Left incomplete in 2008 after running over its $75 million budget, the stellerator was supposed to be the next step in the United States’ long-running effort to develop a clean, nearly inexhaustible source of energy: nuclear fusion.
The cousin to nuclear fission — the force behind today’s nuclear power plants — fusion produces energy by smashing atoms together instead of splitting them apart. It’s the force that drives the sun and the stars, which spit out heat and light when hydrogen atoms collide and fuse. Fusion power — if it can ever be made to work — holds all the cards over fission. There’s no risk of Fukushima-style meltdowns. It produces just a smidge of radioactive waste, not tons of it. And it’s fueled by a form of hydrogen that is easily obtained from seawater rather than by uranium, which is expensive to process for fission.
After World War II, nuclear scientists exploited fusion reactions by creating hydrogen bombs, which make far bigger explosions than fission bombs.
Then in 1951, a Princeton University physicist, Lyman Spitzer Jr., conceived of a machine to harness this stunning power for peaceful purposes. He called it a stellerator, and he dreamed that each machine could provide electricity to tens of thousands of homes.
Six decades later, scientists at the lab Spitzer founded are worried that, as China, South Korea, Japan and Europe ramp up their investment in fusion research, the United States is backing away from his dream.
President Obama’s budget request for next year cuts domestic fusion research by 16 percent, to $248 million. It would shutter a fusion lab at MIT, one of four funded by the Department of Energy. It would slash 50 to 100 jobs from the 450 at the Princeton lab. And it would use the $48 million in total savings to boost the U.S. contribution to an international fusion mega-project now under construction in the south of France, called ITER, a project whose estimated costs have grown to $23 billion and whose start date has been pushed back to the next decade.
In a time of flat federal spending, the president has made a choice to fund the international project — whose costs to the United States will grow in coming years, according to Energy Department projections, to as much as $300 million a year — at the expense of the domestic program. (The United States pledged funding to ITER in 2003, joining the European Union, Russia, China, India, South Korea and Japan.)
This would be “devastating” to the community of several hundred U.S. scientists working on fusion energy, said Stewart Prager, the physicist who heads the Princeton lab. “We need clean, limitless power without greenhouse gases,” he said. “Year by year by year, the need for fusion just grows and grows and grows.”