Monday, August 29, 2011

Despite Fiscal Crisis, America Must Invest In ITER

As the fiscal crisis grows ever more serious, policy-makers in Washington are busy talking about what government spending needs to be cut. That list, needless to say, is a long one. Indeed, it will almost certainly turn out to be much longer than the policy-makers would have us believe. To resolve the fiscal crisis, we are not only going to have to raise taxes on certain segments of the population, but slash our military spending in a major way and implement painful cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and other social programs. If we are to avoid disaster, we are going to have to change the entire way we run our country.

But even as we talk about what we are going to cut, we must also must identify those areas of government spending which are too important to cut. Obviously, we must preserve our education system, our transportation infrastructure, and other critical functions of government. But we must also continue to fund certain scientific research and development programs, and none of those is more important than the ITER project.

ITER is an immense international scientific collaboration involving not just the United States, but the European Union, Russia, China, India, South Korea, and Japan. Their goal is to build an experimental thermonuclear fusion reactor that can serve as a model for future fusion reactors that will be able to produce energy for the commercial market. ITER, already under construction in the south of France, has the potential to radically alter the energy matrix of the world in a manner that would greatly benefit everyone on the planet.

Nuclear fusion power generates energy by fusing atoms together, which is the same process that powers stars. Its advantages over other forms of power generation are immense. The fuel used in the fusion process is easily obtainable, so the amount of energy generated is effectively inexhaustible. Fusion generates no carbon emissions and so will not contribute to global climate change. Furthermore, unlike nuclear fission reactors, fusion power poses no risk whatsoever of nuclear meltdowns and would produce no long-lasting radioactive waste.

The disadvantage of nuclear fusion is that fusion reactions are currently difficult and expensive to achieve. The technology is still being developed, and experimental fusion reactions which have been created up to this point used up more energy than they would have been able to generate. ITER's mission is to solve those technical problems, leading the creation of a model fusion reactor which will produce more energy than it expended to create the reaction. Along the way, the techniques, technologies, and materials will be created that will eventually be used to create commercial power plants.

If ITER can prove the commercial viability of nuclear fusion power, the results would be earth-shaking. It would certainly be the most revolutionary development in energy since the invention of the steam engine, and might even surpass it in importance. The dream of a reliable source of abundant and pollution-free energy can be realized, if only we have sufficient vision to grasp it.

It is estimated that ITER will cost perhaps $20 billion over the course of the project's lifetime. The European Union is paying nearly half the cost of the ITER project, while Russia, China, India, South Korea and Japan are collectively paying about as much as the European Union. The United States will be paying slightly less than one-tenth of the total cost of the ITER, a sum which will be utterly dwarfed by the amount of money the government is expected to pay in subsidies to oil companies during the same period.

Considering the potential payoff, the comparatively trivial financial costs of American participation in the ITER project are well worth paying. Nevertheless, there has been considerable pressure over the last few years to terminate American involvement in ITER, with the country even temporarily pulling out of the project between 1999 and 2003. ITER funding in the current fiscal year amounts to $80 million,, considerably less than the price of a single F-22 fighter and down from $135 million the previous year. Thom Mason, the director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is heading up American participation in ITER, has publicly stated his concern that federal budget woes will continue to hurt the American contribution to the project.

As the policy-makers in Washington struggle to cut spending and bring the budget under control, funding for the American contribution to ITER must be one of the items considered absolutely off limits for cuts. Not only must the United States maintain its position as a world leader in science and technology, but we cannot set aside projects such as ITER that promise such immense benefits to both our country and the world as a whole.

We need to cut government in a major way, but cutting ITER would be a monumental mistake.

1 comment:

  1. This is an issue that nobody knows about and it would be easy for congress to just ignore it. I've written to my congressmen and the President. I told them to make sure funds for ITER are included in the budget. Everybody needs to do the same thing.