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Press Releases :: October 29, 2009

Subcommittee Examines DOE’s Fusion Programs and the Challenges and Benefits of Fusion Energy

(Washington, DC) – Today, the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Energy and Environment held a hearing to examine the next generation of fusion energy research. Specifically, the Subcommittee looked at both domestic and international partnerships in fusion energy research and programs within the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science’s Fusion Energy Sciences (FES) program and DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
 
“Fusion energy has successfully powered the sun and the stars for billions of years, so it’s no surprise that man would try to recreate and harness this energy source here on earth. However, we all know that a working fusion reactor has been much more difficult to achieve than our atomic-age scientists initially expected,” stated Subcommittee Chairman Brian Baird (D-WA). “Over the years, there were also some overly optimistic or even fraudulent proclamations by self-identified fusion researchers who skipped the peer review process and went straight to the media, further complicating the popular and political assessment of the extent to which the federal government should continue to support this research.”
 
Fusion is the process by which two atoms combine to form both a larger atom and energy. American scientists have spent the last five decades trying to replicate the fusion process. Fusion research began in the 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project, but was not successful until 1952 with the development of a deployable thermonuclear weapon. Although fusion research has been conducted for many years, there are still a number of significant questions left unanswered and engineering challenges to address, but if these issues were overcome, fusion has the potential to become a relatively inexhaustible source of energy.
 
Unanswered questions scientists must overcome for the success of fusion energy include:
·         Can we adequately control the charged gas in a fusion system?
·         What materials should be used in a fusion reactor?
·         When comparing to other energy sources, how economical can a fusion reactor be?
·         For inertial fusion energy, is it possible for us to build a system that can perfectly implode a pellet of fusion fuel and recover energy at the necessary rate to produce significant net energy?
 
Subcommittee Members questioned witnesses about the benefits of fusion compared to other sources of energy. The key benefits of fusion energy are:
·         It could be a practically inexhaustible energy source, since the fuel is a type of hydrogen found in ocean waters;
·         There is no potential for catastrophic failure at fusion plants;
·         It could be a baseload energy source; and
·         It is environmentally friendly and will not release greenhouse gasses.
 
“Big questions will still remain, such as what the appropriate choices are for materials in a device which contains gases that can be hotter than the sun. But the U.S. fusion program needs to do all it can to ensure these successes, and be ready to take advantage of them if and when they occur,” said Baird. “I look forward to learning more about how this program should evolve in light of recent developments.”
 
This was the first Congressional hearing on fusion energy in thirteen years.
 
For more information on the Committee’s work on energy, visit the Committee’s website.
 
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