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Senate Spending Panel Votes to Stop U.S. Contributions to ITER

If the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) can't say how much it needs to spend on the gigantic international fusion project, ITER, it won't get to spend anything on it at all. That's the bottom line in a Senate version of a bill unveiled today that would set funding levels for DOE and the Army Corps of Engineers for fiscal year 2014, which begins on 1 October.

Otherwise, the news was pretty good for scientists. The Senate spending panel agreed to fund DOE's basic research wing and its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) at the levels requested by the Obama administration.

Concern over the U.S. contribution to the ITER project in Cadarache, France, has been brewing for more than a year. In February 2012, DOE proposed a 1% cut in funding to its fusion energy science program, to $389 million. At the same time, however, DOE asked to ramp up spending on ITER from $105 million to $150 million, thus requiring a 16% cut funding for experiments at home. (Because Congress never passed the 2013 budget and the government is operating on a continuation of last year's budget, actual spending on ITER this year is roughly $120 million.) More recently, DOE raised legislators' hackles when its budget request for 2014 contained no actual projections of its total contribution to ITER and said only that DOE would hold spending to $225 million per year.

Turns out, DOE's word isn't good enough for senators. Instead, appropriators will zero out ITER spending until DOE comes up with reliable numbers, said Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, at a hearing today. "We provide no funding for ITER until the department provides this committee with a baseline cost, schedule, and scope," she said.

ITER wasn't the only project to feel legislators' wrath. The subcommittee would also pull the plug on the 3-year-old Energy Efficient Buildings Hub (EEB) in Philadelphia, one of five energy innovation hubs that were started under former Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and are meant to take an all-under-one-roof approach to solving specific energy problems. EEB aims to improve building efficiency in the Philadelphia area by 20% by 2020. But Senate appropriators moved to terminate EEB "because of poor performance and failure to meet technical milestones," Feinstein said. Senators also declined to fund a proposed sixth hub on electrical systems such as the power grid because "there is no project plan," she said.

In spite of such moves, the subcommittee generally embraced the administration's research agenda, which emphasizes clean energy research. The bill would fund DOE's basic research wing, the Office of Science, at $5.153 billion, exactly what the White House has requested and a boost of 10.6% over the current spending levels. Similarly, the subcommittee would give the administration all of the $379 million that it requested for ARPA-E, up from $252 million this year. ARPA-E is supposed to quickly develop the most promising ideas from energy-oriented basic research to the point at which private industry can take them over. The Senate numbers stand in stark contrast to those presented by the House of Representatives last week, which would cut the budget of the Office of Science by 0.2% to $4.653 billion and would slash spending on ARPA-E 80% to $50 million.

The Senate and House numbers differ so dramatically in part because the two bodies are working with very different numbers for the discretionary portion of the overall federal budget. The Senate level is $92 billion higher than what is available in the House because the Republican leadership in the House has applied a second year of sequestration, those automatic cuts called for under the 2011 budget agreement between Congress and the White House. The gulf between those numbers makes it unlikely that the two bodies will eventually agree on a budget, warned Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) the ranking member of the Energy and Water Subcommittee. "My fear is that number 1, [this bill] is more than the law allows and number 2, it leads us inevitably toward a continuing resolution," he said at the hearing. The Senate bill will be taken up by the full appropriations committee on Thursday.