The ITER fusion project under construction in late 2017.

ITER Organization

U.S. should support ITER fusion project, says expert panel

Originally published by E&E News

The United States is lagging far behind the world on fusion research and shouldn't abandon a major international project opposed by key senators, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine warned today.

Pulling money for the project would isolate U.S. scientists, give other countries an advantage and require the U.S. to redraw its fusion program at a time funding is limited, the National Academies report says.

At issue is U.S. participation in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, a 35-nation project being built in France to develop the first device to maintain fusion for long periods of time. Last year, a Department of Energy report found U.S. obligations with the project would require a doubling of funding by fiscal 2020 (Greenwire, May 26, 2016).

Because of project cost overruns and delays, the Senate appropriated no money for ITER for fiscal 2018, although House appropriators did. Among the opponents is Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who said she was "really doubting" if ITER's "huge costs" were worth it, given the technical challenges.

But the Academies report says U.S. research advances have increased confidence that an experiment like ITER "will succeed in achieving its scientific mission."

Furthermore, a U.S. withdrawal would give a research advantage to China and other ITER partners that already are investing more on fusion, the report says. Other countries already have national strategic plans leading to a fusion energy demonstration, while the U.S. does not.

"Without a long-term plan, the United States risks being overtaken as our partners advance the science and technology required to deliver fusion energy," the report stated.

Also, recent closures of facilities "threaten the health of the field in the U.S.," the report says. In 2005, the U.S. fusion budget declined sharply, and DOE implemented an overall reduction in its program four years ago.

Without a long-term plan, the United States risks being overtaken as our partners advance the science and technology required to deliver fusion energy.

National Academies ITER report

"Currently, only one mid-scale fusion experiment is operating in the United States," the report says.

Fusion power in theory could provide emissions-free energy by relying on the same nuclear reaction powering the sun and stars. The challenge for human-generated fusion typically has been powering a machine that releases more energy than it consumes.

The international demonstration is aiming to generate about 10 times its input power. President George W. Bush announced U.S. interest in 2003 to participate in ITER, which envisions magnetic fusion via a machine called a tokamak. Supporters of the idea say it's like having a sun inside a container.

Earlier this month, ITER announced it was halfway to achieving "first plasma," a metric for being operational.

Along with staying in ITER and developing a strategic plan on fusion, NAS called for additional research beyond existing U.S. programs. While ITER is a "first step," a true commercial fusion system would require thermal power to increase sevenfold and require research advances.

The study was sponsored by the Obama DOE and requested by Secretary Ernest Moniz last year.

Meanwhile, U.S. support for ITER rests with the fate of the fiscal 2018 budget, which is still under negotiation in Congress. The House and White House called for more than $60 million to be spent on ITER.

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2017. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at www.eenews.net