CAMBRIDGE — Senator Elizabeth Warren placed her hand atop a large red button and pressed firmly, restarting a nuclear experiment that MIT believes could help save the planet — but which the Obama administration considered superfluous and tried to kill year after year.
More than 100 scientists, engineers, and technicians — most of whom had, until recently, been under layoff notices — had gathered on campus that cold February day, their eyes glued to the three projection screens hanging from the front of the control room.
Then as superhot plasma inside the fusion reactor next door reached its metal walls, a flash of light appeared on one of the screens. The grand energy experiment had throbbed back to life.
And applause filled the room.
The dream could not be bigger: produce nuclear power without the radioactive waste or meltdown potential; generate an unlimited clean source of energy by replicating the sun’s power on Earth. The federally funded research project for what is known as nuclear fusion has been, for more than a decade, the single largest science experiment for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in terms of employees and budget.
But the Obama administration, while sharing the hope that nuclear fusion will one day be harnessed as a power source, concluded that the MIT experiment was a waste of taxpayer money. It deemed MIT’s facility outdated and small, the least scientifically useful of three domestic fusion reactors. Indeed, critics of the experiment said it amounts to a $1.5 million-per-student training program that MIT wants to keep going to protect its turf and prestige.
The White House believed that tax dollars were better spent on reactors in New Jersey and California, and it diverted some of the MIT money for a France-based international project of unprecedented scale. MIT’s fusion experiment was slated for elimination in the 2013 and 2014 budgets.
“I personally would like to see us build the most modern type of machine. We thought the only way to do that was to do without MIT’s,” said William Brinkman, former director of the Office of Science at the Department of Energy. “But closing a facility is not an easy thing. It’s a political hornet’s nest.”
This is a story about those “hornets” and that nest, about the extraordinary multifront lobbying campaign waged by one of the most powerful research universities in the country. It was an exercise of muscle along the Massachusetts-Washington axis that did something significant even on gridlocked Capitol Hill — restoring funding for a program axed by the White House.
“In the end, it is about picking a winner and a parochial effort to direct money to MIT,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group. “It’s certainly a case of lawmakers bucking the president and putting their thumb on the scale for a particular project.”
MIT enlisted the support of a wealthy Democratic donor from Concord and the help of an influential Washington think-tank co-founded by John Kerry. These efforts were backed by lobbyists, including a former congressman from Massachusetts, with connections to the right lawmakers on the right committees. The cast also included an alliance of universities, industry and national labs, all invested in the fusion dream.
“It’s ground-breaking research that could lead an energy revolution,” Warren said. “This was not about politics. This was about good science.”
The revival of MIT’s project, whatever its merits, clearly demonstrated what the combination of old-fashioned Washington horse-trading and new-fangled power — both nuclear and political — can do.
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Vast promise, little progress
A fading poster titled “Fusion, Physics of a Fundamental Energy Source” takes up nearly an entire wall of MIT’s Plasma Science & Fusion Department’s second-floor lobby. It reads: “If fusion power plants become practical, they would provide a virtually inexhaustible energy supply . . . substantial progress toward this goal has been made.”
The poster was printed in 1996. The goal has remained elusive.
MIT’s hopes lay with a 40-foot-tall cylindrical machine called the Alcator C-Mod, a 20-year-old nuclear fusion reactor housed in a long brick building that had once been a Nabisco cookie warehouse on the west side of campus.
Fusion produces energy when hydrogen nuclei combine, with helium as its harmless byproduct. The potential for nearly limitless, cheap, efficient fuel that does not harm the environment has long made nuclear fusion the “holy grail” of energy.
But the road from potential to reality has proved to be steep and littered with scientific obstacles.
MIT’s fusion reactor, like most of its kind, uses a powerful magnetic field to confine plasma, an ionized gas whose atoms occasionally collide at temperatures exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius, nearly 10 times hotter than the core of the sun, to produce energy — for just a few seconds.
But for a fusion reactor to actually generate electric power, the plasma must become dense and hot enough to produce more energy than the reactor uses to create it, and the reaction has to be sustained continuously. A feat akin to creating a captive “star,” it so far has not been achieved anywhere, despite decades of research and engineering efforts.
That daunting challenge has evoked skepticism in some quarters about fusion ever becoming a feasible energy source, at least not without much larger reactors.
The best hope for success in the eyes of the Obama administration is at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) being built in Cadarache, France. That ambitious worldwide collaboration, estimated to cost tens of billions of dollars, is where much of the scientific and political attention — and resources — have shifted.
The project, with the European Union, Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, and India as partners, was conceived in 1985 at a Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Geneva as the first step toward a commercially viable thermonuclear reactor. Construction is underway and experiments may begin in 2020.
