If this funding were drawn from the already overconstrained budget of $290 million, the drain would devastate fusion research. That is the reason the overwhelming consensus of the U.S. fusion community in favor of ITER is predicated on the maintenance of strong domestic fusion and plasma physics research, plus additional funds for ITER construction.
Whether such an increase in overall fusion expenditures is justified depends on the importance of this energy research. Even if fusion were only funded at the resulting level (less than $0.5 billion per year), it would still be substantially less than the Department of Energy currently spends on each of high energy physics, fossil energy research, and basic energy sciences. And it pales into insignificance in comparison with the recent budgets of the Missile Defense Agency (typically $9 billion per year) and NASA ($16 billion).* The United States spends close to $1 trillion per year on the energy it consumes. In the context of that economic reality, fusion research would be cheap at twice its price.
Just how important is energy research to the United States? Today, more than ever, I think, policy-makers and the U.S. public realize that energy is going to remain one of civilization’s key challenges for the future. MIT’s new president, Susan Hockfield, recently announced a major Institute-wide initiative in energy research. We are going to need a broad range of environmentally friendly energy supply options, as well as conservation to ensure that we use our energy wisely.
Fusion offers one of the most environmentally attractive independent energy options for the long term. ITER is an exciting next step in this global technological challenge. The United States should seize the opportunity to play a strong role in its success by renewing our overall fusion program, by acting to reassure the other partners that the United States is a reliable scientific collaborator with a committed long-term vision, and by engaging in the project with the expertise and enthusiasm that our nation possesses in such abundance.
*[Sentence was changed on 7/14 from: “And it pales into insignificance in comparison with the long-standing budgets of the Star Wars missile defense research agency (typically $3 billion per year) and NASA ($14 billion).”]