Fusion--A Possible Option for Solving Long-Term Energy Problems

EMD-79-27: Published: Sep 28, 1979. Publicly Released: Sep 28, 1979.

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GAO reviewed the history and status of fusion energy research to provide an overview of the Department of Enegy's (DOE) magnetic confinement and inertial confinement fusion programs. DOE officials are optimistic that fusion energy will become a commercially feasible power source in the 21st century. Recent experimental results indicate that the scientific breakeven for fusion reactors will come in the mid-1980s. However, scientific and engineering feasibility must be proven and commercial practicality demonstrated. According to DOE estimates it will cost $18 billion for a fusion reactor of an economically competitive design to be realized in a safe, environmentally acceptable manner.

From a research classification standpoint, fusion is in the applied research phase of development, but portions of both the magnetic and inertial confinement fusion efforts are still in the basic or fundamental research phase. Therefore, it is premature to assume that all the problems that may be encountered have been identified. Experimental data indicate that some formidable physics and engineering problems remain. It is only after these problems are resolved and scientific and engineering feasibility are demonstrated that the commercial potential of fusion as an energy source can be determined. During its consideration of the fiscal year 1979 budget Congress chose not to separate funding for civilian uses of inertial confinement fusion from military funding of it. GAO agreed that a separately funded civilian use program is not yet needed. This should come after breakeven and scientific feasibility have been proven. While continued funding of fusion research is needed to keep this energy option open, the Congress, in considering the adequacy of requested funding levels for fusion should be mindful that fusion energy should not be looked to as a means for solving the Nation's near- or mid-term energy problems.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of DOE should ensure that, in future budget submissions, fusion is clearly described as a long-term energy option with unknown potential for becoming a viable commercial energy source. Future public statements concerning the activities and accomplishments of the fusion programs should avoid language which may lead to the belief that fusion energy may become commercially viable in the near- or mid-term, unless evidence clearly indicates otherwise.

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