In the last few weeks, I’ve written two columns on nuclear fusion. This is my third … and I intend to offer several more. Though I declared at the outset I’m not a scientist of any kind, I am an intelligent, thinking, open-minded person who can see that the human race is in deep trouble, and we’d better all be concerned about the best source of energy for our future – if we intend to have one.
Let’s really start at the beginning – meaning “In the beginning, God …” Highly respected physicists are telling me they believe this earth was created (regardless of when) utilizing a process we know as nuclear fusion.
It seems scientifically reasonable that a Creator wouldn’t use a process that split atoms – which is actually against nature – but rather one that would combine, or fuse, His building blocks, the atoms. The sun itself is a monumental nuclear reactor, radiating light and enabling all forms of life on our planet. And the scientists I’ve been studying with are totally convinced we can access the unimaginable power of the atoms in matter … through fusion.
I’m fortunate to have been included in ongoing, very informed and constructive discussions between some of this nation’s leading fusion research scientists on what they, and now I, believe is “nature’s choice for energy.” Although many nations, including the U.S., have endorsed and developed nuclear fission as the hoped-for endless source of affordable and abundant energy for this world’s needs, we’ve all become painfully aware of its negative and very dangerous side effects. In addition to the ever-present threat of nuclear war, the waste products that can remain radioactive for generations and the recent meltdowns of nuclear reactors with still undetermined consequences, there is the widespread visceral sense that anything this powerful and potentially destructive is almost too dangerous to embrace, long term.
Isn’t there, can’t there be, a better alternative? Yes – nuclear fusion.
None of my scientist friends are anti-fission. In fact, I quoted some earlier, saying that fission is clearly the bridge to get us to fusion. But there are practical reasons to move away from fission as soon as possible. As we’re using up all fossil fuels at an alarming rate, we’re also amassing nuclear waste, with its destructive contamination. Not good.
A little history now. In June 1970, Noble Prize laureate Dr. Glen Seaborg, then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, wrote an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist projecting that the first fusion power plant would be on line in June 1995. That was 10 years before President Carter signed into law the Magnetic Fusion Energy Engineering Act (October 1980) that articulated that goal and mandated the funding to achieve it. We were on our way!
In the mid ’70s. leading scientists advocated development of fusion as soon as possible. In 1976, the Energy Research and Development Administration, or ERDA, the predecessor of today’s Department of Energy, published a chart with fusion funding levels and corresponding time lines for completion. Again, America’s independence from oil and its creation of an inexhaustible, affordable energy source for all the world was just a matter of time and adequate funding.
The most aggressive “level V” proposed a budget of $600 million per year, leading to a working demonstration reactor by 1990. How different would our world be today if that level had been approved and enacted?
“Level I” called for $150 million a year (1976 dollars) – and was called by active scientists “fusion never,” because it would not adequately fund the research needed to overcome all challenges. Its presidential champion at the time, Jimmy Carter, was not re-elected, and the U.S. fusion program has been at that “fusion never” level, or lower, for the past 30 years.
That lack of progress in U.S. fusion has left us behind China, Japan, South Korea and the EU. At one time, we were the world leader. In 1974, the magnetic fusion energy R&D budget was $43.4 million; by ’77, that increased to $316.3 million. In July 1978, Princeton Plasma Physics Labs reported their Large Torus Tokamak (test fusion reactor) produced temperatures of 60 million degrees, exceeding the fusion ignition temperature of 44 million degrees required for a sustained fusion reaction.
Friend, we were at the door of a new, nuclear fusion age!
In an interview with Walter Cronkite on “CBS Evening News,” Dr. Stephen Dean, director of the Magnetic Confinement Systems Division of the U.S. Department of Energy, stated: “The question of whether fusion is feasible from a scientific standpoint has now been answered.”
The reaction was electric. The Princeton fusion breakthrough became front-page news in papers all over the world.
The redoubtable Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said, “This breakthrough compels us to redirect our energy and focus and funnel further funds and attention to this highly promising and vitally important fusion research. The solution to the world’s energy needs is now before us.”
But not everyone was excited by the breakthrough. Some people were alarmed that the announcement would lead policymakers to think that fusion would solve our energy problems too soon and derail efforts to fund other nearer-term energy projects. Lobbyists and investors and other vested interests really had personal and perhaps political reasons to postpone fusion. In fact, the president of Princeton University, Dr. William Bowen, was called by the secretary of energy and asked to tone down the announcement.
But Dr. Bowen refused, and the announcement stood. Rep. Mike McCormack, D-Wash., elected after a 20-year scientific career, took his Magnetic Fusion Energy Act through Congress in record time with record votes. We were on the very brink!
However, one week before introducing the bill, he spoke at a conference in Washington, D.C., on nuclear safety. Energy Undersecretary John Deutch played down the Princeton results and stated that nuclear power must be the energy source of “last resort.” He stated that the Department of Energy would like to minimize nuclear energy … and maximize the use of coal and oil!
Rep. McCormack countered by saying nuclear fission and coal would be the bridge to get to fusion by the year 2000. His Act would authorize the construction of a fusion test reactor facility by 1987 and an actual, working demonstration reactor by 2000. It would cost perhaps $20 billion, over 20 years.
Not insignificant money, but less than we spent on going to the moon and back. The story gets exciting – and troubling – in my next column.