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DOE Pushes Shoestring Fusion

With prospects fading for construction of the proposed $10 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) anytime soon, the push for cheaper alternatives is gaining strength in the fusion community. This week a Department of Energy (DOE) fusion advisory panel recommended that researchers consider "lower cost, reduced-scope options" that could be built "on the fastest possible schedule" if the money to build ITER can't be found.

Overall design work on ITER was completed this summer, and groundbreaking was to take place in 1998--if agreed among the U.S., European, Japanese, and Russian partners. But tepid political interest, tight budgets, and questions about the design's ability to produce a self-sustaining burn have put construction plans on ice until at least 2001 (Science, 6 December 1996, p. 1600). The panel recommends, therefore, that the partners consider a cheaper ITER design. Those options could include alternative designs for as low as $2 billion, says panel chair Hermann Grunder, who heads DOE's Thomas Jefferson Lab in Newport News, Virginia.

Smaller-scale designs don't sit well with ITER Director Robert Aymar. He complains that the Grunder assessment contradicts past U.S. panels which firmly backed the design. "It's not in line with our plans at all," he says, adding that a redesign "would be damaging to the program." For now, the Grunder report says, the United States should set aside $10 million to $20 million for collaboration and press Europe's Joint European Torus and Japan's JT-60U reactor to give U.S. researchers more access to these premier fusion facilities.