|1982: Nuclear fusion in Princeton
|By PAUL MICKLE and LAUREN M. BLACK
| In a giant lab near the atom-splitting town of Princeton on Christmas Eve in 1982, scientists produced a tiny spark of energy by fusing atoms together in a new kind of reactor that had been built with $314 million in mostly government funds.
The experiment demonstrated for the first time ever that generating power could be safer and cheaper in the far future. And with fuel costs and fear of nuclear power running high in the country, Americans liked what they heard about the new technology.
Vexed through the 1970s by Arab gasoline squeezes and warnings about the world running out of oil and coal, President Jimmy Carter and other leaders clamored for a new way to generate electricity and even power for cars.
In Princeton — where an earlier generation of scientists had created the nuclear power industry by theorizing that atoms could be split to produce enough power to level a city — a new crop of physicists got to work on a proposal for a "fusion'' reactor.
The theory was that atoms also could produce power when fused together and that the process would be less dangerous than smashing atoms, the system in use at dozens of nuclear power plants across the world. The fission-based plants were simply controlled explosions of Hiroshima proportion, fusion theorists said.
With money put up in 1976 by the U.S. Department of Energy and 400 American corporations with a huge stake in the future of power generation, brainiacs from the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab started building the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor in 1978 on a farm in Plainsboro, just outside Princeton.
The 80-ton donut-shaped reactor became operational with the successful Christmas experiment of 1982. In 1985, the Tokamak briefly generated 100 million degrees of heat, as much as put out every second by the sun.
The developments were so encouraging that some scientists started predicting that by the middle of the next century, nuclear fusion would be providing heat and electricity to some homes and industry.
Through the rest of the 1980s, Plasma Physics lab researchers and the Tokamak set several world fusion records that stand today. It all was bringing the country closer to a safer and more efficient system of generating power.
But in 1991, with the Persian Gulf War won and cheap oil from the Arab states flowing freely to the U.S. for the first time in a generation, government started cutting back funding for fusion research.
"The public perception of an energy crisis went away and with it went the promises for funding to find an alternative method of energy," said Tony DeMeo, a spokesman for the lab since its onset.
Congress cut $50 million from the $325 million national program for fusion research in 1991. By 1995, government funding had been cut about 40 percent and the lab was forced to lay off about 250 of its 800 physicists, engineers and technicians.
Government funding for fusion testing these days is down 75 percent from the early 1980s. The Tokamak was de-commissioned in 1997, having cost more than $1 billion to build and operate.
But even with the cuts and shift in American attention from energy to budgetary crisis, the Princeton lab continued to set world records. Some rank among the greatest scientific accomplishments of the century, according to DeMeo.
Tokamak holds world records for high plasma temperatures, experimentation with new fuel mixtures and the wattage of power generated by fusion.
In 1993, it became the first to convert to energy an even mixture of two elements found in abundance in sea water, deterium and tritium.
The development was significant because it showed that, unlike the power tapped from nuclear fission, there is no dangerous waste left behind after atoms taken from sea water are fused.
For almost a second in 1994, the Tokamak produced a flash of light that represented three million watts of electricity — enough to power 3,000 homes.
In 1995, the reactor reached 510 million degrees — more than 30 times hotter than the center of the sun.
In fission — the separation of atoms to produce energy — large amounts of harmful emissions and radioactive waste are produced, creating threats to human health and the environment.
In fusion — the magnetic joining of atoms to produce energy — the small amount of waste produced can be contained within the plant. Fuel is made from hydrogen and other elements that are abundant all over the world.
Lighter atoms, like hydrogen, are joined together at high temperatures, at least 100 million degrees, until they become plasma, the hottest state of matter. The plasma is converted into energy with miniscule waste and pollution in comparison fossil fuels like coal and oil.
DeMeo predicts that funding for nuclear fusion research will resume when natural resources begin to dwindle and the public perceives another energy crisis.
It has been predicted that the world's population will double by 2050, particularly in third-world countries, and governments will be scrambling for a cheaper way to generate electricity. Fusion will be the answer, DeMeo said.
"By the middle of next century, the world's energy needs will be three times what they are today," DeMeo said. "The problem of pollution and the fear that the fossil fuels will run out will make us need alternative sources."
Princeton has recently begun the National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX), a less expensive alternative to the Tokamak. PPPL has reformatted its research program since the Tokamak was de-commissioned in 1997. Now, the program focuses on research instead of experimentation with making commercial energy, DeMeo said.
But if America ever decides to again speed up the research into nuclear fusion, the Princeton brain trust will be ready, like it was when the country needed a bomb to end WWII and in the 1970s and 1980s when fear of fuel shortages led to construction of Tokamak.