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ITER construction is ramping up, even as the United States mulls its commitment to the project.

ITER Organization

ITER leader faces tough questions, even from relatively supportive U.S. House panel

For Bernard Bigot, director-general of ITER, the gargantuan fusion experiment under construction in Cadarache, France, a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives was likely to be a relatively amicable event. After all, even as budgetmakers in the Senate have tried repeatedly to pull the United States out of the troubled project, House appropriators have supported it and have prevailed in budget negotiations. Nevertheless, yesterday, in a hearing held by the energy subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Bigot faced pointed questions from both Republican and Democratic representatives, suggesting some of them maybe losing patience with ITER.

ITER aims to prove that a plasma of deuterium and tritium nuclei trapped in a magnetic field can produce more energy than it consumes as the nuclei fuse in a "burning plasma," a process that mimics the inner workings of the sun. But ITER is running far over budget and at least 10 years behind its original schedule.

In a tense exchange with Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R–CA), Bigot acknowledged that by the time ITER starts running late next decade its total cost will likely exceed $20 billion. That’s a big jump over the roughly $12 billion ITER was estimated to cost in 2006, when China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States agreed to build the machine. The original plan also called for ITER to start running this year. More might have been done with the money slated for ITER if it had been spent instead on research involving more conventional nuclear energy, Rohrabacher said. "I still think that if we had put $20 billion into fission we would have done a lot more for humanity," he said.

The hearing opened an interesting fortnight for ITER and U.S. participation in it. Following a scathing external review in 2013, the international ITER organization revamped its management structure, including bringing in Bigot as director-general in November 2014. In November 2015, ITER officials presented a new baseline cost and schedule for the project. An independent committee will report on the reliability of that baseline on 27–28 April to ITER's governing council. On 2 May, officials at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) are supposed report to Congress whether they think the United States should stay in ITER or leave. When pressed, Bigot agreed with Rohrabacher's estimate that instead of the $1.1 billion originally envisioned, the U.S. contribution to ITER would likely total between $4 billion and $6 billion.

Generally, subcommittee members seemed supportive of fusion research and ITER in particular. "I really appreciate the work that you've been doing, and from all that I've been hearing, ITER is in a much better place for your efforts," Representative Randy Hultgren (R–IL) said to Bigot. "I do see how important this partnership is and I hope [the United States] can remain a reliable partner."

In fact, recently released budget numbers demonstrate exactly how much more supportive of fusion research and ITER the House is than the Senate. Earlier this week, the House appropriations committee passed its version of the bill that would fund DOE for fiscal year 2017, which starts 1 October. It includes $450 million for DOE's fusion energy science (FES) program, a 2.7% bump up from this year's budget. That sum includes $125 million for parts for ITER. In contrast, the Senate appropriations committee version of the bill would cut the FES budget by 36% to $280 million and would zero out ITER funding.

Representative Bill Foster (D–IL) asked whether a U.S. withdrawal would be fatal to the ITER project. Bigot declined to answer the question directly, but said, "if the U.S. were to withdraw it would be a real drawback because it would be difficult to replace the expertise."

Another senior Democrat, Representative Alan Grayson (FL), expressed frustration with ITER. Fusion energy "is going to happen," said Grayson, who is the ranking member of the subcommittee. However, he said, "it's been 10 years already since the major governments signed off on the ITER project. We now have 11 years to go before we start the major experiments and there isn't even a plan to generate net electricity from ITER, that's not its design or its purpose." He asked whether there was a way to achieve fusion on a 10-year timescale, but the witnesses—Bigot; Stewart Prager, the direct of DOE's Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) in New Jersey; and Scott Hsu, a fusion physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico—cautioned that there was not.

U.S. competitiveness

The hearing aimed to assess more generally the United States's fusion program. "Fusion energy research in Asia and Europe is escalating, and for the U.S. to contribute competitively in the face of larger investments elsewhere, we must focus on activity with breakthrough potential," Prager said. PPPL researchers focus on four areas, Prager said: developing design for a "pilot plant" that might come after ITER and not only sustain a burning plasma, but generate a net gain in electricity; developing materials that can withstand the intense radiation in a fusion reactor; large-scale computer simulations; and physics related to ITER. Still, he said, U.S. fusion research is "resource limited."

Hsu testified that DOE currently supports only two types of fusion research: magnetic confinement fusion that uses devices called tokamaks such as ITER and PPPL’s National Spherical Torus Experiment; and inertial confinement fusion, which uses the powerful lasers at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California (which is supported by DOE's weapons program) to implode a fuel pellet. DOE's fusion energy science's program used to spend $40 million a year on alternative fusion technologies, Hsu testified, but that money has dried up in recent years, even as nations such as China have pursued them.