Fusion Power: More Promising Than Ever, but Hamstrung by Budget Concerns

Last Updated May 28, 2010 3:12 PM EDT

For decades, scientists have looked for ways to effectively manage nuclear fusion, in which atoms are forced to merge to release energy. Starting from relatively small pilot units, research has progressed to huge, complex projects that promise the breakthroughs needed to make fusion usable.

But now that it's come time to built these fusion mega-projects, the unfortunate reality is setting in. Der Spiegel reports that Europe's International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, which builds on decades of study, faces ballooning costs that may cause some EU member nations to back away:

Overall costs for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor have risen from an initial $6 billion estimate in 2006 to around $18 billion... Der Spiegel reports that new technical and safety standards have caused the cost increase. The commission is now mulling to pass on the additional costs to member states, which are not amused.

The commission's proposals, which include demanding guarantees from member states to shoulder all additional costs until 2020, "are not acceptable," the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper quoted a German diplomat as saying.

A similar project in the United States, the National Ignition Facility, is also under fire for cost overruns and mismanagement. The Government Accountability Office, which audited the program, found that costs have already risen by $400 million -- with at least another two years to go until the much-delayed completion date.

For the moment, both the NIF and Europe's ITER appear likely to go forward. But the danger to their existence is clear and present. Europe is currently going through a harsh contraction, and political leaders have little patience for science projects whose fruition lies decades in the future. NIF likely only continues to exist because it promises a better way to test aging nuclear weapons.

The result, at least for ITER, may be a substantial downsizing. That's significant because in many ways, ITER and its predecessor projects have kept fusion alive as an active field of study over the decades.

But hope is not lost for fusion. Other, smaller projects may still move ahead without many difficulties. Earlier in the year I listed 10 fusion research facilities with promise, including the NIF and ITER; and now there's a freshly-announced collaboration between Russia and Italy to build a small reactor based on an MIT design.

The problem in the end is scaling up any of these projects enough to produce real breakthroughs. Fusion, so far, has been a billion-dollar science with few real world results -- a combination that few bureaucrats have ever appreciated.

Picture credit: Sandia National Laboratory's Z-Machine