When Congress cut $31 million from the 1985 magnetic fusion energy budget last summer it sent shock waves through the fusion laboratories. After almost a decade of growing budgets for the drive to bottle the awesome power of hydrogen fusion, the program was put on a slower track. The fusion community found this hard to accept but hoped it would be temporary.
Last year's cut turned out to be only the first installment, however. Following Congress's cue, the Reagan Administration, which until now grudgingly supported modest budget hikes for magnetic fusion, wants to chop the program by another $47 million in 1986, to $390 million. And Congress, which is fighting to protect Social Security, Medicaid, and other threatened social programs, is virtually certain to support the cutback.
Not only are major experiments being stretched out, but the back-to-back budgets cuts are also triggering 343 layoffs at more than six laboratories this summer. And still more trouble may be in the offing. Already, White House and congressional aides are betting that the program will be hit with another 10 percent cut in 1987. As a result, some major facilities could be mothballed.
Says John F. Clarke, associate director for fusion research at the Department of Energy (DOE), about the impact of additional funding losses: "At this point it would be psychologically disastrous." The budget crunch is forcing DOE and fusion laboratories to rethink the program strategy and look closer at smaller, less costly reactor concepts, which until now have taken a back seat to larger experimental machines. Furthermore, the U.S. fusion community now has resigned itself to the fact that any large-scale machine must be an international undertaking.
In essence, the Reagan Administration has won its 4-year battle to shift the fusion program's reactor development focus to emphasize basic science. The Magnetic Fusion Energy Engineering Act of 1980, which authorized a $20-billion drive to build a demonstration reactor by 2000, remains in force, but has been effectively shelved. "Energy no longer is an issue," observes Lee Berry, associate division director at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "They are saying 'We don't need fusion now'."
But the Office of Science and Technology Policy also has argued for slowing down the program's pace until the physics is better understood and the technology advances. And to an extent the program's reorientation is viewed as healthy because scientists are looking more critically at the commercial viability of machine concepts. "We have not yet been successful in coming up with designs that we're proud of as commercial reactors," admits Stephen O. Dean, president of Fusion Power Associates, the industry trade organization.
However, Dean worries about the program getting bogged down in scientific exercises that Congress cannot appreciate. "We have to show that we are moving along the path to fusion power," says Dean, who fears program funding will continue to fall. Just how or when this cash hemorrhage will be stopped, no one can say. What is clear is that some important experiments, as well as the...