Letter to the Editor

The future of fusion energy

George F. Will is right: Investment in fusion will pay rich dividends as an abundant, environmentally attractive energy source [“Firing up a miniature sun,” op-ed, Dec. 22].

Before I came to Congress, I spent nearly a decade as a physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, working on the effort to make the promise of fusion energy a reality. How we use and produce energy is the greatest insult to our planet, but with strong, sustained investments in alternative energy sources such as fusion, we as a society could have a nearly limitless source of energy.

Mr. Will mentioned that the race-to-the-moon space program had a military immediacy and a fire-in-the-sky glamour that kept the public’s and the government funders’ attention, but achieving practical fusion energy would be even more significant in terms of science, engineering and relevance to our quality of life. If we want to be true to the United States’ historical greatness, we must return the word “investment” to our political vocabulary, and we must commit to long-term investments in important programs such as fusion, as the United States used to do.

Rush Holt, Washington

The writer, a Democrat, represents New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District in the House.

George F. Will promoted shifting federal spending from short-term programs such as high-speed trains to long-term programs such as nuclear fusion, and he suggested at one point that bringing about “a working fusion reactor in 20 years would cost $30 billion.” While more public investment in promising long-term research that is unlikely to attract private capital is desirable, there is a familiar feel to such predictions about the future of fusion.

When I left the National Science Foundation to join the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) in 1975, ERDA said a working fusion reactor was possible in 20 years. When I moved in 1977 to the Energy Department , we predicted that we might have a working fusion reactor in 20 years. When I left the Energy Department in 1983 to join the Federal Emergency Management Agency, practical fusion energy was still thought to be possible in 20 years. When I retired from federal service in 1996, knowledgeable scientists in federal laboratories working on fusion considered that we might have practical fusion energy in 20 years. 

So, 38 years later, it’s still 20 years in the future.

Jim Kellett, Harrisonburg

George F. Will finally got it right: Controlled fusion is the most difficult technical challenge facing mankind and will be a game-changer if achieved — and government support is needed for the long-term investments required. Now, if only Mr. Will would share that message more broadly with like-minded conservatives in Congress who resist investing in the United States’ long-term needs.

Allan R. Hoffman, Reston

George F. Will’s enthusiasm for controlled nuclear fusion power is certainly justified, but it will not solve all of humanity’s problems with the scarcity of resources. Many of the rare and exotic metals for which science has found astounding uses may soon be exhausted. And then there is the overriding principle that exponential economic and population growth is not sustainable indefinitely. Compromises and trade-offs cannot be avoided, no matter what great technologies are developed.

Foster Morrison, North Potomac

 
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