Utah Republican legislative leaders questioned Monday the wisdom of an immediate special session to give $5 million to fusion research, while the University of Utah professor who discovered the revolutionary fusion process reiterated his belief in his work.
House Speaker Nolan Karras, R-Roy, and Senate Majority Whip Dix McMullin, R-South Jordan, both said in Deseret News interviews that they prefer not meeting in an April special session to appropriate the $5 million Gov. Norm Bangerter wants for the U.'s fusion research.Bangerter wants a special session to allocate $5 million to U. chemistry professor B. Stanley Pons and U. engineers to develop a commercial use for the nuclear-fusion process.
Bangerter chief of staff Bud Scruggs said the governor doesn't want Utah to lose out in the fusion race. "If there's a way to adequately fund the research without an April special session, fine, that's what we'll do."
Pons and Martin Fleischmann, a research professor at the University of Southampton, England, announced last week that with no more equipment than is used in a freshman chemistry class and $100,000 of their own money, they achieved a breakthrough in nuclear fusion.
Pons and Fleischmann will continue their basic research into their fusion process with a $322,000 grant from the federal Department of Energy.
The $5 million is needed, Bangerter and U. officials say, to ensure that Utah engineers and businesses will play a part in developing the full-scale fusion reactors required to turn the scientific discovery into cheap, safe, affordable energy.
But Karras and McMullin wonder at the need for an April special session, questioning whether the engineers can even use the $5 million so quickly. They also are concerned over other items that could be added to its agenda.
Both Karras and McMullin said a July or August special session, which lawmakers planned for after the U.S. Olympic Committee meets in June to consider Utah's Winter Olympic bid, still makes sense.
Karras even suggested that Bangerter fund immediate needs for fusion research out of various pots of state money until lawmakers meet this summer - thus avoiding a special session next month. Scruggs said that may be possible.
A sticking point of an April special session has less to do with nuclear physics than with politics.
Bangerter would probably place a $19 million tax reduction - which he wanted from last month's Legislature, but which senators refused to give - on the special session call. Karras also wants the $19 million reduction considered in any special session.
But McMullin is hesitant. "I think that tax reduction is better left for a summer special session, to give us more time to consider it."
Legislative leaders will be briefed on the fusion discovery Tuesday, Karras said. "I don't know enough about it (the scientific discovery) to make a judgment." He and McMullin agree that if Bangerter wants an April special session to fund fusion research, lawmakers will come and likely vote for it.
U. President Chase N. Peterson said Monday that other countries will start their own research and even a two-week jump could be meaningful in the race to come.
A number of skeptics _ some of them no doubt Utah lawmakers _ question if Pons' and Fleischmann's work really is a breakthrough.
"We are crazy, but we're not stupid," said Pons, who emphasized that he and Fleischmann would not have jeopardized the university or the researchers' reputations by releasing something that would not withstand the scrutiny of scientific review.
Dr. James J. Brophy, U. vice president for research, commented that "several major things are still unknown in the process, and the research process must continue, whether that funding comes from the federal Department of Energy or elsewhere. And it will come from someplace. Stan and Martin will continue their research."
Brophy said the entire process is still not completely understood. "In addition, we need a great deal of engineering studies to develop practical designs to learn about the energy economics of the process. That's an engineering problem and our engineers, as well as others, will be working on that."
Brophy believes it would be wise for lawmakers to allocate the money now.
"If our patents hold up, as we expect they will, we would give precedence to licensing companies who would agree to put part of their activities in Utah.
"If this all pans out, it will be (developed) all over the world; all we would like is to have is our proper part of it."
Nuclear fusion is regarded as science's next great frontier in developing nuclear energy but has generally been considered to be years away from commercial exploitation. It differs from conventional processes in that it fuses atoms, rather than splits them. Previous efforts to fuse atoms consumed more energy than they produced.