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Fusion's glow dims under budgetary shadow

For research on controlled hydrogen fusion, the scientific outlook has never been brighter. But President Reagan's budget has dimmed its luster. Less than a year after Congress mandated a fastpaced development program, the quest to produce useful energy from the nuclear process that powers the sun and stars is in a holding pattern.

The most promising current projects to develop basic scientific knowledge are proceeding on schedule. But new projects that would explore practical engineering problems as specified in the Magnetic Fusion Engineering Act of 1980 last October would be delayed at least a year.

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Moreover, the most exotic approach of all -- producing power by tiny H-bomb explosions -- may be dropped from the civilian fusion program altogether. In this approach, micropellets of hydrogen fuel are compressed, usually by laser beams, to ignite fusion.

Former US Rep. Mike McCormack of Washington, who championed the new fusion law, calls the funding limitation "unspeakable folly." He sees in the development slowdown a danger that the goal of having a working prototype fusion power plant within this century again will recede into the indefinite future. He says he also is concerned that, given the present fiscal attitude in Washington, failure to maintain momentum in the fusion program could encourage even deeper funding cuts later.

However, fusion supporters in industry and in Congress are not without hope. If forward momentum can be restored in the next (fiscal 1983) budget, relatively little harm would be done. The need now, fusion supporters say, is to make sure that the budget does have the needed funds.

"We are dissapointed in the administration's action after the nation made a commitment to fusion last fall," says Marsha Freeman of the Fusion Energy Foundation. However, she adds, "I don't think it's time to hang up our track shoes and open a pizza shop."

Actually, fusion has wide support in Congress and the administration. Allan Mense, a key congressional staff member who worked with Mr. McCormack, recalls that the bill passed Congress with large majorities in only 2 1/2 months. It enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, what he calls "tremendous bipartisan and broad-based philosophical support" -- even within the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Indeed, the journal Science reports that "OMB actually offered more money for fusion energy than the DOE [Department of Energy] was willing to accept -- at least not while its other energy programs were being cut back drastically."

Thus many observers consider the present budget hold-down to be only a temporary delay that will allow the administration to arrive at its own internal consensus as to how to proceed with fusion. Meanwhile, Mr. Mense has warned, "industry must let the government and DOE know it wants fusion commercialized" if momentum is to be regained.

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The optimism over fusion's technical prospects relates specifically to what is called magnetic fusion. This is an approach in which the hot reacting gases are confined by magnetic fields. By mid-decade, fusion researchers expect to reach the "break-even point" where they have a fusion reaction running in the laboratory that produces at least as much energy as it takes to keep t he reaction going. And by 1990 or thereabouts, they expect to have the knowledge they need to define clearly the concept for a fusion-electric power plant that could be running by the end of the century.

The prospect of these achievements is reflected in the Magnetic Fusion Engineering Act. So confident of progress were the act's designers that they mandated construction to begin on an engineering test center to develop practical data for power reactor design even before the expected "break-even" goal is realized. To maintain this research momentum, the act also projected substantial funding increases leading to a doubling of the budget over the next five years.

These are the facilities that now must be postponed. The $394 million allocated for magnetic fusion in President Carter's 1981 budget has been cut to

These are substantial increases over the $356.1 million budget authority given magnetic fusion in fiscal 1980. But they are not enough to meet the funding goals envisioned by the fusion law. It is this funding that fusion boosters now are working to get back on target.

The situation with laser fusion is quite different. More than a billion dollars worth of US research over the past decade has produced little on which to base hope of commercial payoff. An equivalent effort in Britain, France, Japan, and especially in the Soviet Union has done no better. As a recent review in Science notes: "Laser fusion, touted as a new energy source, has produced only fizzles." Under President Reagan's budgetary review, that's reason enough to cut laser fusion's funding and return it to the military research closet from which it emerged.

The dream of using minibombs as an energy source grew out of nuclear weapons research. Indeed, one of the main objectives of the US laser fusion program has remained the development of a system that can simulate the effects of full-scale hydrogen bombs. Thus the program always has had a substantial military aspect that has kept it in the gray zone between open civilian investigation and secret military research. The administration now reasons that this is the program's main utility. It would reassign laser fusion to the military program and cut back on its funding.

Supporters of fusion power do not necessarily like this move. They see laser fusion as a valuable part of fusion rersearch generally and as an alternative to the magnetic confinement approach.

"It would be a big mistake to let that research go down the drain," says Marsha Freeman.

Nevertheless, it will be much harder to make a case for laser fusion funding than for restoring the level of support for magnetic fusion. And given a choice between the two technologies, there is no doubt as t o which one would have priority.

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