Details of PCAST Report on U.S. Fusion Energy Program

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Publication date: 
24 July 1995
Number: 
105

"We do assert...that the absolute importance of having economically
affordable, environmentally tolerable, and politically acceptable
energy sources adequate to meet society's energy needs in the
middle of the next century is high enough to warrant substantial
R&D investments to increase the likelihood of this outcome."
    --Report of the Fusion Review Panel

The FY 1996 Energy and Water Development bill, H.R. 1905, is
scheduled to be marked up by the Senate Energy and Water
Development Appropriations Subcommittee tomorrow, and by the full
Senate Appropriations Committee shortly thereafter.  The House
version of the bill, which was passed in the House floor on July
12, contains $229.1 million for DOE's fusion energy R&D program.
This is significantly less than recommended in the
recently-released report by the Fusion Review Panel of the
President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (see
FYI #98.)  Portions of the 67-page report, entitled, "The U.S.
Program of Fusion Energy Research and Development," are highlighted
below.

Recognizing that deficit-reduction efforts will drastically change
the funding picture for the U.S. fusion energy program, the review
panel weighed the benefits of pursuing fusion research, evaluated
the goals and feasibility of the program, and considered funding
levels.  The report states that, given the projected growth in
energy demand by the mid twenty-first century, "there is great
merit in the pursuit of diversity in energy options."

The review panel finds the U.S. program's goal-- "operation of a
demonstration reactor by about 2025 and operation of commercial
fusion power plants by about 2040"-- desirable, and reasonable if
the necessary funds are available.  It cites the remarkable
progress in fusion research (a 100-millionfold increase in fusion
power produced over the last 20 years), and states that "only a
rather modest further extension of this progress is now required to
reach the performance range needed for ignition."

The current DOE fusion plan calls for $366 million in FY 1996,
rising to $860 million by FY 2002 before dropping off again.
However, the report warns of a "strong probability that fusion R&D
budgets of this magnitude will not actually be forthcoming."  Even
at the Administration's planned levels, the U.S. spends less on
fusion energy than the European Community and Japan, and puts less
effort into pursuing alternatives to the tokamak concept.  The
panel argues that the paucity of U.S. support is "occasioned in
part by the belief that much of [the research] could be done more
efficiently by state and local governments or by the private
sector."  However, it cautions that this view is "not realistic"
because "the investments are too large, and the possibility of
economic returns is too distant."  It claims that "the
characteristics of fusion energy R&D...constitute a classic case
for bearing the funding burden at the level of the Federal
government and, indeed, at the level of a consortium of
governments."

Examining the elements of the U.S. program, the review panel finds
them well-coordinated and complimentary, but concludes that "the
necessary ingredients,...although all are present, are not all
adequate, and redundancy is weak."  It stresses that the core
program in plasma science and fusion technology could be
strengthened, with more emphasis on alternative fusion concepts.
The report praises the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR) as
"highly successful" and calls the proposed Tokamak Physics
Experiment "highly desirable," but warns that, if budgets of the
U.S. (or any other partner) are not adequate, the International
Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) might have to be
restructured.

The panel then addresses the question of how to continue progress
in fusion research at lower budget levels.  It proposes a strategy
that would preserve the most indispensable elements at $320 million
per year-- "the best that can be done within budgets likely to be
sustainable in the current climate, and the least that can
responsibly be done to maintain a modicum of momentum toward the
goal of practical fusion energy."  In these circumstances, the
panel recommends the following key priorities: a strong domestic
core program, including alternative concepts; collaboration on an
international experiment at about one-third the cost of ITER; and
additional international efforts to develop low-activation
materials.  It suggests a significant delay in construction of TPX,
with its eventual construction conditional upon certain factors.
The panel attempts to envision a fusion program at $200 million per
year, but concludes that "this cannot be done."

The report closes by urging stable funding for a fusion program at
"not less than $320 million per year."  For a copy of the report,
contact Chet Gray, DOE Public Inquiries, at 202-586-4670.