January 16th, 2012 • 4:01 PM
Report on Fusion Power Associates Meeting Dec. 14-15, 2011

By Marsha Freeman

These are annual meetings (this was the 32nd) that Steve Dean puts together. They are an excellent up-date on the status of the political and programmatic developments in fusion, both magnetic and inertial. I am not including any of the technical up-dates here.

ITER—Just a week ago, the ITER program dodged a bullet, when the EU came up with the $1.3 billion to cover its ITER budget shortfall for 2012-13. Europe pays for 45% of the project as the host. It is being built in France. Each other partner is responsible for about 9%, which is not money given to ITER, but mainly given to domestic industries to build the components. Right now, the U.S. budget for ITER is somewhere near half of an approximate $400 million magnetic fusion budget. But the money for ITER will go up as the U.S. has to actually start building things. The plan now is for $300 million to go to ITER in 2016. Obviously, the fusion people are all worried that ITER will “disappear” the domestic U.S. fusion experiments. Steve is worried that the FY13 budget will be lower than this year’s, so the problem is immediate.

Tokamak, Not--Good ideas without money—Every year, scientists, most with decades of experience in fusion research, present ideas for new fusion experiments, considered “alternative concepts” since they are non-tokamak. Many of these, if not most, should probably be funded, but haven’t been for many years, due to the lack of funding. With a limited money pie, they argue amongst themselves as to which ideas should get money. Not a healthy atmosphere.

The hoaxters ??—For some reason which is not entirely clear to me, over the past few years, a number of supposedly well-meaning people, lobbyists of sorts, think tank-types, “concerned citizens,” have decided that their calling is to lobby for fusion. Three of these types spoke at the FPA meeting. Unfortunately, Steve is too politically naïve (even after four decades of working with us) to see the danger here. There is also an opportunism to latch on to “global warming,” to get support for fusion. (Decades ago, the fusion people thought they could get support by attacking fission. That didn’t work out too well, either).

****American Security Project—Andrew Holland spoke. “Climate change is real and accelerating,” etc. etc. Asked about fission, “there are real problems with fission.” Membership of ASP is 1/3 Dems, 1/3 Republicans, and 1/3 retired military. Holland himself, worked for Chuck Hagel. They are looking at a 20-year time horizon, but, according to Holland, want to push fusion.

****Bipartisan Policy Center—Margot Anderson spoke. Founded in 2007 by Baker, Daschle, Dole, George Mitchell. Their energy project committee includes Trent Lott, Bill Reilly, Dorgan, Jim Jones. Pete Domenici is looking in to nuclear policy. Asked numerous times by wary fusion people where they got their money, she just said “foundations,” and “industry.” Asked about funding R&D programs, she said they’re exploring public/private.

****Then there is something called the Fusion Energy League, headed by one Rezwan Razani. Some disjointed young lady was given 5 minutes to make her pitch.
I haven’t had time to look in to who they actually are. They say they want to build a broader base of support for fusion, whatever that means.

The “private” fusioneers

****General Fusion, Vancouver, Canada, presentation by Michael Laberge, a completely manic guy. They are privately funded, with $32.5 million in venture capital and a little from the Canadian government. Aside from whatever merit there is to the idea, he pooh-poohed the challenges still to be overcome in fusion, practically calling the room full of fusion scientists dullards for not having already solved them. He says in one year, and for $3 million, he’ll generate plasma with his staff of 10 people. Even if his concept is sane, the timetable and funding seem insane.
****Compact Modular Fusion Systems—it’s in Seattle, getting a little money from DOE, but thinks it can go forward by attracting venture capital. Again, I can’t evaluate what they are actually doing, but the approach seems starry-eyed. Simon Woodruff said Springer has offered them a book deal (?) They made a presentation to the DOE, to the ARPA-E guys to try to get some money, but they’re not funding fusion.

Meanwhile, in Asia….

Stewart Prager, Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, gave the only up-beat presentation (unfortunately starting off “nature ignores budget austerity,’’ meaning climate change). Nonetheless, he expressed optimism that challenges could be met, and the timetable, accelerated. He at first said we don’t need a Manhattan program, just an aggressive one. Later, he said, “we should work out what a Manhattan Project would look like.” (FEF and Mike McCormack already did that, of course, in 1979). He said there was an international consensus, by which he meant, and said, in China, India, and Korea, that there will be a Demonstration power plant by 2035, and that China is already designing one.

Ron Parker, retired from MIT, said maybe they should send students and do some research on the Asian tokamaks (since we’re not building anything here). This is not the first time this has been raised.

India —Shishir Deshponde from the Institute for Plasma Research in India presented on the Indian fusion program. There are 130 people in India working on the R&D for the components India will contribute to ITER. He described some of the problems they’ve had in manufacturing components for their own tokamak (SST-1) and how they’ve worked to fix them. In their 12th Plan for fusion 2012-2017, they will continue work on their SST-2 tokamak, work on ITER, and start design on a Demo. In a conversation later, he said that their small fusion program, under the Atomic Energy Commission, works very closely with the fission community, and in the U.S. this doesn’t happen, and is a drawback. Asked if there were interest among students in India to go in to fusion, he said they have had a “modest response,” with attrition in the grad programs, as people go in to IT instead. He said they are sending doctoral students abroad, “to keep their enthusiasm.”


There were interesting presentations on fusion work that is, or can and should be, integrated with space plasma physics, heliophysics, etc. Jay Kesner, from MIT, talked about the Levitated Dipole Experiment, which was inspired by magnetosperic physics, such as the Earth/Sun interaction, and Jupiter, and could be used to enhance that research.
There were also suggestions that some of the experimental inertial fusion and high energy dense plasma research facilities could also be used for space research.

Utility Interest in Fusion

As Steve pointed out, when he started FPA, there were a number of members which were electric utilities. At that time, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), which was created by and is funded by utilities, was doing studies on how to get to fusion. For years, Steve said, since deregulation, there has been no utility industry participation.

For the first time in decades, EPRI is doing a Fusion Energy assessment, reported Tom Mulford from EPRI. This study was requested by a group of utilities, led by Constellation Energy head Mike Wallace. A number of them had a tour of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) laser fusion experiment at Lawrence Livermore in May 2010, and asked EPRI to do an assessment, to see if they should be involved and give some support. The utilities pushing it are Mike Wallace at Constellation, TVA’s nuclear guy, Pinnacle West, Dave Christian at Dominion, Progress Energy, Southern Company, and We Energies. On their advisory Cttee are Tom Christopher, U.S. head of Areva (I interviewed him for EIR), and Andy Kadak formerly at MIT, who’s an excellent guy, works with the Chinese on the pebble bed reactor, and has does industry studies which data and help I’ve used for articles. Their study got sidetracked at EPRI when they had to work on fission, post-Fukashima, but they hope to have their report out in June. Mulford said 30% of EPRI’s budget comes from the membership of foreign utilities. Shocking.

One other note---The National Academy of Sciences is doing a review of inertial fusion, looking at power plant designs, etc. One of the people on the panel is Franklin Chang-Diaz (aka plasma rocket man), which is interesting, both because he is a magnetic fusion person, not inertial, and because his work isn’t always taken seriously.

I have not included anything on the state of or advancements in any of the fusion research. Anyone interested will be able to find the PowerPoint presentations pretty soon on the Fusion Power Associates website www.fusionpower.org.

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