A long-running Massachusetts Institute of Technology research experiment that explores nuclear fusion as a possible energy source will shut down within a year, as its already diminished federal funding has been cut.
Miklos Porkolab, director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center where the project is housed, said that unless Congress decides to step in, 70 employees will be laid off, including physicists, technicians, engineers, and support staff. The shutdown will leave only two fusion experiments in the United States, one at Princeton University and the other at General Atomics, a company in San Diego.
Half of the workers have already received notice, Porkolab said. Most of the 20 doctoral students working on the Alcator C-Mod project will be able to complete their thesis work based on data they’ve already taken, but about five may need to switch projects. The effect of the shutdown will reverberate beyond MIT, which produces the most PhD scientists in the field of fusion and plasma research in the United States.
“It’s already had a very negative impact,” Porkolab said. “Students are really not coming into the field. . . . They come to visit and see C-Mod is being shut down and they go away; they say there’s no future in this.”
Fusion produces energy when atoms combine. It has the potential to create massive amounts of energy, with ordinary helium as its waste product. In contrast, fission used in today’s nuclear reactors, in which atoms are split, generates both energy and radioactive byproducts. The Alcator C-Mod uses a magnetic field to contain plasma — a charged, heated gas made up of deuterium atoms. Those atoms occasionally combine, producing energy.
The US Department of Energy is increasing its overall funding of fusion research, but is shifting money from its domestic program to a large, collaborative international project being built in France called ITER. MIT is continuing to push for funding for its program to be reinstated.
In mid-April, the Massachusetts House delegation wrote to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, requesting that the investment in the domestic fusion research program be restored to funding levels in fiscal year 2013.
Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, said the loss of the program will hurt the country’s position in a critical field — one that won’t be producing energy in the short term, but could be critical in helping to diversify energy production over the next two decades.
The European project is “terribly behind schedule and egregiously over budget, and they’re being rewarded,” Zuber said.
“I think as a country, we need to be worried about the risk of losing our preeminence in this area and our technical expertise.”
Already, one faculty member is planning to leave for a job in Europe.
The pending shutdown will be the final chapter in a budgetary saga that also reflects the level of confusion and the strain on researchers caused by the gridlocked budget process in Washington. The fusion program’s funding was first cut in fiscal year 2013, from $25 million to $14 million. MIT stopped accepting graduate students into the program in March 2012.
But the center is also dealing with the uncertainty of the sequester, the across-the-board budget cuts that began earlier this year.
“We don’t know what we’re going to get and we’ve been hit already so hard,” Porkolab said.
Of the employees who will lose their jobs, 19 are members of the Research Development and Technical Employees Union. David Gay, the union’s president, said he is working with management to see whether other jobs might be available within the university or at other laboratories, such as Lincoln Laboratory.
Porkolab, who came to MIT to work on fusion in 1977, said researchers are putting the machine in a “cold” shutdown phase, meaning they aren’t dismantling it. If funding were restored, the research could be revived.
“We don’t know what Congress is going to do with it, so we’re trying to hold on to as many people as we can,” Porkolab said. “We hope and pray that there be an energy bill by this fall, that the two sides in Congress can come to an agreement” — and that they choose to save the Alcator C-Mod.
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