The tokamaks operate under the Department of Energy's Office of Science and cost just under $400 million to run annually. Several of these projects, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Alcator C-MOD, are offline due to earlier budget cuts.
NIF, on the other hand, is under the umbrella of the National Nuclear Security Administration. Since part of its mission is to provide research and guidance to maintain America's thermonuclear stockpile, the facility has steadier support.
The United States is also on the hook for 9.1 percent of expenses in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, a $20 billion global magnetic fusion project under construction in Cadarache, France.
'Cutting edge' science running on fumes
Because the French experiment is behind schedule and over budget, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office in May asking for an investigation into the United States' contributions to the project, concerned that ITER is cannibalizing resources from America's own tokamaks.
In addition, the country's on-again, off-again relationship with fusion is eroding the knowledge base for this work and turning off a generation of researchers. "This drip, drip, drip is no way to bring new scientists into the program," Holland said.
The current government crisis is creating anxiety among fusion scientists, as well. Since private contractors run most of the national labs, their workers aren't technically federal employees, so they aren't covered under the House's recently passed H.R. 3223, the "Federal Employee Retroactive Pay Fairness Act."
Last week, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), whose district includes Lawrence Livermore and the California campus of Sandia National Laboratories, sent a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz asking for lab employees to receive back pay should the government shutdown outlast than their cash reserves.
California Reps. Anna Eshoo, Barbara Lee and Zoe Lofgren co-signed the letter. "We take pride in the cutting edge advancements in our scientific research, but budget cuts and now a government shutdown are threatening these important undertakings," said Lofgren in a press release.
Given the potential and demand for fusion research, scientists say now is the time to step on the gas for it. "A very aggressive program [for magnetic fusion], not quite the Manhattan Project, but aggressive, would be about $1.5 billion per year," said Stewart Prager, director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. "To put that in perspective, the United States spends about $1.5 trillion per year on energy."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500