At nearly 100 feet tall and weighing 23,000 tons, ITER will be 10 times larger than the MIT machine and will be able to hold 1,000 times the amount of plasma, increasing the potential for a scientific breakthrough.
After some wrangling, the United States has committed to supporting 9 percent, estimated at $4 billion to $6.5 billion, of what is the biggest international research and development project in history.
MIT believes its reactor will yield lessons that help seed the larger dream, allowing scientists to better understand the underlying physics of nuclear fusion and how to better control the turbulent and volatile plasma.
But to the Obama administration, the MIT project does not offer enough to justify the cost and needed to be scrapped in favor of more promising sites.
Energy Department officials said they prioritized the country’s two other fusion reactors, run by Princeton University and by General Atomics, a San Diego company, over MIT’s because they were more productive and important to the future of the international project.
The MIT reactor appeared doomed.
White House: Power down
In February 2012, just hours before President Obama unveiled his budget for the 2013 fiscal year, MIT’s vice president of research received a call from the Department of Energy. The administration had decided: The university’s reactor experiment was done.
The MIT reactor, which had received $28 million in fiscal year 2012, would get just $16 million in Obama’s new budget. The money would pay the staff to ensure a safe shutdown of the reactor, but no more experiments would be run. The difference in the funding would be transferred to the international project.
“This was not a negotiation call. It was an information call,” recalled Claude Canizares, an MIT physics professor and former vice president of research.
A couple of weeks later, Edmund Synakowski, who oversees fusion energy sciences at the Department of Energy, offered the rationale for the administration’s decision during a meeting of fusion scientists.
ITER, the international collaboration, was the “frontier of burning plasma science,” Synakowski said. The MIT reactor was not. If they want to continue their experiments, MIT scientists should travel to other reactors in the United States, Asia, and Europe.
It was a significant blow to the university, a longtime beneficiary of hundreds of millions a year of government research dollars, which has helped hone its reputation as an elite research institution.
And MIT was indignant. Earl Marmar, head of MIT’s Alcator C-Mod project, defended his program, saying in an interview that its productivity is “as high or higher” than other reactors when judged by the number of scientific papers published and articles cited by outside researchers in the last five years.
But the MIT reactor was mothballed in October 2012 while scientists scrambled to finish analyzing data they had previously collected. The university stopped accepting new graduate students for the experiment. Dozens of researchers received pink slips and prepared to leave the field entirely
The following spring, the Obama administration, in its 2014 budget request, provided zero funding, writing that the “research effort is ended as the facility is shut down completely.”
In fact, it wasn’t dead yet. It had simply entered another kind of force field: politics.
Juncture of science, politics
For years, Representative Michael Capuano prided himself on his skill in steering tens of millions of earmarked federal money to his district, home to MIT and other universities.
But a 2011 ban on congressional earmarks — pet projects funded without a merit-based review process — left politicians such as Capuano struggling to find new ways to channel money to their districts.
MIT’s experiment had never been funded through an earmark. The university usually opposed the pork barrel practice, having no trouble winning federal research contracts through a competitive peer-reviewed system.
But in early 2012, the university’s Washington lobbyists made Capuano, a Somerville Democrat, one of their first calls.
It was just the kind of fight Capuano relished, and he laid out a clear strategy. He toured MIT’s reactor, met the scientists, and learned the basics of nuclear fusion.
“I asked them to speak English, to tone down the technological talk,” Capuano said. “And then we talked about how to save it. It was very simple. My job was to get it back in. . . . I have no idea if fusion is the real thing or unreal thing or if it will ever come to fruition. I just need to know it’s a reasonable thing to be researching, that it’s not tiddlywinks.”
He first enlisted the support of members of Congress who arealso scientists — Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat and physicist who had been the assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory; Bill Foster, an Illinois Democrat and physicist; and John Olver, a Massachusetts Democrat and chemist and an MIT alum who at the time served on the House Appropriations energy and water development subcommittee.
Then, as MIT administrators pleaded their case with Department of Energy officials, Capuano built an argument to help MIT scientists — and the national fusion community — gain support amongst a broader group of House colleagues, an argument that would resonate with the Republicans in charge: Why would America want to directly send jobs and its intellectual elite to other countries?
“The average member of Congress can understand that,” Capuano said. “On the House side, no one said ‘to heck with that.’ It was ‘OK, Mike, we’ll see what we can do.’ We worked it little by little.’’
Holt, a well-respected longtime member of the New Jersey delegation, was a particularly effective ally because he had a direct pipeline to Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Republican who at the time chaired the energy and water development subcommittee on appropriations and represented a neighboring district.
Holt and others credit Frelinghuysen for ultimately carrying the ball for MIT — and all domestic fusion programs. Frelinghuysen declined to comment.
