Determined to avoid the problems that robbed California of other major scientific projects in recent years, scientists throughout the state have united in an effort to win the chance to design the world's most powerful fusion reactor and demonstrate the viability of harnessing the fuel that powers the sun.
The scientists, who will present their proposal in Washington this week, are involved in a joint effort by the United States, Japan, the Soviet Union and Europe. The long-range goal is the construction of a multibillion-dollar fusion reactor that will demonstrate the feasibility of generating electricity by fusing atoms--rather than splitting them, as is done in current nuclear power plants--with a safe, clean technology that could free the world of much of its dependence on exhaustible fossil fuels.
But before the plant can be built, it must first be designed, and that will involve an intense research project that will cost up to $1 billion. The California scientists say they want that phase of the project located in San Diego.
"We're trying to get everybody on board," said M. Lea Rudee, dean of engineering at UC San Diego. "We've gotten the support of every major activity in the state that's involved in fusion."
California makes sense, scientists insist, because it is already the home of several major fusion projects.
"There are five UC campuses that do fusion research," said David O. Overskei, senior vice president of General Atomics in San Diego and one of the leaders in California's effort. In addition, a wide range of facilities, such as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and many industries are involved in related research.
"California at this time has a very, very good set of facilities to offer," said Stephen D. Rockwood, vice president of Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego. "We have an excellent chance of getting it." But California faces stiff competition, both in the United States and abroad.
The state's recent track record in landing federal support for major facilities has not been good, even in areas where the state had a very clear advantage.
The most glaring example was the National Science Foundation's decision to establish the national Earthquake Engineering Research Center in New York instead of California, despite California's leading role in earthquake engineering. The state failed to land the earthquake center because it did not present a united program that would have taken advantage of all of California's resources, critics of that decision have maintained.
The fusion researchers are determined not to make that same mistake.
If they succeed, California will become "the intellectual focus for the world's efforts in fusion," Rockwood said.
Scientists hope to build the giant fusion reactor in about a decade. The program is truly an international effort, with each of the partners paying one-fourth of the cost. It will bring together the finest minds in the field from throughout the world, and scientists hope it will prove for the first time that fusion reactors can be built to generate electricity. Current nuclear power plants split atoms in a process that releases heat. But the process also creates highly radioactive waste and must be carefully maintained to keep the reaction from running out of control. A loss of control could lead to meltdown and the release of deadly contamination.
By contrast, fusion creates heat when atoms are combined, and the radioactive waste problem is far less serious. And if a fusion reaction fails, the entire system stops rather than running wild, so the safety concerns are eased.
Most important, fuel for a fusion reactor is a form of hydrogen that can be drawn from seawater--a limitless resource.
But before any of that can be done, a large-scale research reactor must be built, and that will push the edge of technology on a wide range of fronts. There are several fusion reactors in the world, but none of them were designed to operate for long periods at temperatures greater than those at the sun's core--a prerequisite for a fusion power plant.
Unlike any other fusion project in the world, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor will be designed to operate for more than a week at a time, and it will also produce electricity.
"There is no facility presently operating or being considered that would have the capabilities this will have," said General Atomics' Overskei. It will be designed to produce as much electricity as an 1,100-megawatt power plant, which would rank it among the largest power plants in the world. But the purpose of the project is research, not the production of electricity, so the focus will be on developing the equipment and the materials that could make fusion a realistic alternative.
At this point, nobody really knows what materials, if any, could withstand exposure to the temperatures and severe conditions inside a fusion plant for weeks at a time.
"There is no test facility that can generate the environment to test the materials you will need to make fusion a reality," said UCSD's Rudee, an expert on materials research. "The (reactor) will be designed to test its components. There's no other way to do that than to build it."
Development of the reactor could lead to breakthroughs in a wide range of fields, from high-temperature superconductivity to the creation of a new generation of composite materials, scientists contend.
The reactor may not be built for nearly a decade, and the site will not even be chosen for several years. But the design phase clearly represents one of the sweetest plums in science today, and the California scientists have set their goal on that phase.
There are at least two other strong U.S. proposals. One is from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in conjunction with the University of Tennessee, and the other is from the University of Texas, which demonstrated its political acumen when it helped win the $8-billion Superconducting Supercollider project--the world's largest atom smasher--for Texas.
The U.S. Department of Energy is expected to pick the U.S. contender by Oct. 8 and submit it to the international committee that is directing the project.
Competition from other countries is expected to be fierce. France and Germany are expected to field strong entries, and Japan is dangling some extraordinary incentives--even offering to build a city for the design phase center, complete with office buildings, housing and schools for the dependents of participating scientists and engineers.
But California scientists believe they have a strong chance. Their optimism is based on two fronts: the abundance of research facilities already located in California, and the desirability of living here.
"You have to have a site where the top scientists and engineers are willing to come for five years," Rudee said. "It's a major, long-term commitment, and this is an attractive place to live."
The international committee is to pick the site for the design phase in December in Vienna.
Harnessing the power of the atom for peaceful uses has been the dream of scientists for half a century. They have sought to do that two ways: by splitting the atom, as in the current generation of nuclear power plants, and by fusing atoms together--possibly the energy source of the future. Fission has been only partially successful. The technology has produced power plants that provide a significant share of electrical power around the world, but it has also produced potentially lethal radioactive wastes, concerns over safety and a reliance upon an exhaustible energy source--uranium. Fusion power plants would use a form of hydrogen found in ordinary seawater. But fusion power plants must operate at temperatures greater than those at the core of the sun, and maintaining a fusion reaction for prolonged periods would require an extraordinary technological performance. No one has been able to do it so far.