For decades many have considered nuclear fusion to be the brass ring of energy technologies, believing that – were it to be successful and commercially viable – it would offer sustained electricity production with no CO2, particulate pollution, or radioactive waste. Research into safely and consistently harnessing fusion’s potential for civil use has been ongoing since the mid-Twentieth Century. Yet to date no viable commercial applications have been developed. Two prominent fusion research efforts – ITER and the National Ignition Facility (NIF) – are facing potential problems. ITER may be at risk of diminished U.S. funding due to tightening Congressional budgeting on energy and science programs, and NIF so far has failed to achieve ignition, despite robust budgetary support.

ITER (originally an acronym of International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) is an international effort to design and build an experimental advanced “magnetic confinement” fusion reactor. The total cost of the project, which has continued to escalate, was recently estimated to be about € 15 billion, 45% of which will be covered by the European Union. Over the course of the construction project (expected to have “first plasma” before 2020) the total U.S. obligation could approach $3 billion. For fiscal year 2013 DOE has requested $150 million, after spending $80 million in FY 2011 and $105 million in FY 2012. Without access to substantial new financial resources, DOE would have to significantly pare back its domestic plasma physics program.

NIF, located at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is the world’s largest “inertial confinement” fusion project. It employs an array of 192 lasers to induce fusion of bb-sized capsules of hydrogen. Although NIF’s primary role is to assist the National Nuclear Security Administration’s stockpile stewardship program, fusion proponents hope NIF will be the first inertial confinement project to achieve “ignition,” or more energy output than input.

There are several small start-up fusion efforts that are privately funded, but none have progressed far enough to allow realistic assessments of potential success. General Fusion, a Canadian company, is one example. It claims its acoustic shock wave approach to plasma compression “does away with the huge containment and laser costs associated with enormous magnetic fusion and inertial confinement fusion machines.” The company also claims that its “power plants will be competitive with both the capital and operating costs of coal plants, and lower than nuclear fission plants or newer ‘clean coal’ technology.” It is far too early to say whether General Fusion’s claims are justified.

Given fusion’s half-century history and current federal budgetary pressures, several questions beg answers.  Is commercially-viable, affordable and clean fusion energy a realistic possibility? Should the U.S. continue to fund large magnetic and inertial confinement projects such as ITER and NIF, apart from weapons applications? What would the impact be on America’s technological leadership and international scientific standing if the U.S. were to withdraw from ITER? What would the impact be on American science, and the U.S. energy sector, if a continued U.S. commitment to ITER severely curtailed domestic plasma science?