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Just when you thought it was safe to invest in palladium, nuclear fusion - a political hot potato - is being tossed around again.

Cold fusion, which got a warm response recently from one federal agency - the National Science Foundation - could again get the cold shoulder from another, when a Department of Energy panel meets Monday to draft its final fusion report.Some members of the DOE cold-fusion panel say they aren't anymore convinced now that fusion is real than they were four months ago.

In a preliminary report released in July, the DOE's 20-member panel concluded no persuasive evidence existed that a new nuclear process was discovered by University of Utah researchers B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann.

Panelists determined that some fusion projects might merit funding "through normal channels" but advised against the government making a large investment in fusion experiments. New revelations aren't expected from the panel when it meets next week in Washington, D.C.

"It is hard to predict (the outcome) at this early stage since the group hasn't gotten together for a week or two, but I don't expect any changes from the original report," John Huizenga, a University of Rochester professor of nuclear chemistry, said in a telephone interview. "I don't expect any major changes, but people will have to wait until after the meeting to get that confirmed."

Panel staff members said they, too, didn't expect any surprises, even though some scientists serve on both the NSF and DOE panels.

The DOE panel, headed by Huizenga and 1989 Nobel Prize physicist Norman Ramsey, was established in April, after Pons' and Fleischmann's announcement.

The two scientists set off a furor March 23, saying they had achieved fusion at room temperature - a claim hailed by many as a possible means of producing inexhaustible, inexpensive power.

During the past six months, DOE panelists have visited several fusion labs, including those at Brigham Young University, Texas A&M, Stanford, CalTech and SRI International. They also met with Pons, who has consistently criticized the panel as "negatively biased."

The DOE panel also has received numerous updates from fusion labs around the world. They've come from Uppsala University, Sweden; Justus Liebig University, Giessen, West Germany; Aarhus University, Denmark; Institute of Plasma Physics, Warsaw, in addition to many U.S. government and university fusion labs.

"The majority of the reports that are coming in I would guess to be negative," said Huizenga, who subtly discounted last week's conflicting, but positive, evaluation of the phenomenon by the NSF's panel of 50 prominent scientists, which included Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb.

Those chemists and physicists, who also met in Washington, D.C., at the invitation of the foundation and the Electric Power Research Institute, concurred that recent cold-fusion experiments have produced enough interesting results to justify more research and research money.

Huizenga apparently isn't buying their initial findings. "That was a very minor group of people who have been getting positive results for some time," he said.

The DOE panel recommendations will be forwarded to the department's Energy Research Advisory Board, before they are passed on to Energy Secretary James Watkins.