Plan B. A schematic of the FIRE reactor.

New Hope for Fusion Fans

GAITHERSBURG, MARYLAND--Fusion research in the United States might be igniting again. A panel of scientists meeting here 11 September recommended that the United States rejoin negotiations to help build the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a multibillion-dollar international project to investigate nuclear fusion as an energy source that the United States abandoned in 1998. The 17-member panel--the Department of Energy's (DOE'S) Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (FESAC)--also argued that the United States should initiate its own fusion experiment if the ITER negotiations fall through.

FESAC's strategy for fusion science is two-pronged: Try to join ITER, and begin design work on a less expensive domestic experiment, the $1.2 billion Fusion Ignition Research Experiment (FIRE). The FIRE alternative "shows the international partners that we're serious about the discussion and that ITER is not the only game in town," says Vincent Chan, a FESAC member who works at General Atomics in San Diego, California. If DOE does not get a seat at the ITER table by mid-2004, the report recommends, the United States should proceed with the FIRE project instead.

Full partnership in the ITER collaboration would cost the United States at least $100 million per year above the current budget levels. However, $100 million a year is likely to be a stretch for DOE. "What I've personally said for many years is that I think the U.S. can afford $50 million [per year]," says Anne Davies, DOE'S associate director for fusion energy sciences. "That number has been floating about the Administration."

Ray Orbach, director of DOE'S Office of Science, acknowledges that "political as well as scientific issues play a key role" in the future of fusion. But with an upcoming National Research Council report on fusion power, a draft of which might be ready in early December, Orbach hopes to make a strong case to the Administration. "Our job is to provide the president with options," he says. "I would like to give the president, by mid-December, the full scientific view of how to get from here to there."

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