The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment has released an 87-page
report raising a number of sobering questions about the fusion
energy program. Entitled, "The Fusion Energy Program: The Role of
TPX and Alternate Concepts," the report spotlights the major
expenditures that will be required to develop a prototype
commercial powerplant. This report comes at a critical time, as
Congress is making difficult decisions about how to cut federal
This "background paper" was requested by the House Science
Committee last year, and was released at a subcommittee hearing on
February 15 (see FYI #33.) Two critical issues were examined. The
first was "the role of the proposed Tokamak Physics Experiment
(TPX)" a $700 million reactor to be constructed, if Congress
approves funding, at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. The
second issue was "the role of alternatives to the tokamak concept
in a broad-based fusion energy program."
DOE requested $366.0 million for the FY 1996 program, with
additional money for inertial confinement fusion in the defense
portion of the department's budget. OTA concludes "current plans
for pursuing the tokamak imply a doubling or more" of this amount.
ITER construction is estimated to cost up to $10 billion, with the
U.S. paying a 25% share. A DEMOnstartion plant would follow.
The report's conclusions about the proposed TPX vary. OTA states
"TPX is intended to provide scientific and technical advances that
are clearly necessary to the ultimate realization of a tokamak
powerplant." It also states, "TPX is not scheduled to provide any
unique scientific and technological advances essential to ITER."
"TPX's primary expected contribution to ITER would be the ability
to perform experiments on a device that is smaller, more flexible,
and less costly to operate," the report explains, adding, "The
value of TPX to the magnetic fusion energy program could increase
if ITER is delayed."
Regarding alternate concepts, the report reaches several important
conclusions. Among them: "Over the past several years, the fusion
energy program was substantially narrowed to focus on the tokamak
primarily for budgetary rather than technical reasons." The report
continues, "there is a widely held view that the narrowing of the
fusion energy program was premature and did not reflect the
benefits of pursuing alternate concepts." DOE estimates that a
"healthy, but constrained" alternate concepts program would cost
$100 million annually, although OTA estimates that "a far more
modest program" could yield "a substantial amount of information."
"In summary, while alternate concepts provide no panacea for fusion
energy development, there is merit in examining them as part of a
broad fusion program," the authors state.
This report provides a useful review of the fusion energy research
program, the proposed TPX, and alternate concepts. It may be
obtained as follows:
By accessing the Office of Technology Assessment online via:
FTP: otabbs.ota.gov. Login as anonymous, your email address is
your password. Publications are in the /pub directory.
Telnet: otabbs.ota.gov. Login as public. The password is public.
To obtain a hard copy of the report, call the US Government
Printing Office at 202-512-1800. The report number is S/N
052-003-01403-3. The cost is $6.50.