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Plasma Time

George Will’s column over the weekend was about the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, which fits George since he is a Princeton alum.  He comes to the main policy point at the end:

Because the fusion energy program lacks such immediacy, transparency and glamour, it poses a much more difficult test for the political process. Because of its large scale and long time horizon, the fusion project is a perfect example of a public good the private sector cannot pursue and the public sector should not slight. Most government revenues now feed the public’s unslakable appetite for transfer payments. The challenge for today’s political class is to moderate its subservience to this appetite sufficiently to enable the basic science that will earn tomorrow’s gratitude.

Can we invoke a point of personal privilege and note that Power Line was onto the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab two years ago, where we noted that both Obama and the Democratic Congress had stiffed fusion research because it offered no opportunities for graft or pork barrel.  As we reported at the time:

You would think this would be the kind of initiative that President Obama, having promised to “restore science to its proper place” in his inaugural address, would strongly support.  And you’d be wrong.  Turns out fusion energy research received much stronger support and higher funding from the “anti-science” Bush Administration. . .

The total budget for the Princeton lab is considerably less than the Solyndra loan guarantee.  A public choice economist will tell you instantly why this happens.  Fusion power doesn’t offer any pork barrel opportunities, and doesn’t fit the “green jobs now” idiocy that drove the $35 billion loan guarantee program that gave us Solyndra.  There’s nothing in it for the politicians.  (In fact, Congress under Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid stiffed the European ITER fusion program, which was initiated by Reagan and Gorbachev way back in the 1980s, to which the U.S. pledged to contribute 9 percent of the budget.  But since the ITER project will be built in France instead of someone’s home district here, Congress refused to approve the appropriation under Pelosi and Reid.)

Fusion power is not something the private sector will ever undertake, at least not until very late stage.  And to be sure, research scientists should not get a Manhattan Project-style blank check.  But some kind of consistency and long-range commitment ought not to be too much to contemplate, even in an age of fiscal constraint.  The Princeton lab designed and started to build a new generation “stellarator” model fusion reactor, but after ordering up the components had to mothball the whole project when their budget was slashed.  So now the parts sit in their warehouse.  It would take $100 million to complete this project, a tiny fraction of the funds allocated for the loan guarantee program that brought us gems like Solyndra.

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