On the Senate side, Warren assumed the role of lead advocate, touting MIT’s research in letters and meetings in Washington.
“I’m learning how to do this in an elevator ride, on the walk over from the little subway car over to vote, to say, ‘Have you heard about what we’re doing at MIT?’ ” Warren said.
She spoke repeatedly with Senate appropriators, including what she described as “very productive conversations” with Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat and chair of Senate appropriations.
With the administration directing MIT to immediately cease all operations and present a plan for closure as quickly as possible in the spring of 2013, Frelinghuysen, Holt, Warren, and others appealed to Department of Energy officials to compromise.
All of these pressure points had worn down the White House. Instead of preparing to dismantle the reactor in 2013 as the administration had instructed, MIT and the Department of Energy agreed to keep the experiment on life-support status, using the $16 million to maintain the machine, so it would be easier to restart if a larger amount of funding came through.
Mr. Fusion, plus reactor tours
Enter the most unlikely player in this saga: a 74-year-old biotechnology entrepreneur from Concord, Mass., named Reinier Beeuwkes, a tall, bespectacled gentleman with thick, wavy white hair and a deep passion for the potential of fusion power.
Dubbed Mr. Fusion by lobbyists and lawmakers on the Hill, where he is a frequent presence, Beeuwkes says he has no financial ties to the fusion industry. A 1967 MIT graduate, Beeuwkes and his wife, Nancy, are top Democratic donors, having contributed nearly $1.9 million to political action committees and candidates in the last two election cycles.
Beeuwkes’s most critical role was his support for a Washington-based bipartisan think tank called the American Security Project. The organization was founded in 2006 by a group of retired generals and senators, including Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, to focus on national security issues.
Fusion became one of its primary issues in 2011 after Beeuwkes began giving money to the think tank and its lobbying arm, the American Security Action Fund. Neither Beeuwkes nor the American Security Project would disclose how much he gives to the organization’s fusion strategy.
The organization hired two lobbying firms to build congressional support for domestic fusion funding, including for MIT. One firm was the Boston-based ADS Ventures, started by Chet Atkins,a former congressman from Massachusetts. Together, Atkins and Beeuwkes, a friend and former neighbor, worked to identify more than a dozen Washington lawmakers to invite to tour the reactor when they were in town for fund-raisers.
Those lawmakers included House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Jon Tester of Montana, and Tom Udall of New Mexico — who serve on the energy and water subcommittee of Senate Appropriations. Beeuwkes and his wife have helped fund the election campaigns of some of the lawmakers.
“People who are calling up to ask for funds always ask you what matters to you, and I tell them,” Beeuwkes said. “That’s good politics.”
The American Security Project also enlisted K&L Gates, a Washington firm, to work the halls of Congress and keep tabs on the appropriations process.
Their talking points emphasized maintaining America’s leadership in the world and the potential for energy independence. In short, in 20 years, do we want to be buying it from the Chinese or selling it to the Chinese?
“People don’t take fusion energy seriously enough,” Beeuwkes said. “My efforts have been to get people who matter to take this seriously.”
Beeuwkes’s point person at the American Security Project was a Republican named Andrew Holland, the think tank’s senior fellow for energy and climate as well as a lobbyist.
Holland and other MIT supporters argued in Congress and to administration officials that shuttering the fusion experiment would be short-sighted, closing a pipeline of graduate students trained to eventually use the international facility in France.
Economic repercussions from ending MIT’s experiment would also ripple across the country, warned Holland. He created an interactive map showing all of the subcontractors linked to the MIT, Princeton, and General Atomics fusion reactors, as well as the international project, whose US headquarters are in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
The map, depicting how hundreds of subcontractors are spread in 47 of the 50 states, was particularly effective in persuading members to fight for more fusion funding, once they were able to visualize how their state, and constituents, were affected, Holland said.
MIT’s reach, represented by an array of green dots, extends from dozens of fusion-affiliated businesses in Massachusetts across the country to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Texas and California.
The multipronged battle to save MIT’s project — and the ensuing national mobilization — has been a “wake-up call” for the entire fusion community, Holland said. The lesson: Science needs to be sold if it is going to be properly funded.
Fusion researchers, Holland said, are “happy to have it be a nice little science experiment. They’re scientists. They’re not political animals.
“They thought the Department of Energy would just give them a nice amount of money in perpetuity and they’d be able to experiment,” he said. “This is too important to be left in the hands of the scientists.”
From crisis, an opportunity
Out of last October’s 16-day government shutdown emerged an opportunity for MIT.
