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The ITER fusion reactor under construction in France in April 2016.

The ITER Organization

U.S. should stick with troubled ITER fusion project, secretary of energy recommends

The United States should continue for at least 2 more years its participation in ITER, the gigantic—and massively over budget—international fusion experiment under construction in southern France. That is the much anticipated—but not surprising—recommendation of a report from the Department of Energy (DOE) that congressional budgetmakers ordered last December and that was delivered to Capitol Hill this week.

But there's a catch: To keep going, DOE says, the U.S. ITER effort will need significantly more money—at least $230 million in 2018, or $105 million more than DOE has requested for it in fiscal year 2017, which begins 1 October. And the report doesn't say whether the Unites States should continue in ITER if, as seems likely, Congress doesn’t agree to provide that extra money.

"It's a punt and everybody expected a punt," a Senate staffer who works for the Republican majority tells ScienceInsider. "But in this budget climate tough decisions need to be made. They certainly didn't make the decision."

ITER aims to prove that nuclear fusion—the same general process that powers the sun—can be a viable source of abundant, carbon-free energy. The idea is to use intense magnetic fields to trap an ultrahot plasma of deuterium and tritium nuclei in a huge donut-shaped vacuum chamber. As pairs of deuterium and tritium nuclei fuse, they will release energetic neutrons. ITER aims to produce a "burning plasma" that will sustain itself mostly through its own heat and will produce 10 times as much energy as is pumped into it.

The project has been plagued by delays and cost overruns, however, since the ITER partners—the European Union, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States—signed on to build it in 2006. At that time, ITER was expected to cost $12 billion and to begin "first plasma" runs with ordinary hydrogen this year. The United States committed to building 9.09% of the subsystems for the device, then estimated to cost $1.1 billion. As of 2 years ago, the cost of the U.S. share had climbed to $3.9 billion and first experiments had slipped back to 2020. Last month, an independent review committee found that first plasma could be achieved by 2025 at the earliest, with deuterium-tritium running possible no sooner than 2035.

Given the delays and cost overruns, Senate budgetmakers have tried for years to zero out funding for U.S. ITER, only to have the money put back in during negotiations with their counterparts in the House of Representatives. Indeed, for fiscal year 2017, Senate appropriators have again voted to ax funding for ITER, whereas House appropriators would give it the $125 million requested by the Obama administration.

In spite of ITER’s troubles, DOE officials say that the United States should remain in the project at least through 2018. That's in part because the ITER organization has made significant progress in reforming itself under Director-General Bernard Bigot, the report says: "Project management has greatly improved since DG Bigot began in March of 2015, and the project is now being well run." The United States should now wait and see if the reforms stick, says Franklin Orr, DOE's undersecretary for science and energy. The project still represents the best chance for achieving burning plasma, he says.

"You could call [the report] a qualified vote of confidence" in Bigot's reforms, Orr says. "We want the project to succeed, but at the same time we recognize that there are some uncertainties that need to be addressed." The report calls for even more rigorous oversight and for the United States to reevaluate its participation in ITER in time to inform the drafting of the White House’s 2019 budget request, which will be issued early that year. That tack would give the ITER organization time to "demonstrate that sustained progress," Orr says.

Money troubles

But can the United States afford to stay in the game? The DOE report estimates that all told, the U.S. ITER effort will cost about $4.7 billion dollars. If ITER were to reach first plasma in 2025, then U.S. spending would have to climb to $275 million in 2018—an increase of $150 million from the amount DOE has requested for 2017. However, the date for first plasma will likely slide back another 3 years, the report notes, in which case U.S. ITER would need only $230 million in 2018.

Either sum is unrealistic, predicts the Senate staffer, who notes that for 2017 both the Senate and House would give the DOE's entire basic research wing, the Office of Science, a $50 million increase to $5.40 billion—far from the $5.57 billion that the White House has requested. The suggestion that one project alone could get a $150 million increase in 2018 is "just fantasy," the staffer says.

The report also calls for a change in the way that ITER fits into the Office of Science budget, one that may make scientists in other fields sweat. Currently, U.S. ITER is a construction project within the office's $438 million fusion energy sciences (FES) program. Given that situation, DOE has repeatedly tried to slash funding for fusion research in the United States to free up funds for ITER—only to have such moves negated by Congress. Moving U.S. ITER out of the FES program might relieve some of the pressure on domestic fusion research. But it could put ITER in direct competition with the Office of Science's five other research programs, such as basic energy science, advanced scientific computing, and high-energy physics.