The promise of fusion energy has temporarily bridged the wide gap that separates Democrats and Republicans on the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. But that meeting of minds wasn’t the only surprise to emerge from an oversight hearing Friday on the status of ITER, an experimental fusion reactor being built in France that has been plagued by rising costs and construction delays.
Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), chair of the full committee, and Representative Eric Swalwell (D–CA), the top Democrat on the energy panel that conducted the hearing, have sparred repeatedly this year over a wide swath of pending legislation. But they were in the same corner in praising the massive international project to achieve sustained ignition of a burning plasma, the first step in building a commercial reactor to generate power.
“This experiment is absolutely essential to proving that magnetically confined fusion can be a viable clean energy source,” Swalwell declared in his opening statement. His words were immediately followed by a comment from Smith that “I agree completely with the ranking member.” Swalwell returned the favor later in the hearing, observing that “I was delighted to hear the chairman’s remarks about how ITER could get us to a carbon-neutral source of energy … and really make moot a lot of the back-and-forth debate in this town about fossil fuels versus other sources of energy.”
ITER has followed a long and tortuous path since it was first proposed in 1985. And last fall an independent review slammed ITER's weak central management structure and called for numerous reforms that the international ITER Organization is now trying to implement. The problems have made it impossible for U.S. officials to come up with a firm budget and timeline for the country’s contribution to the project, which is now estimated to cost $20 billion. At the hearing, Frank Rusco of the U.S. Government Accountability Office said the U.S. contribution is “more likely to cost from $4 billion to $6.5 billion” than the $3.9 billion that the Department of Energy (DOE) estimated in April, which itself was more than four times the original estimate made in 2006.
Smith and Swalwell also bonded over their disappointment with the Obama administration’s 2015 budget request for ITER of $150 million. That figure is some $75 million below what DOE had previously decided was needed each year to uphold the U.S. commitment to ITER without damaging the domestic fusion research program. On 10 July, the House approved a 2015 spending bill that would provide ITER with the full $225 million. But even that level, Swalwell said, “falls well below what is necessary to optimize the project schedule and minimize the total cost to taxpayers.”
Swalwell pushed Patricia Dehmer, the acting head of the Office of Science at DOE, to explain how the administration chose that level of support. “Was the $225 million cap an arbitrary ceiling, based on what was thought to be politically palatable, or was it a bottoms-up project estimate to minimize the total cost to taxpayers?” he asked.
“It was not bottoms-up, as you say,” replied Dehmer, a longtime DOE science administrator. “But it was also not arbitrary.” The context, she said, was that ITER project leaders were telling DOE that they needed “upwards of $350 million a year” at a time when there was “no international baseline and no U.S. baseline and there were rumors of significant cost growth and schedule delays.” This was taking place as the government-wide spending cuts known as sequestration were going into effort, she added, “and there were many other projects that we were trying to support at the time.
“So we made a decision … that we could not provide this project with everything that it was requesting. And we chose $225 million,” she says, because DOE believed that number “would allow us to go forward and deliver what we had promised, so as not to delay the project, but would also allow us to do other things in the Office of Science.”
The hearing opened with a surprising confession from the chair of the energy panel, Representative Cynthia Lummis (R–WY). “Welcome to a hearing on a project that a week ago I didn’t even know existed,” announced Lummis, who was elected to Congress in 2008 and became chair of the energy subcommittee last year. However, the 59-year-old legislator quickly reassured those in attendance, noting that a high school classmate had kindly brought her up to speed.
“Last night I had a long conversation with Jeff Hoy,” she said, referring to the former DOE project manager for ITER, now a consultant in her home town of Cheyenne. “Who would have thought that I’d be talking about ITER to someone I hadn’t seen in decades?”
Speaking to ScienceInsider after the hearing, Hoy confirmed that the two had spoken yesterday. “We talked for 15 minutes,” he says. “She asked about the international agreement and the in-kind contributions that the United States has agreed to make. [The United States was a founding partner of ITER in 1985 but dropped out in 1998, only to rejoin in 2003.] She also asked whether the other six partners were committed to the project, and I told her they are.” The other ITER partners are the European Union, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Russia.
Hoy, who described himself as a “strong supporter” of the project, said that some advocates worry that the Obama administration is trying to “punish the project” by lowballing its contribution in hopes of winning support for needed management reforms. And ITER appears to enjoy much less support in the Senate, where a spending panel has proposed a $75 million appropriation that would, in effect, force the U.S. team to close up shop and pull out of the project.
Lummis told ScienceInsider after the hearing that she’s “definitely opposed” to the Senate’s approach. But she is concerned about how the other partners feel about the lack of a firm financial commitment by the United States and said that one reason for the hearing was to see if U.S. officials were keeping up their end of the deal despite the uncertainty.
“We’ll see what happens,” she said. “From what I heard today, it sounds like we are doing everything we are supposed to be doing.”