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The Future of Fusion Funding


Photograph Courtesy of EFDA-JET

Fusion, the promise of clean, renewable energy has been so powerful that scientists have been chasing the dream for roughly 50 years now. Since the birth of atomic energy and the realization of the immense power hidden hidden in the atom, commercial fusion energy has always been 20 years away.

In one of the most ambitious fusion projects global leaders came together to construct the world’s largest fusion plant– ITER [International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor], in the hopes that scaling the technology to a larger size will be key in producing a fusion reaction that creates more energy than it takes to sustain the reaction.

ITER is located in Cadarache, France; the project was started in 1998 and the reactor was originally slated to be turned on in 2016, but the effort has been hit with delays, unexpected and rising costs along with management troubles. In 2003 the United States decided to join the effort and pledged roughly 9% of the cost, at whatever price was necessary.

Officials with U.S. ITER had not releases an updated cost estimate for years, that is until Ned Sauthoff, the project manager for U.S. ITER at Oak Ridge National Laboratory did so just this week. While speaking to a meeting of the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee he reported that the total cost of the U.S. contribution would be $3.9 billion by the time the project is done in 2034. The worst news is that the updated schedule assumes ITER won’t start running until 2024 or 2025. [For comparison, an April 2011 funding estimate pegged the cost of U.S. ITER at $2.5 billion.]

In a separate hearing on the proposed 2015 budget for DOE,  the chair of Energy and Water Subcommittee of the Senate Committee for Appropriations, Senator Dianne Feinstein said “I’m really beginning to believe that our involvement in ITER is not practical, that we will not gain what we hope to gain from it, and instead this money could be much better be spent elsewhere.”

Thankfully [in my opinion] the Obama administration views the US commitment to ITER as on par with a treaty agreement and that we should walk away from that kind of commitment. Unfortunately, not all of the administration is on the same page and that could spell doom for the future of the US involvement in ITER.

ITER is one of the first actual attempts at producing a commercial fusion reactor, never has one this large been built and thanks to scaling principles the reactor could very well be proof of concept for the technology. Fusion gets a bad rap because of the technical problems that face it, but the reality is that the money needed to be invested in such a technology has never really been there. This project could shape the fusion playing field and could be a huge blow if funding is ever pulled.

Maybe fusion will always be 20 years away, but we won’t know if we don’t try.


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