Those of us in the physics business (and many others) have thought that the science behind the effort to develop practical power generation with nuclear fusion is really nifty – and we’ve been thinking it for decades.
So the claim in this morning’s New York Times that practical power generation with nuclear fusion is only 20 years away (if we make the necessary investment) is familiar: We’ve been hearing the “20 years away” line for decades.
But that is no reason not to keep trying. The author of this morning’s op-ed quotes a cost of $30 billion over 20 years.
In fact, it can be argued that this is exactly the sort of science that government should be supporting: research that is too risky for the private sector but which has a huge upside.
This is a dangerous moment for American basic science. In the search for trillions of dollars of savings, policy-makers might devour a few billion dollars per year in support for basic research that produces important scientific advances and, more importantly, new generations of scientists. (Example: Check the list of jobs that the 120 Ph.D. grads of the FSU experimental nuclear physics program have and you’ll be surprised to see how many are in the private sector doing research and other work that doesn’t look at all like nuclear physics.)
We should all be hoping that our leaders have the sense not to eat the nation’s economic seed corn.