With threats such as climate change and declining oil stocks looming, we should be going all out to find alternative sources of energy. Nuclear fusion seems like the perfect solution, with virtually limitless supplies of fuel, no greenhouse gases, and little radioactive waste. U.S. researchers have been working to master fusion for decades and are partners in ITER, a global project to build a huge fusion reactor in France which is currently under construction. But they were shocked last week when in President Barack Obama's 2013 budget request their funding was cut by 0.8% to $398 million just at the same time as U.S. payments for ITER rose from $105 million to $150 million.
If the president's request is approved by Congress it will put a severe squeeze on the U.S. domestic fusion program and will force the closure of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Alcator C-Mod reactor, one of only three large machines, known as tokamaks, in the United States that are doing vital research in preparation for ITER. With further increases in ITER payments required in coming years, can fusion research in the U.S. survive?
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Michael Zarnstorff is the deputy director for research at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. He is an experimental plasma physicist with interests in the basic physics of plasma confinement and configuration optimization.
Martin Greenwald is Associate Director and head of the Office of Computer Services for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Plasma Science and Fusion Center, heads the group responsible for data acquisition and computing for the Alcator C-Mod project, and leads the transport program for that experiment. He has conducted physics research on the Alcator A, C, and C-Mod tokamaks, including studies of energy and particle transport, pellet fueling, density limits, neutral particle measurements, and studies of energetic ion dynamics.