It’s not that often that we hear about major breakthroughs in nuclear research, and now such announcements, at least in the U.S., may become more infrequent. That’s because our nation’s “flagship experimental fusion reactor” is no longer working. This problem is made all the more frustrating by the fact that scientists just completed a four-year, $94 million upgrade on the machine. Researchers at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) in New Jersey are now trying to determine what exactly was behind the reactor’s failure, which could turn out to be a lengthy engagement.
The real travesty of the situation is that it means the U.S. has only one major facility in which to conduct nuclear fusion experiments. One of the only other reactors in the country, the Alcator C-Mod reactor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, was scheduled to shut down on Friday after more than 20 years of operations. And the Princeton reactor could be out of service for up to a year. Earl Marmar, who oversaw the MIT reactor called the situation “a challenge for everybody.”
“We won’t be completely without access to experimental facilities, but it’s definitely not as good as it could have been for the coming year,” he said.
Now that Princeton researchers are looking into the cause of their reactor’s malfunction, they’re noting that part of the problem may have arisen during the upgrade process, which made the reactor twice as powerful as its predecessor. As Nature reports, ” … a more careful analysis could have prevented the reactor failure.” And Stephen Dean, president of Fusion Power Associates, an advocacy group in Gaithersburg, Maryland, told the publication, “Mistakes like this do sometimes get made, but with all of the experience the fusion program has, it should not have happened this way.”
But don’t worry — according to the Department of Energy, the U.S. fusion research program is still in a good place, thanks to strong relationships with the international community. But all the same, experts like Dean note, “It’s not a good situation for our scientists to only have one machine running.”