MIT's fusion reactor has new lease on life

MIT’s a 20-year-old 40-foot-tall cylindrical Alcator C-Mod nuclear fusion reactor had been scheduled for closure. The Obama administration had determined that funds for fusion research would be better invested in two U.S. facilities—the DIII-D research program at General Atomics' Fusion Energy Research Lab in San Diego and the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory—and in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France.

Whatever the technical merits of MIT's efforts to produce fusion power, the institution was able to muster the political power to restore funding at least temporarily, according to a report by Tracy Jan in today's Boston Globe. Jan writes, “MIT enlisted the support of a wealthy Democratic donor from Concord and the help of an influential Washington think-tank co-founded by John Kerry. These efforts were backed by lobbyists, including a former congressman from Massachusetts, with connections to the right lawmakers on the right committees. The cast also included an alliance of universities [and] industry and national labs, all invested in the fusion dream.”

An interactive map showing businesses, contractors, and researchers in multiple states who contribute and benefit from the MIT and other fusion research efforts was instrumental in keeping the funding flowing.

Writes Jan, “In the final budget compromise unveiled in January, the Senate agreed to give MIT $22 million to run its experiment for 12 weeks in 2014 and allow for the remaining graduate students to complete their theses. The reactor would not be deactivated until 2016.”

She quotes a Senate aid as saying, “That was an example of very effective lobbying on MIT’s behalf. They invited tons of congressmen and senators to visit the facility. They sent students up here on the Hill to visit each of the member’s offices to talk about the impact that shutting the program would have on the future of fusion leadership in the United States. MIT raised this issue and put it at the top of [people’s] minds.”

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