WASHINGTON -- In an unprecedented use of U.S. money to sustain cutting-edge Russian research, the United States has decided to fund a major Russian nuclear laboratory, paying the salaries of 116 former Soviet scientists to work on harnessing nuclear fusion for civilian use, officials said yesterday.
The Department of Energy plans to support the fusion research program of Moscow's Kurchatov Institute at a price that is a bargain by Western standards: roughly $65 a month for each scientist -- a total of only $90,000 in a one-year contract.
In exchange, U.S. scientists will enjoy continued access to the institute's work, which includes the world's highest power "gyrotron" -- a device that uses microwaves to heat nuclear fuel to temperatures of millions of degrees centigrade.
The ultimate aim of the research is to tame fusion -- the thermonuclear reaction that produces the vast energy of the sun -- for everyday human use. The United States and Russia have been cooperating on fusion research since 1974, when Russia was part of the Soviet Union.
"We're very pleased," said N. Anne Davies, chief of the Energy Department's fusion office. "They are awfully good people at the Kurchatov Institute and they are doing work that's very relevant to what we are doing here."
The joint project, which will include exchanges of U.S. and Russian scientists, will be managed by General Atomics Corp., near the University of California, San Diego campus.
The results of the research, Ms. Davies said, will be made freely available in both Russia and the United States.
The project was reviewed and approved by officials at the Defense Department and other agencies to ensure that it would not result in any increase in Russia's military expertise at U.S. expense, she said.
Fusion is the nuclear reaction that produces the massive destructive power of the hydrogen bomb -- when the reaction is triggered but not controlled. Fusion generates power by fusing simple, common elements, such as hydrogen. Fission, the process used at nuclear power plants now, generates energy by splitting complex, expensive elements like uranium.
For more than 30 years, scientists have sought to create fusion in a controlled way because it could produce virtually unlimited energy at modest cost.
Work has been done at both the Kurchatov Institute and General Atomics centers on experimental fusion reactors called "tokamaks," a Russian acronym for a doughnut-shaped magnetic chamber that confines nuclear fuel. The Russian researchers have moved ahead of their counterparts elsewhere at using high-frequency microwaves to heat the fuel, which presses the atoms together to produce fusion.
Ms. Davies said the Department of Energy hopes the fusion work can produce a prototype power plant by the year 2025 and a commercially usable plant by 2040. "It doesn't have near-term commercial applications," she said.
The Department of Energy will employ the Russian scientists independent of a Bush administration plan to use part of $400 million transferred from the defense budget to put to work former Soviet scientists who otherwise might seek jobs in Iraq, Libya or other countries developing nuclear weapons.
It grew out of a visit to the Kurchatov Institute last November by Ms. Davies and other U.S. officials, who were startled to hear the laboratory's directors estimate that they could keep running for a full year with a grant of less than $100,000.