U.S. enlists Russian aid in nuclear fusion Federal government hiring more than 100 scientists

March 06, 1992|By William J. Broad | William J. Broad,New York Times News Service

The federal government is hiring more than a hundred scientists from Russia to help America harness the vast energy of nuclear fusion. Russia pioneered the field, in which powerful magnetic fields are used to try to tame for constructive use the kind of thermonuclear fire that lights the sun.

The deal is the first known case in which the government has tapped Russia's scientific talent, although private industry has already done so.

Russian scientists, desperate amid a crumbling economy, can now be hired for a pittance by Western standards. In a one-year $90,000 contract, the United States will buy the services of 116 Russian scientists. While this amount comes to only $65 a month per scientist, it equals 6,500 rubles a month, or more than seven times the unofficial national average monthly wage of 900 rubles.

The fusion research is to be done by scientists at the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in Moscow on a type of fusion reactor known as a tokamak and the findings are to be sent to the United States. The work is sponsored by the U.S. Energy Department, which finances similar research in the United States.

"This will advance the U.S. program at a cost that is very modest,"N. Anne Davies, head of fusion research at the department, said yesterday.

The Russians invented the tokamak reactor and over the decades have built a number of the giant machines at the Kurchatov Institute in an attempt to perfect the method. A tokamak -- whose name is derived from the Russian acronym for a toroidal, or doughnut-shaped, magnetic chamber -- uses magnetic fields to "bottle" extremely hot thermonuclear reactions. This type of reactor is principally being used by scientists worldwide in trying to achieve fusion.

The ultimate aim is to fashion machines that would produce a new kind of nuclear energy that is cheap, clean and virtually inexhaustible some time in the 21st century.

The federal government sees the Russian research as inherently peaceful, and apparently has no qualms about aiding it. In contrast, the Bush administration has quietly blocked the purchase of missiles, rocket engines, space reactors and other aerospace goods from the former Soviet Union in an attempt to cripple the Russian military complex so it poses no future U.S. threat.

The fusion deal is also different from the recent effort to redirect Russian nuclear bomb designers. The administration has pledged $25 million to help establish an institute to keep them occupied with peaceful scientific work.

In contrast, the fusion initiative is an attempt, at least in part, to sample the cream of Russian science and technology.

The contract will buy the equivalent of millions of dollars' worth of fusion research in the United States, said Thomas C. Simonen, director of tokamak programs at General Atomics, a private company in San Diego that will direct the Russian work.

Fusion produces energy by fusing, or welding, the atoms of light elements. In contrast, the nuclear fission reactors now in operation around the world make energy by breaking apart the atoms of heavy elements like uranium.

A major attraction of fusion is that the main fuel, deuterium, a heavy form of hydrogen, can be easily extracted from water in nearly endless quantities. In theory, fusion could produce far more energy from, say, the top two inches of Lake Erie than exists in all the Earth's known oil reserves.

Despite the allure, the efforts of thousands of scientists and the expenditure of billions of dollars over nearly a half-century, the goal of controlling fusion has remained elusive because of its intrinsic difficulty.

The closest natural example is the sun, where temperatures at the core are 14 million degrees Celsius and gravitational pressures are crushing. There, atomic nuclei are driven so close together that they fuse and release vast energy.

In a fusion reactor, the temperature must be higher, around 200 million degrees Celsius, because the fusion fuel undergoes far less compression than materials at the sun's core.

For years, the twin goals of fusion research have been to boost the temperature of fuels and to create proper magnetic fields to hold them. The fuels are so hot that they would instantly melt any metal, ceramic or glass vessel.

Russian scientists have made major strides in achieving both goals. They pioneered the most widely accepted magnet design for a reactor, the doughnut-shaped tokamak, and invented innovative ways to heat fuels with beams of microwave energy.

But they have now fallen on hard times. Most fusion equipment at the Kurchatov Institute is said to be idle for lack of funds.

In November, the Russians proposed doing experiments for the U.S. fusion program during a Moscow visit by officials from the Energy Department. Though interested, the U.S. officials moved cautiously to make sure the proposal was acceptable financially, legally and politically. Dr. Simonen said it had been approved by the State Department and the White House, getting the green light last month.

"The biggest hurdle was the U.S. government," he said, "and now that's gone through." The Russians, he added, are expected to return a signed contract soon. The Russian team is so eager to get started, Dr. Simonen said, that it has already begun working for the U.S. program.

The Kurchatov team, headed by Dr. Boris Kadomtsev, is working on a reactor known as T-10, which is not the largest tokamak at the institute but has the world's most powerful microwave source for heating fusion fuel. The team is made up of scientists, engineers and technicians, Dr. Simonen said. The first experiment will take about five months.

The institute is named after Dr. Igor V. Kurchatov, the father of the Soviet A-bomb. For decades it has done little or no weapons work, focusing instead on making innovative reactors, including ones for use in space.

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