Erosion of Fusion Alternatives Funding

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Posted by Rezwan Razani on Nov 02, 2011 at 07:23 AM
What do you think about this? Let us know in the comments below!

Spending on fusion alternatives has been steadily eroding.

Fusion spending cuts

In 2010, 29 out of 40 university fusion programs were cut.  Per one university student:

No firm information on who was cut but it looks like non-tokamaks took a hit… FRCs at Washington (Princeton too?), a Z-pinch device at Washington, a rotating mirror experiment at Maryland, levitated dipole experiment at Columbia and MIT… all cut (done at the end of the month!)

The programs that did get funding are the following - Congratulations to 11 programs NOT cut:

Columbia (Navratil)... HBT tokamak
Wisconsin (Anderson)... HSX stellarator
UC Davis (Hwang)... CT injection into tokamak
Swarthmore (Brown)...
Wisconsin (Fonck)... Pegasus tokamak
Washington/Wisconsin/Utah State (Jarboe, Sovinec, Held) - PSI Center
Wisconsin (Hegna) - quasi-symmetric stellarators
Auburn (Knowlton)... Compact Auburn Torsatron (stellarator)
Texas (Gentle)... dc helicity injection in a big torus
Washington (Jarboe) - HIT SI
Caltech (Bellan)

In response to the cuts, the head of the University Fusion Association sent a letter to the director of Fusion Energy Sciences at DOE asking for a more orderly transition and close out (but not for a reversal).  Here’s a sad quote:

We recognize that due to budget constraints and changing programmatic priorities, difficult funding decisions must sometimes be made…

The cuts aren’t sweeping, but rather targeted.  The details are important.  The overall fusion budget went from $394M in ‘09 to $426M in ‘10 (due to a one time ITER bump, I’m told) and down to $380M for ‘11.  Spending categories blanket the specifics so it’s hard to tell what was cut or redistributed.  Per one university researcher:

ITER is growing so [OFES] has to continue to support that.  In fact, fusion funding is growing if you count ITER and NIF.  The “fringe” ideas aren’t being funded.  Again, you should remember that the private money that LPP gets or TriAlpha or General Fusion is *much* more than a typical university scale experiment.  These guys are the ones doing the non-tokamak work now.

Dark days for fusion.  Hopefully this is just the darkness before dawn.

Can Policy Change?

Against this depressing backdrop, there is a hopeful development.  Per this MIT interview:

During a visit on Wednesday to MIT, Arun Majumdar, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), discussed the global energy challenge and the role his agency plays in trying to foster transformational energy research and development.

ARPA-E didn’t fund fusion related projects in its first round, although it seemed tailor made for such funding.  Many alternative fusion approaches applied for ARPA-E and were decclined.  Here is a list of funded ARPA-E projects

This lack of fusion funding is likely related to ARPA-E’s small budget.  Majumdar was asked if he saw enough worthy projects on the horizon to justify 25 billion a year in energy research spending.  His response:

You bet. Absolutely. We are totally oversubscribed. The innovation ecosystem — the scientific and engineering community — is ready. They’re just asking how high they should be jumping.

Making the case for fusion alternatives

With respect to fusion alternatives, we would like to see a comprehensive menu of projects and funding needs and desires - a “True Fusion Preferences” menu. 

If you could get away from the shoe string and to adequate support, what, specifically, is required? 

It’s up to each segment of the fusion community to make the case for funding expansion and provide a vision of their own approach.  Then it’s up to the community to be supportive of these diverse segments and build a case for inclusive expansion of diverse approaches.  A bit more of the old “all for one and one for all”.

If public support for fusion gains traction, the fusion community needs to be ready to seize the opportunity.  Likewise, if the fusion community appears ready to seize opportunities, better opportunities will come to it.  Public support will appear once there is a clear and compelling message about alternatives. 

In a virtuous circle, clarity of pro-fusion feedback and supporting white papers will help funding initiatives gain traction.

Currently, the fusion community is not on this message.  There is no sense of urgency, no case for diversification.  It’s no wonder the public and policy makers let fusion sit on the back burner.

Statements such as the following quote actually damage the case for fusion, because they make it seem as if fusion research needs are being adequately, addressed.  This is from an editorial in JOFE:

This year, ICC researchers have been redirected to address pressing concerns for mainline systems.  This change in direction is a natural one that follows on from two intensive planning activities - the first organized by FESAC for toroidal alternates, and the second organized by the Burning Plasma Organization.  Both planning activities were excellent and outline the future necessary steps for burning plasma science and for alternate concepts by showing how common scientific [sic] can be addressed.

“Redirected to address pressing concerns for mainline systems”  - what a sad euphemism.  “Natural”  “Excellent” - interesting choice of adjective.  This makes it seem that all is well in fusion funding strategy, and everyone is in consensus about that.  It would have been just as easy to phrase the above in such a way to make it clear that redirecting research to mainline systems is a compromise adopted under duress, due to limited resources and is far from ideal or adequate.  There’s a lot more work that can be done in the field of fusion. 

The author wants us to feel good about policy decisions, but this does not make a case for expansion of funding, nor does it indicate that projects and initiatives are being lost/under-funded. 

The tone of the UFA letter was much more appropriate, but sadly it wasn’t asking for a reversal, just a less painful close-out.

Bottom line, we have to make sure the fusion community is ready to leap into action, to make a compelling case for expansion of a comprehensive range of research projects and for greater funding, and to be poised to take advantage of any expansion in energy spending.  We have to be clear that what we’ve got now is limited.  Self-censorship has gone on long enough.

This is the “Shock Doctrine” approach.  We need to be prepared for a sea change.  There may be a day when what now seems impossible will then seem inevitable. 

 

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