of Energy as part of the sequestration. The restoration of funding is not without uncertainty, however, as the funding will only last until the end of September.

Present at the ceremony were legislators, including Senator Elizabeth A. Warren and U.S. Representative for Massachusetts’ fifth district Katherine M. Clark, as well as MIT administrators, including President L. Rafael Reif, Vice President for Research Maria T. Zuber, and Professor Miklos Porkolab, the Director of the PSFC. All were provided a tour of the facility and were allowed to converse with the faculty and graduate students who oversee the lab.

“It is great to be represented in Congress by people who understand the value and importance of basic science and the connection between basic science and innovation,” said President Reif, who applauded the efforts by Senator Warren and Rep. Clark to secure funding for the project as part of the nation’s most recent budget deal.

During interviews with the press contingent, both Warren and Clark expressed the necessity for continued basic research in the nuclear fusion field. “It’s not only the energy research we are doing here today but the investments in the students that are here and the science and the work they’re going on to do whether it’s in fusion or beyond”, commented Rep. Clark. Clark, a Massachusetts Democrat, won the special election in December 2013 to represent the 5th district of Massachusetts. Her victory came directly before the passing of the new budget deal.

Warren, also a Massachusetts Democrat and former Harvard Law Professor, started her term in the U.S. Senate in November, 2012. “What goes on here is something we all need to support. This is our future in science, but also our future in power,” stated Warren, affirming her continued support of C-Mod.

While both the legislators and the MIT administration conveyed similar attitudes toward the funding, the future remains uncertain for C-Mod. As it stands, the $22.2 million will only last through the end of September, and no budget has been set for the Department of Energy, the primary source of funds for C-Mod, by Congress for fiscal year 2015. The legislators, administrators, and scientists at the event agreed this will be a continuous problem.

“In the long term, we have to have assured long-range funding. It is not enough to fight year to year. Grad students need to be able to come here and work and know that they can start projects and that the lab will still be open a year from now, three years, and five years from now” claimed Warren. Professor Zuber agreed with Warren and mentioned a “plan to recommend C-Mod to continue for years to come,” seeing the recent budget deal as a vote of confidence from Washington to further plasma research in Cambridge.

The lack of continuous support most directly affected graduate students and their effort to finish up research at MIT. “It was a big worry because many of us were planning at that point to do our experiments,” said Theodore Golfinopoulos G, a graduate student in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department conducting research with C-Mod. He continued, “It really makes you think hard about your career decisions if the rug can get pulled out from under you like that. For now, nobody can predict what is going to happen in the future.”

Alcator C-Mod’s funding cuts are part of the larger context of the U.S.’s future energy policy. The cuts at the beginning of fiscal year 2013, allowed Congress to redirect funding to an international effort, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a large tokamak project under construction in France. But, according to an article in The New Yorker, “members of Congress were invited to view the inert machine [ITER], and they returned to the Hill expressing outrage.” Only after the Department of Energy submitted a revised proposal did Feinstein agree to continue funding support.

Professors and graduate students linked C-Mod’s cash-strapped situation to the future of science in the U.S. “The U.S. should not play a backseat as other nations, particularly China, Japan, South Korea in the East and the European Union in the West, move forward [with plasma research]” commented Golfinopoulos, “The U.S. has to decide whether it wants to be a leader in this and other areas of science.”

“The cuts made me turn away so many qualified students… now we need a long-term solution to best identify the policy for U.S. fusion going forward. The U.S. needs to figure out what role we play in the international community for fusion research,” commented Anne E. White, Assistant Professor in the Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) program.

When asked how they would convince D.C. lawmakers to continue C-Mod funding, both Professor White and Professor Dennis G. Whyte, also in the NSE department, emphasized the uniqueness of the Alcator C-Mod facility. Whyte argued that C-Mod “gains its strength being in a niche as a smaller academic lab. We are nimble and have a good solid group of students, which provide for innovative new research. This keeps us fresh.”

The Alcator C-Mod tokamak is one of three in the United States, the others located at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory affiliated with Princeton University, and General Atomics, a private industry endeavor. C-Mod is the only facility with such an involved academic program, as the lab is able to support up to 25 full-time graduate students.

Despite this unique position, only time will tell if the U.S. will back continued small-scale academic research in favor of larger projects. As a last plug for C-Mod to lawmakers and the public, Golfinopoulos stated, “Plasma is the ideal source of baseload energy. We can’t afford not to pursue this avenue. There aren’t that many other options, and we can’t stay with coal forever.”