- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Even inside the Beltway there are standards for burning billions. Notwithstanding the awful appropriations bills that will soon be inflicted on taxpayers, legislators do not always do the hokey-porky dance (“you put your right hand in/you pull your right hand out/you open the taxpayer’s wallet/and you shake it all out”) after pitching vast sums into the furnace.

They might be tempted to after allocating funds for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), given that its temperatures are likely to exceed 180 million degrees Fahrenheit and its cost is likely to exceed $5 billion. The Bush administration announced its intention to rejoin the fusion power project earlier this year, and Congress is expected to fund that decision through the energy bill currently in conference.

The consumed funds could allow scientists to replicate the power plants deep within stars. There, in a super-hot sea of gases (called plasma), two atoms of hydrogen are so compressed by gravity that they fuse together to form a slightly heavier one, which weighs a bit less than the original particles. That tiny mass loss is responsible for the huge amount of energy released. While the initial reactants can vary, and there might be several steps to the actual reaction, the bottom-line bang (hydrogen bombs use the same process) is dictated by Albert Einstein’s famous equation E = mc2.

Closer to Earth, it’s a bit more difficult to achieve those compressed conditions in controlled fashion (although a few researchers have done inadvertent experiments in that regard using extremely tightly packed pocket protectors). Two basic methods are used to do so. Doughnut-shaped tokamak reactors use magnetic fields to confine (and perhaps one day even control) the plasma. In the other method, concentrated bursts of energy from either lasers or X-rays set off fusion reactions in tiny capsules of hydrogen.

However, for fusion to be an effective power source, reactions must be both contained and self-sustaining. Neither is possible now. The X-ray-driven fusion reactions set off at Sandia National Laboratories last April would have provided enough energy to power a 40-watt light bulb — for one ten-thousandth of a second. Tokamak reactors haven’t done much better.

The key is to set up a controlled burning plasma, in which the particles from one reaction are sufficient to set off another, and another. That’s the consensus view of plasma physicists according to the recently published National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, “Burning plasma: Bringing a star to Earth.” To best achieve a burning plasma, the NAS report recommended the United States rejoin the ITER.

Yet, the ITER isn’t expected to be completed until 2014, and it could cost far more than current estimates. A commercially viable fusion power plant is almost certainly several decades, and many more billions of dollars beyond that. (Contrary to expectation, “tokamak” is not derived from the Native American word for tomahawk — i.e. “to whack the budget.”) Moreover, the Clinton administration left the ITER project in 1998 due to concerns over its costs and complex design.

Even though the ITER project seems to be in better shape, fusion plants might never be viable, given the enormous difficulties to be overcome. Fusion power might never be practical, no matter how many billions are burned on it.

Yet the starry wish is premised on undeniable promise. Should a way be found to make fusion reactors safe, reliable and commercially viable, the nation’s chronic energy problems would largely be solved. The fuel for fusion reactors is both readily available and nonradioactive, so there would be no long-term storage problems with waste. Nor would there be fears of radioactive releases or core meltdowns, since a loss of containment would most likely cut off the reaction.

So on the balance, ITER spending seems a reasonable bet. It’s a long shot, but the odds are better than Powerball, and the expected payout is better too. Besides, it is unlikely U.S. taxpayers will be stuck with the entire bill for building the ITER since Russia, Canada, Japan, China and several other countries have already signed onto the project.

Congress has allocated “only” $55 million for ITER construction to begin in 2006 although spending will rise in subsequent years. Besides, Congress is already gambling on fusion energy. A draft of the energy bill currently in conference calls for significant spending on fusion research — $335 million in fiscal year (FY) 2004; $349 million in FY ‘05 and $362 million in FY ‘06.

Should scientists succeed in burning plasma instead of taxpayer’s money, it will truly be a wish come true — and it would give everyone something to dance about.

Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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