Taxpayers have shelled out more than $581 million over the past decade for fusion-energy junk - huge research reactors that were built in search of new sources of energy, only to be scrapped with almost no scientific payoff.

And fusion's junkyard, including two behemoth fusion machines in New Mexico, easily could approach $700 million before the year is out.In the latest round of fusion-research waste, the U.S. Department of Energy is shutting down reactor-research programs across the country - the fallout from a $51.5 million cut in the nation's magnetic-fusion budget.

So far taxpayers have spent about $8.3 billion on fusion research since 1953. The current tab for junked fusion-research reactors represents about 6 percent of that investment.

At least two trashed fusion-research reactors, with a combined value of about $454 million, actually never got the opportunity to conduct a single fusion experiment, scientists confirm.

"We'll certainly be asking some hard questions about this at our upcoming hearings scheduled in February. We're certainly going to get into this with the DOE," said Rep. Tom Bevill, D-Ala., who expressed shock at the scope and pattern of the combined boondoggles.

Bevill is chairman of the House subcommittee on energy water and development of the powerful House Committee on Appropriations. That committee, in conjunction with the Senate Appropriations Committee, this fall fashioned the budget cuts that took DOE and fusion researchers by surprise.

Fusion, the energy source of sun and stars, is considered by many scientists and some futurists as the ultimate energy for a growing and energy-hungry world. In fusion, smaller atoms fuse together to create larger ones, releasing vast energy. It is the opposite of fission, in which atoms are split to power today's nuclear plants.

Fusion scientists generally blame a fickle Congress and Energy Department for cutting off funds and making complicated magnetic- and inertial-confinement fusion machines into mountainous scrap heaps.

Others see it as the scientists' own follies.

"It's an easy way out to blame Congress, but the truth is these guys (scientists) never met a machine they didn't like or didn't want to make bigger," said one of Bevill's aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But Congressmen Bevill and John Meyers (the ranking Republican from Indiana) have listened to these scientists for almost 20 years and they are no closer today than they were then."

Some scientists hope that some reactors might be revived under a new fusion-research policy expected to be announced in January as part of DOE Secretary James Watkins' national energy strategy.

"It's a very difficult thing to inherit their decisions like this one," said DOE's Robert Dowling of Congress' 11th hour budget cut, which prompted DOE to call the latest reactor building to a halt.

Dowling, DOE's deputy acting director of magnetic fusion, said that fusion budgets over the past decade have been on a slide.

"We've been continually squeezing everything until we've had to make choices. We've had to shut down facilities and experiments. I don't think it has anything to do with the fusion program itself or how it is run," Dowling said.

Instead, the demise of the big fusion machines reflects Congress' failure "to take seriously the decisions made in previous years," he said.

Similarly, fusion scientists such as Dick Siemon at Los Alamos say that unlike this country's annual funding, European countries and the Japanese fund big research efforts, notably fusion, with multiyear commitments.

"There's no doubt this is utterly wasteful," said Siemon. "It's a kind of illogical and least-common-denominator thinking and it's crippling the fusion program."

But a prominent congressional aide says fusion's future is wearing thin.

"The problem is fusion just doesn't have any political support in Congress right now. It's very difficult for members dealing with today's problems to be concerned with some energy source that maybe will be around in the middle of the next century," said Proctor Jones, staff clerk for the Senate's subcommittee on energy and water development of the Committee on Appropriations.