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article imageExperts: U.S. should boost fusion research by $200 million a year

By Karen Graham     Dec 14, 2018 in Technology
In a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, experts are urging that the DOE start a national program to build a compact pilot plant to produce electricity from fusion at the lowest possible cost.
The report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, issued on December 13 centers around the fears the United States will withdraw its participation in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project near Cadarache in France.
The ITER project was launched well over a decade ago and is a multinational partnership between the European Union, the United States, China, Russia, Japan, India, and South Korea to build a prototype fusion reactor to generate electricity in a process similar to the nuclear fusion that powers the sun.
On December 7, 2017, Director-General Bernard Bigot wrote a top-level communication to officials in the governments of the participating nations, saying the 50 percent completion milestone for the ITER project had been reached, "The passing of this milestone reflects the collective contribution and commitment of ITER's seven Members," he wrote.
With 95 percent of design work  53 percent of manufacturing and construction  and 17 percent of ship...
With 95 percent of design work, 53 percent of manufacturing and construction, and 17 percent of shipping and deliveries completed for work scope related to initial operation, the project has passed an important milestone.
However, the Trump administration wanted to kill funding for the ITER project, along with funding for other technology projects at the international level. Of particular concern, regarding the ITER project was the supply of components supplied by American companies for the project.
More than 600 U.S. companies, laboratories, and universities are participating in the ITER project. Much of the 9 percent of the budget the U.S. funds go to suppliers in the member states—in the case of the U.S. that includes General Atomics, which is building the central solenoid, an 18-meter (59-foot) electromagnet that's powerful enough to lift an aircraft carrier.
The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), is a U.S. government agency tasked with promoting and funding research and development of advanced energy technologies. It is modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. With funding pulled from ARPA E, the ITER project would have been dead in the water.
The ITER magnets will be the largest magnet system ever built.
The ITER magnets will be the largest magnet system ever built.
ITER Project
The Omnibus Appropriations bill of March 2018
The one thing that saved the U.S. role in the ITER project was the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill that President Donald Trump signed into law on March 23, 2018. This bill included preserving many of the scientific projects he had wanted to kill.
As a matter of fact, Congress agreed to double U.S. funding for its portion of the contribution to the multinational nuclear fusion project from a scheduled $63 million to $122 million.
Why the U.S. needs to get more involved in nuclear fusion
It may be that U.S. funding for the ITER project is safe for the moment, at least. But the co-chairs of the 19-member report committee, including Michael Mauel, a fusion physicist at Columbia University, and Melvyn Shochet, a particle physicist at the University of Chicago in Illinois say the message they are putting out reflects the bigger consensus of the research community.
The Tokamak and its plant systems housed in their concrete home. An estimated one million parts will...
The Tokamak and its plant systems housed in their concrete home. An estimated one million parts will be assembled in the machine alone. Image - April 16, 2016.
“We are seeing tremendous progress being made in the path to achieving fusion energy around the world,” said Mauel. “Now is the right time for the U.S. to benefit from the investments in burning plasma research and take leadership in fusion energy.”
Mauel went on to say, “We listened very carefully to the community, especially some of the younger scientists who are very active in the field, and what we heard from the scientists is a desire to get on with fusion energy. We’re not just studying this thing, we’re trying to see if it really does work.”
Withdrawing from ITER could isolate scientists from the international effort and the committee has recommended adopting a national strategic plan for fusion energy. ITER plays a central role in our burning plasma research activities and is the only existing project that is expected to create and study a burning plasma.
This is the next critical step in the development of fusion energy, says the report. And as usual, the United States has allowed itself to slip behind other international efforts to develop the first sustained nuclear fusion reaction in the world, the answer, scientists hope will create a clean energy source.
More about ITER, Budget cuts, fusion research, national program, Young scientists
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