A budget compromise struck between Representative Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who chairs the House Budget Committee, and his Senate counterpart Patty Murray, a Washington Democratic, in December would restore about $63 billion in automatic spending cuts over two years. Would fusion funding be a winner or casualty as that spending package ground toward a final vote?
The Republican-led House had already said yes to fusion, including continued funding for MIT’s experiment.
But the Democratic-controlled Senate had continued to oppose it. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and chairwoman of the appropriations energy and water subcommittee, had gone along with the president’s budget for 2014.
“Look, huge amounts of money go into these projects,” Feinstein said during a subcommittee hearing of the Senate energy and water bill last June. “We can’t keep funding if goals aren’t reached.”
In support of MIT, Senator Landrieu gave an impassioned speech during the hearing and expressed concerns that Obama’s cuts to the domestic fusion program would hurt the country’s scientists and universities.
“This is a big issue, it’s a little bit out of my lane, but I’ve learned about it,” Landrieu said, describing her visit to MIT’s reactor. “I would strongly suggest a serious review of what’s going on at MIT because I actually got to walk though the facility and was impressed with what they are doing.”
After months of lobbying, deal-making and congressional cajoling, it all came down to a closed-door bargaining session over the December holidays to head off another government shutdown. As is their way, congressional negotiators privately traded one item for another, never explicitly explaining why any one measure survived or died. But the end result, when the doors reopened, was that Landrieu’s position had prevailed.
In the final budget compromise unveiled in January, the Senate agreed to give MIT $22 million to run its experiment for 12 weeks in 2014 and allow for the remaining graduate students to complete their theses. The reactor would not be deactivated until 2016.
“That was an example of very effective lobbying on MIT’s behalf,” said a Senate aide with direct knowledge of the negotiations. “They invited tons of congressmen and senators to visit the facility. They sent students up here on the Hill to visit each of the member’s offices to talk about the impact that shutting the program would have on the future of fusion leadership in the United States. MIT raised this issue and put it at the top of [people’s] minds.’’
The international fusion project, meanwhile, was funded at $200 million, $25 million less than the administration had originally requested.
MIT had won, at least temporarily. The Obama administration, which got some funding for climate change initiatives out of the deal, gave in — much to the dismay of Brinkman, the former Energy Department official who believed the money should have been eliminated.
“You can say, ‘Hey, look, that’s what democracy is all about: people voice their concerns and go to Congress and get people to change their minds.’ We do not live in a monarchy,” Brinkman, who left the administration in April 2013 and is now a senior physicist at Princeton, said in a recent interview. “What can I say? It was a judgment that MIT wasn’t really prepared to live with. . . . Nobody wants to kill their own program.”
A victory, calls for vigilance
For MIT and its allies, it was an exhilarating against-the-odds victory. But the fight to keep the program going has, in fact, only just begun.
The controversy over the program flared again during an April subcommittee hearing on next year’s energy and water budget and whether MIT should be in it. Feinstein skeptically grilled an Energy Department official on why the administration backtracked and requested funding for the MIT project in 2015.
“As I understand it,” she said, “in your 2015 budget, you asked for $18 million to conduct research at this facility. The $18 million is only for five weeks of operation and supports 12 graduate students. This would be $1.5 million per graduate student.”
Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman, who represented the administration on fusion at the hearing, told Feinstein that the extra three years of funding would give the students a smoother transition and allow them to finish their research.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz sat next to Poneman but didn’t speak. As an MIT nuclear physicist appointed to Obama’s Cabinet in 2013, Moniz felt he had to recuse himself.
Still, his presence may have sent a message.
“Let’s be honest,” Capuano said. “Having Moniz there at least helps re-draw the big bold line that this isn’t the top priority to cut.”
At countdown, spirits lift off
At MIT’s reactor relaunch ceremony, the theatrics reached a climax when Senator Warren pushed the jerry-rigged launch button. She was simultaneously restarting the reactor, re-igniting MIT’s fusion dream, and celebrating the culmination of a furious political push.
The experiments could go on. No one would be laid off.
“It’s thrilling,” Warren said, shaking the hands of university officials who greeted her as a hero. “This is our future. Our future in science, and our future in power.”
“Mr. Fusion” — Beeuwkes — was on hand for the moment, wearing a suit and tie and a triumphant smile.
He sat in the back of the control room and, while downplaying his role, handed reporters, politicians, and their aides color copies of papers on fusion that he had printed out at home.
“These guys are building a power plant,” he exclaimed, pointing at the rows of scientists hunched over their computers. “We went to the moon! Why can’t we do this?”
As Warren turned to pose for photographs with researchers, L. Rafael Reif, the university president, clasped the senator’s hands with both of his.
“Senator Warren, you fought a good fight for the whole year,” he said. “I owe you a great deal.”
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Tracy Jan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeTracyJan.