US Flagship Fusion Reactor Breaks Down After $94 Million Spent Fixing It

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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America’s flagship “experimental fusion reactor” at Princeton University in New Jersey has broken down after $94 million was spent fixing it, and nobody knows what’s wrong.

Princeton researchers aren’t sure what’s causing the malfunction, but they suspect the reactor’s four-year-long, $94 million dollar upgrade and repair probably broke it. Much of the funding for the repair and upgrade was provided by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The  situation is “a challenge for everybody,” Dr. Earl Marmar, a senior research scientist in nuclear fusion who works on the reactor, said in a press statement. “We won’t be completely without access to experimental facilities, but it’s definitely not as good as it could have been for the coming year.”

Another Department of Energy-funded fusion reactor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was safely shut down Friday.

Companies and governments have been trying to create fusion reactors for decades, since such power would be “too cheap to meter” and drive other sources of electricity out of business.

Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works group claims to be developing a compact fusion reactor small enough to fit in a truck, which could generate enough electricity to power 80,000 homes.

A U.S. research team claimed in January to have discovered a way to initiate nuclear fusion reactions in a process called “fast ignition” using a high-intensity laser. Scientists believe that “fast ignition”could be a major breakthrough that could allow a fusion reaction to be controlled, because it requires less “start-up” energy than other methods.

German engineers from the Max Planck Institute successfully activated an experimental nuclear fusion reactor and managed to suspend plasma for the first time in December 2015. The German reactor took 19 years and cost $1.1 billion to build. The reactor passed the major technical milestone of generating its first plasma at a temperature of around one million degrees Celsius. It could demonstrate the first stable artificial nuclear fusion reaction sometime later this year.

Fusion power projects have been subject to repeated cost overruns and failures, like the plan to build the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) fusion reactor in France.

ITER was originally expected to cost approximately $5.7 billion, but cost overruns, design changes and rising raw material prices saw the amount almost triple to $ 14.9 billion. The project could end up costing $20 billion.

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