Open Letter to the OFES of the DOE

63 young fusion energy research professionals plead with the D.O.E to not end fusion research in America.  The American Physical Society pleads for public support of physics research in general.  The fate of American research will be decided in the next several weeks by 2 politicians in secret discussions over the budget. 

American energy science is in crisis at this moment.  Reactionary forces want to finally complete the destruction of our technical infrastructure began more than 3 generations ago.  Fusion energy science, serving its usual role as the canary in the mineshaft, is about to succumb to the poisonous fumes in Washington DC.  This is a warning about a serious impending threat to our future.

The immediate threat is the attempt to strangle government support for anything other than the finances of the richest families.  The goal is to establish fiscal austerity during this time of near-depression recession economy.  Every week for the past 3 years, nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman has warned that this is the wrong action for our depression economy.  For a variety of reasons (recent Krugman articles: 2012-Dec07, and 2012-Dec17),  the strategy to bring a nation out of depression is to vigorously fund, now,  programs that will help the future, provide current jobs, and keep workers fed, housed and healthy — not the reverse of each of these.  This applies to energy research – it is key to our success as an industrial nation.  In light of falling oil reserves, global warming, crop failures, our future has changed from what we once projected. Preparation is required to avoid the collapse every past human civilization has experienced.

This month, a group of fusion physicists published this Open Letter to the US Department Of Energy’s Associate Director for the Office of Fusion Energy Sciences (OFES).  This is an important plea from people who are in their career-building years, most are not yet well known.  We repeat it in its entirety, but it is available here.  Click to jump to our discussion, past the letter.     Click any figure for its full image.

The Open Letter to the Office of Fusion Energy Sciences


Fig 1: DIII-D ca 1990, International user facility, 1 of 3 operating

We are early-career research scientists and professors, all under 40, who work in plasma and fusion science.  We are concerned about the proposed fiscal year 2013 budget for the Office of Fusion Energy Sciences (OFES) in the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and about the future plasma and fusion science funding trajectory it represents.

The current US administration has affirmed its “worldclass commitment to science,” with the goal of attracting more US students to science and engineering now, and to ITER, the international tokamak fusion project, as it reaches full operating capacity 15 years from now. Those commitments should be applauded, and they should be acted on sensibly to maximize the return on investment for US taxpayers
in today’s tough fiscal environment.


Fig 2:  NSTX (Princeton) 2nd of 3 in US. Closed for upgrades 2013

With a price tag upwards of $20 billion, ITER is the cornerstone of the world’s fusion energy program. It represents a leap forward on the path to a viable fusion reactor. Yet ITER is more than an engineering project. It will have to create, confine, and control a self-sustained, burning plasma. The challenge of studying that plasma state is matched by the anticipation of what we will learn. We have theories of how a burning plasma will behave and how associated heat loads and energetic particles will impact the ITER wall materials. And there is one thing we know: ITER is discovery science, and a burning plasma will produce plenty of surprises once we get there.

Some surprises may be advantageous, others will need to be mitigated. US plasma and fusion scientists must be in a position to understand and expand on those new physics insights. The vibrant domestic program must be maintained and nurtured, so that today’s graduate students and postdocs can become experienced scientists and leaders 15 years from now.

Alcator-Cmod under installation. 3rd of 3 in US operating, scheduled for shutdown under current budget

Fig 3:   Alcator-Cmod under installation. 3rd of 3 in US operating, scheduled for shutdown under current budget

Instead, the administration’s FY 2013 OFES budget redirects one-sixth of the FY 2012 domestic spending to the ITER project (see PHYSICS TODAY, June 2012, page 25). If that trend continues, within the next two years hundreds of scientists and engineers at premier US institutions will be laid off. Over time, those layoffs will lead to the permanent loss of some of the brightest young minds from the US plasma and fusion program, and likely from the academic and research communities altogether.

The fusion program has a public-image problem: It was supposed to deliver cheap and safe nuclear energy long before many of us young scientists entered the field. But the plasma and fusion program is much broader than energy research. It encompasses the study of supernovae explosions, solar coronal mass ejections, galaxy clusters, wakefield accelerators, the basic complexity of dynamical systems, and many other plasma phenomena.

Plasma science, with its enormous breadth, draws on many funding agencies, but the 2007 National Research Council report Plasma Science: Advancing Knowledge in the National Interest has called on the DOE Office of Science to take the stewardship role in guiding the multifaceted and exciting research field forward. The Office of Science must act on this deed of trust and enable us to capitalize on the public curiosity and interest in the 99.9% of the visible universe we call a plasma.


Fig 4:  International Tokamak ITER, under construction in Europe

The US Congress has consistently said that ITER funding should not come from the domestic fusion program, which is already underfunded, yet the contributions to ITER are threatening to consume the entire domestic OFES-funded program. The proposed FY 2013 US contribution to ITER is $150 million and is scheduled to double or even triple in the next few years. That makes us deeply concerned for the ability of the Office of Science to allow and encourage domestic plasma and fusion research to survive and thrive.

The under-40 crowd, those expected to lead our field in the ITER era, respectfully request that you not let the worldleading US plasma and fusion program weaken in comparison to our partners and competitors. Instead, let us capitalize on the taxpayers’ domestic R&D and ITER investments. Let us build a stronger and broader program to advance knowledge in basic plasma and fusion science and to prepare the scientific workforce of this country for the era of burning plasma.

In addition to the two of us, 61 other early-career scientists from 27 organizations across the country have signed this letter. The original version, with all its signatories, is available at

Vyacheslav LukinUS Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, DC
Anne WhiteMassachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge


click for list of MFE posts in LastTechAge

In a number of other posts, LastTechAge has discussed this technical/social crisis that Lukin, White and 61 others discuss.  Most of our posts provide additional information.


Fig 5:  Fusion budget collapsed just as success happened. All synched with turn-on of Pump transferring income to American ultra classes

As a past fusion scientist and now into retirement,  I have one major quibble.  Lukin and White discuss the “fusion program public-image problem” as though it were an embarrassment that came up from physics overhype and self delusion.  Bluntly: Not So.

Fig 5 shows that the bottom fell out of the fusion budget just as H-mode confinement was discovered, the need for ‘D’ shaped containment was proven,  and requirements for a diverter were understood. We also discussed this in our trilogy that included Kill The Beast.

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Also, on December 10, 2012, the American Physical Society (principal US physics organization) sent an emergency appeal to its physics members to contact congress members and halt the destructive shutdown in all research funding.  The text of this email can be read in our PDF Reference page:  APS requests help 2012 Dec.

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Not just physics and fusion research are endangered.  All such programs supported by the U.S. government are threatened.   Part 2 of this series discusses the why, how and when of the action we must do to retain American capability in the full range of sciences.

Update: 2012 Dec 21   At the urging of a reader (urging not from a Comment) the second half was moved from this post to an expanded Part 2.  How and When Should Science be Supported?


Charles J. Armentrout, Ann Arbor
2012 Dec 17
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About LastTechAge

I am a physicist with years of work in fusion labs, industry labs, and teaching (physics and math). I have watched the tech scene, watched societal trends and am alarmed. My interest is to help us all improve or maintain that which we worked so hard to achieve.
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