Princeton plasma lab’s fusion reactor shut down for 1 year after malfunction October 28, 2016

At the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) in Princeton, New Jersey, from left, Scott Gifford and Neway Atnafu work inside the vessel of the National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX). NSTX is an innovative magnetic fusion device that was constructed by the PPPL in collaboration with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Columbia University, and the University of Washington at Seattle. A $94 million upgrade will allow the lab to move forward with and enhance its nuclear fusion research.

PRINCETON – Malfunctions in the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab massive fusion reactor, which recently underwent a $94 million upgrade, has forced scientists to shut it down for a year until the problems are resolved.

The problems started with a blockage in a water-cooling coil inside the reactor and the inspection of that coil led to the discovery of other issues, said Andrew Zwicker, a physicist at the lab and spokesperson for issues regarding the reactor.

“We needed to do a very meticulous check of all of our systems,” said Zwicker, who is also a state Assemblyman.

Scientists decided to take apart the massive reactor in order to examine and test its parts. Given the size of the device, it could take a full year, Zwicker said.

The reactor, called the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U), is used to study the physics of plasma. Scientists at the lab hope to use data collected from the experiments to ultimately develop a more sustainable, cleaner energy source.

The plasma lab is a joint effort of Princeton University and the U.S. Department of Energy.

The reactor was shut down for two years for the upgrade. It was running again this spring when U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz visited the lab and gave his support for the experiment during a dedication ceremony.

The problems became apparent about a month later, Zwicker said.

The repairs and tests will be funded from a contingency budget for the larger upgrade, Zwicker said.