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By Linda A. Johnson

From: NEN, Vol. 6, No. 10, July 1999, p. 3.
New Energy News (NEN) copyright 1999 by Fusion Information Center, Inc.
COPYING NOT ALLOWED without written permission.


Linda A. Johnson, "Princeton Researches Fusion Energy," Associated Press, Plainsboro, N.J.


Research with the newest experimental nuclear reactor in the U.S. leads some scientists to believe that they are closer to useable nuclear fusion. This reactor, the National Spherical Torus eXperiment (NSTX) at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, is an "enormous example of the potential" of the technology, said Energy Secretary Bill Richardson recently.

Robert J. Goldston, laboratory director, said that the radioactivity produced by a fusion reactor is 100,000 times less than in an equivalent fission reactor. But, the projected fruition of research into the technology to control a self-sustaining "burn" of nuclear fuel is suspected to be decades away and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

In the meantime, the federal government has cut spending by over half to the entire fusion research program, and down to only $27 million annually for NSTX. This could spell problems for the U.S. in the long run, since it also takes us out of the running for planned international collaborations on the next generations of reactors and worldwide hot nuclear fusion research. This may result in the U.S. needing to pay for rights to use other countries' technologies in future research.

All this makes the smaller cheaper NSTX look much more attractive to U.S. scientists, particularly since replacing the now defunct Tokamak would cost 15 times as much as NSTX's relatively small $24 million price tag.

Experiments that started last February have been better than expected, proving the reactor's capability to create plasma efficiently. In January 2000, with all systems up and running, it will begin a run of experiments that will last several years, after which the project team of scientists will use what they have learned to adjust the machine for optimal performance.

Another change in this reactor is a removable central core containing some of its most complex equipment, and therefore repairs and upgrades can be done in days with much less trouble than before. The narrower central core also may allow for higher pressures of plasma, which is needed to keep reactions going longer than has been achieved so far.

Whether this research will aid in future energy generation is still a bone of contention, but the research generates other profitable spinoffs such as using plasmas to make better computer chips, to sterilize medical equipment, making better luminous display panels, and possibly providing a lightweight fuel for rocket thrusters in spacecraft.

Summary by Dineh Torres

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Aug. 25, 1999.