Progress in research on nuclear fusion - thought by many to be the energy source of the future - is running headlong into two apparently immovable objects: money and politics.
These obstacles are arising at a time when a combination of financing, reliability, and public-relations problems threaten to sideline the nuclear power industry. Many of the industry's troubles would be eliminated if fusion, a relatively safe and clean reaction promising virtually unlimited energy supplies , was used.
In a fusion reaction, fuel is compressed and nuclei fuse together under temperatures higher than inside the sun. In the operational but more controversial nuclear fission process that drives today's commercial nuclear-power reactors, energy is released by splitting nuclei.
The ability to initiate a fusion reaction has been around for nearly 30 years. But pro-fusion experts stress that even if all the missing pieces fall into place smoothly, fusion can't contribute significantly to the world energy mix before 2020 at the earliest.
Nuclear fusion's acceptance by the US scientific community became official in August 1980 when the US Department of Energy's Energy Research Advisory Board announced fusion's scientific feasibility and concluded that ''The US is now ready to embark on the next step toward the goal of achieving economic fusion power: exploration of the engineering feasibility of fusion.''
Congress was moving in the same direction. In October 1980, President Carter signed the Magnetic Fusion Energy Engineering Act, which had been cosponsored by 24 senators and 160 congressmen. This law established a national commitment to using nuclear fusion for generating electricity in a demonstration power plant by the year 2000.
Congress's 1980 commitment to fusion's future grew out of an earlier commitment made when the 1973 oil crisis led to the Project Independence goal:''To guarantee the nuclear option in the long range by developing the technology necessary for a fusion reactor to provide an inexhaustible, economically competitive, inherently safe, and environmentally acceptable supply of energy for domestic consumption.''
But fusion's momentum in 1980 appears to be slowing in 1981.
The Reagan administration's fiscal 1982 budget proposes to cut fusion spending from an originally planned $525 million for fiscal 1982 to $465 million. President Carter wanted to trim the amount to $506 million. Uncharacteristically, David A. Stockman's Office of Management and Budget called for an increase to $535 million.
Less money for fusion research has come despite congressional testimony last February from Energy Secretary James Edwards, who said, ''Fusion represents the type of research and development activity that requires federal support. It is too long-range for significant private investment; the chances of success are not yet certain; the investment required is large; society as a whole will benefit; and the potential benefits are very large.''
Dr. Allan Mense, science consultant to the House Committee on Science and Technology, warns that cutting the fusion program comes at the worst possible time because ''fusion has reached the stage where we can make the optimal use of funding.'' Instead of following 1982 cuts with further cuts for 1983 and 1984, Dr. Mense says he would like the Reagan administration to stick to Congress's 1980 goal of doubling fusion spending in real terms over the next five years. This is needed, he says, to switch from the research phase into producing more energy from fusion than is consumed in trying to sustain the reaction and actually generating electricity .
Without a visible payoff, Mense feels, not even a sympathetic Congress will be able to sell the public on soon spending $1 billion a year to keep the fusion program on track. Donald Kummer, McDonnell Aircraft Company's director of fusion energy, explained that ''for an ever-increasing fusion budget to be justified requires a goal of power production'' and increasing involvement of private industry.
Already, as Mense and others told the ninth annual Engineering Problems in Fusion Research symposium here in Chicago recently, funding problems have slowed US fusion development at a time when the Soviet Union, Europe, and Japan all are racing ahead with their own fusion programs.
Fusion advocates recognize the political and economic problems involved in boosting spending on one program when so many others are being cut sharply. But, Mense explains, delays now will add substantially to development costs as well as squandering the current US lead in fusion technology.
Ironically, even fusion's most convinced backers point out that a crash ''Apollo-type program'' is needed because fusion might fail as an energy source. Scientists who have worked closely with fusion recognize that the unpredictable ''plasma'' gas at the heart of the fusion process may present impossible handling problems.
Edwin Kintner, the Department of Energy's associate director for fusion energy, insists that ''the nuclear option is absolutely necessary'' to avoid ending up with ''a very cold planet 50 years from now.'' But like other fusion experts, he sees fusion as one possible element in a mix of energy sources. Because fossil fuels are both being used up and causing environmental problems such as climate changes and acid rain, he says, there is an urgent need to know whether fusion will provide an efficient alternate energy source.
''The important point,'' says Mr. Kintner, ''is to find out in the short term whether fusion will provide a long-term answer.'' If fusion research over the next decade proves fusion can't be harnessed, he adds, ''then a lot of other things need to be done in a hurry.''