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House Science Subcommittee Hearing on Fusion Energy

Richard M. Jones
Number 137 - November 17, 2009  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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“It is really important for us to understand the ‘when” of this,” said Brain Baird (D-WA), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment to a panel of witnesses testifying last month about fusion energy research. The 90-minute hearing demonstrated continuing support for fusion energy research by committee members, but also questions about its potential to be a significant supply of electricity.

This was largely a friendly hearing on DOE’s two fusion programs: the Office of Science’s Fusion Energy Sciences program, and the inertial fusion program of the National Nuclear Security Administration. Chairman Baird began the hearing by referring to the National Ignition Facility and ITER by commenting:

“If these new facilities are successful, they will represent a dramatic turning point in developing a viable, commercial fusion reactor. Big questions will still remain, such as how affordable fusion can be in comparison to other options, and what the appropriate choices are for materials in a device which contains gases that can be hotter than the sun. But the U.S. fusion program needs to do all it can to ensure these successes, and be ready to take advantage of them if and when they occur.”

In his opening remarks, subcommittee member Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) spoke of how fusion has dominated long-range energy thinking for years, despite having had very few public successes. It is clear that different approaches have to be taken to the generation and use of future energy, he said, with fusion being a technology that should be pursued. Also attending the hearing for the purpose of introducing a witness was Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), who said fusion was “a technology well-worth undertaking,” and that “the progress has been great by any measure.”

Four witnesses testified at this hearing: Edmund Synakowski, Director for DOE’s Fusion Energy Sciences; Stewart Prager, Director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory; Thom Mason, Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory; Riccardo Betti, Assistant Director of the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics; and Raymond Fonck, Professor of Engineering Physics at the University of Wisconsin. They gave the subcommittee an update on the progress of DOE’s two fusion programs, admitted there is skepticism about the potential for fusion energy, and described, as one witness said of the lengthy time scale for research at ITER, “an acknowledged frustration of all parties given the urgency of the energy challenge.”

The witnesses were candid in describing the major challenges the fusion programs face, with one saying “we haven’t proved the physics yet.” Ignition is a major challenge, as are materials, harnessing the fusion power, the problem of scaling up to a commercial facility and its attendant capital cost, and, as Baird said, “the nagging problem of cost per kilowatt hour.” Fusion energy would, importantly, be a baseload energy source, with a ready availability of fuel, be carbon free, and, as compared to fission energy, produce less challenging radioactive waste with no danger of a facility’s catastrophic failure. It would enhance the nation’s security since the U.S. could reduce its dependence on foreign energy suppliers. The nature of fusion’s fuel - sea water - would lessen the potential for international conflict over energy supplies.

Subcommittee members seemed largely satisfied with the approach being taken by the Department of Energy. Most would agree with Chairman Baird, who while having worries about the national debt and the budget deficit, is also greatly concerned about the impact of carbon emissions from current methods of energy production. One exchange captured the hearing’s general tone. Baird spoke about the use of fusion to produce electricity with steam turbines, saying “we are going to all this trouble to heat water.” Synakowski replied, to which Baird indicated his agreement, “It is a remarkable thing to go from E=mc2 to boiling water.”

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095