The United States is making such progress in harnessing the power of the hydrogen bomb that it should build a $1 billion test facility in the next 10 years to lay the foundation for commercial fusion power plants.
At the same time, the United States should double spending on fusion research to $1 billion a year in the next five years so the pace of development can be matched with the engineering test facility to have the first commercial fusion plant operating by the turn of the century.
These were the two major recommendations to the Department of Energy by the Energy Research Advisory Board's Fusion Review Panel, which gave fusion power its heartiest nongovernment endorsement.
"This next step in the fusion program is sound and timely," the panel said in a report that took almost six months to prepare and was released yesterday. "The U.S. should determine as soon as is feasible whether fusion reactors can complete with alternate energy sources from economic, environmental and safety standpoints."
Fusion power involves the combining of light gases in such a way that they release temperatures that match the heat of the sun. The commercial development of fusion, sought for the last 30 years, would bring a swift end to at least that part of theenergy crisis that involves burning oil, coal or uranium to generate electricity.
The main fuels for fusion would be deuterium and tritium, isotopes of hydrogen that can be extracted in abundance from seawater.
The review panel said it expects the feasibility of fusion to be demonstrated in 1983 by the Tokomak fusion test reactor being built at Princeton University for $284 million.
Demonstrating fusion means creating a temperature inside the fusion test reactor of 100 million degrees and sustaining it for at least one second. A device known as the Princeton Large Torus has reached temperatures of 60 million to 80 million degrees for one-twentieth of a second.
"The last five years have been marked by notable achievements, making the U.S. the unquestioned leader in fusion research," the report said."There is a momentum in the program which should continue until the mid-1980s."
The review panel's recommendations are likely to have a deep impact on the White House, the Department of Energy and the Congress, in part because the panel consists of some of the nation's most renowned scientists.
The 10-member panel includes Marvin Goldberger, president of the California Institute of Technology; Wolfgang Panofsky, director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, and John S. Foster Jr., former head of research for the Pentagon and now vice president for science for TRW Inc. The panel is chaired by Sol Buchsbaum, executive vice president of Bell Laboratories.
Once scientists demonstrate that fusion is possible, they must move to the next step -- demonstrating that it can produce usable energy. That involves creating temperatures of 100 million degrees and sustaining them for days and even weeks.
This would be done by the $1 billion Fusion Engineering Device recommended by the panel, which said it is feasible to produce a burning plasma that would sustain a 100-million-degree temperature virtually indefinitely.
The major obstacles to this are finding wall materials that can withstand the terrific heat created if any of the burning plasma leaks from its confinement. In a fusion device, the 100-million-degree gas is contained by an enormous magnetic field that keeps the hot gas from contact with walls of the device.
The magnetic field would have to be generated by so strong in a fusion engineering device that it would be too much for conventional copper coiled magnets.
The magnetic field would have to be generated by a network of superconducting magnets whose size and expense would be enormous.
Finally, a fusion engineering device would be a test of whether constant neutron bombardment would contaminate the walls of a reactor to where the reactor might have to be shut down and the walls dismantled every few years.
"This facility would demonstrate whether a fusion reactor could answer questions of public safety," Dr. Edward A. Frieman, director of energy research for the Energy Department, said. "It would tell us how a plant operator would deal with a fusion device when the time comes for fusion to go commercial."