The mythological Holy Grail, it was believed, was the chalice from which Jesus and his 12 disciples drank the Passover wine, in the upper room, on the night he was betrayed. According to some versions of the tale, Joseph of Arimathea, in whose new tomb Jesus was interred, caught some of the blood still seeping from Jesus’ horrible wounds … in that same chalice.
As the legend continues, that chalice, which came to be known as the Holy Grail, was lost for centuries and then pursued by Sir Lancelot of King Arthur’s knights, certain that whoever held that sacred vessel would have special favor and endowment from God, empowered to do great and magnificent things for mankind.
Beautiful as that was, it was fable. Nuclear fusion is real. Modern science has established, through solid research and factual evidence, that properly developed nuclear fusion is the Holy Grail of energy and can empower this and all future generations.
I’m completely convinced of it, and that’s why I want to make all who will listen with open minds aware of how far we’ve come toward this magnificent empowerment, what has delayed it and how we can go on to achieve it.
In my previous column, I briefly traced the history of this quest here in America, through the phenomenal breakthrough accomplishments at Princeton and the McCormack MFEE bill, which raced through Congress in record time, actually envisioning a demonstration reactor by year 2000. But I also detailed resistance, for political and special-interest reasons, from the Department of Energy!
In 1980, Rep. McCormack wrote a report for President-elect Reagan, stating, “The hardest battles are yet to come. There must be continual authorizations and appropriations of funds. … it will take tremendous vigilance and determination on the part of our nation to carry through the 20 year development plan to make fusion a reality.”
But our new president was confronted with a huge federal deficit and was pressured by advisers to cut energy R&D. In December 1981, his science adviser, George Keyworth, publicly stated: “The U.S. cannot expect to be pre-eminent in all scientific fields, nor is it desirable.” And the official position of our government became “it is not the government’s responsibility to conduct energy R&D and pursue energy independence. It is the responsibility of private industry.”
In the fall of 1983, Dr. Stephen Dean warned Congress that “the U.S. is no longer the unquestionable world leader in fusion development. The USSR, Europe and Japan have comparable accomplishments, facilities and momentum. The dramatic rate of our fusion progress at this time,” he stressed, “is based on capital investment commitments made in the 1970s.”
But too few paid heed.
Now get this! Even with meager funding but with undimmed zeal, in July 1986 the Princeton TFTR reactor generated a record 200 million degree plasma temperature and produced a peak fusion power of 10.7 Mw (million watts of fusion power). In 1987, a record 500 million degrees was attained! Absolutely astounding! Heat and power beyond the imagination … but real!
What happened next? The program funding was cut by $50 million.
Attention was diverted to other things – in this country, but not abroad. Currently, world records of accomplishment are being routinely set in Japan. In Europe. In South Korea. China, of course, has been quick to see the opportunity and enter the picture, with almost unlimited resources. ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) has been thought by many to be the best, most logical solution. It started with the U.S. as a 25 percent partner – but lacking funding, the U.S. is now only a 9 percent stakeholder and has been seen as an unreliable partner because we’ve been “in and out” several times.
So the quest for the Holy Grail continues. The reactor is being built in France by Russia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and, oh yes, America. Europe is paying almost half the cost.
During the 1990s, our magnetic fusion budget collapsed to the $200 million-per-year level. Yes, that’s a pile of money … but we’ve been shoveling billions in foreign aid to many countries that, in some cases, are our outright enemies and vote against us in the U.N. consistently. Fusion funding today equals less than one-third of the 1977 level, in inflation-adjusted dollars.
There are conflicting opinions among scientists, as always, about the best approaches to take to achieve our goals, but American and Israeli scientists are capable of ironing out and resolving the differences – if our government “gets it” and commits the funds, not wasting billions on nonproductive and even counterproductive commitments. You may remember hearing about our famous Superconductor Collider Center in Texas, which was scrapped a few months after it was built at huge expense.
One Mirror Fusion Test Facility, developed at Lawrence Livermore National Labs in the 1980s, took over 10 years and nearly $150 million to build and was shut down on the day testing was to begin. Why? A shortage of funds.
Between 1996 and 2000, the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (FESAC) recommended a vigorous program in Innovative Confinement Concepts to explore several practical alternative paths. It was never funded – and after the U.S. rejoined the ITER program (in minority position), the ICC program is essentially scrapped. Dead end.
And now the bottom line of this too brief history. Fusion research coordinator Tom Tamarkin met with Princeton Plasma Physics Lab director Dr. Stewart Prager and was told: “America is on its way to becoming a Third World nation in energy … hence in all things,” and that our president, on being advised of the cost of taking leadership in fusion development, has decided that the U.S. should meekly join the ITER program (with 9 percent participation).
Why does all this matter? Why should you and I care? Because energy is fundamental to the future of this world. The future of our children and grandchildren depend on it. The leader in energy becomes the leader of the free world and the one capable of freeing the world from dependence on rapidly disappearing sources. I believe this must be done with the moral character, kindness and generosity of the United States. And our faithful ally and gateway to the Middle East, Israel, with its proven technological and scientific genius, should be of great assistance in achieving this goal. Our destinies are linked in many ways.
America showed our leadership in World War II, saving Europe and rebuilding Japan. We showed our leadership by conquering space and reaching into the vast universe. Now it’s time for us to show our leadership in solving the world’s desperate need for endless energy … through fusion. We can’t, and should not, leave this to others with lesser motives.
My next article on fusion will suggest a way forward to rebuild America and its global stature, to reverse our decline in education and infrastructure, and to re-establish our pre-eminence among our peers by developing the final, perfect power source, for all the world.
For me, it’s the real Holy Grail.