Feds extend funding for nuclear fusion project, General Atomics breathes sigh of relief

San Diego Union Tribune Rob Nikolewski | March 27, 2018

One of seven Central Solenoid modules being built by General Atomics as part of the ITER fusion energy project. Seven segments are spliced together to make a continuous coil. At this stage, the coil weighs 225,000 pounds. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

After months of doubt, the federal government has agreed to boost 2018 funding for the U.S. share of the world’s largest and most ambitious nuclear fusion project.

That means what may be the endeavor’s most important piece — a massive magnet being assembled by San Diego-based General Atomics — will continue this year without interruption.

A small portion of the enormous omnibus spending bill passed by Congress and signed into law last week by President Donald Trump included $122 million for the U.S. contribution to the ITER Project, short for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor.

“I think it’s fantastic and shows a new commitment to fusion we haven’t seen from the government in some time,” said Mickey Wade, director of advanced fusion systems at General Atomics. “I think this bodes well for fusion research in the U.S. and specifically here in San Diego.”

Some 45 full-time General Atomics employees are building what is called ITER’s Central Solenoid in a giant warehouse at the company’s Poway facility. The seven 250,000-pound circular modules will eventually be shipped to Europe, where they will be inserted into the center of the ITER facility under construction in France.

The United States is one of seven countries participating in the project and is responsible for a portion of ITER’s costs, which have ballooned in the decade since construction began.

The U.S. has contributed about $1 billion and continued participation in ITER will cost about $100 million to $125 million a year for more than two decades.

The price tag generated opposition from some members of both parties in Congress, with the House of Representatives this year proposing that funding be cut in half and the Senate going so far as to call for no funding at all.

But the last-minute budget bill averted the cuts, coming two months after ITER’s director-general, Bernard Bigot, made a lobbying push on Capitol Hill.

“This is a very positive signal … it will prevent ITER having to announce project delays in 2018,” Bigot told Reuters on Monday.

The news came as a huge relief for General Atomics.

“It had been a very uncertain time as far as fusion funding was concerned and a lot of negative things had happened from the point of view of funding so we were certainly elated to see it,” Wade said.

While ITER (pronounced “eater”) has run into many delays, the directors of the General Atomics say the Central Solenoid project in Poway is “right on schedule” and meeting its milestones.

The first module will be ready to be shipped next year and the last one is scheduled to head to Europe in 2021. ITER’s first operational test is slated for 2025.

Construction site in Cadarache, France for the ITER project. (Image from ITER website)

For more than six decades, scientists have talked about the awesome potential of nuclear fusion — producing a virtually unlimited amount of energy without any greenhouse gas emissions.

“We’re talking millions of years of fuel,” Wade said.

But fusion power has been generated only for short periods in the laboratory and no fusion reactors exist.

Even if successful, ITER will not directly result in the construction of a commercially viable power plant. Instead, the project is designed to figure out if fusion can be harnessed for practical applications.

“I think we can conquer these challenges and be able to make fusion a realty,” Wade said. “I tell students it’s not a matter of if we’ll have fusion, it’s a matter of when we’ll have fusion.”

But while funding has been met for this year, the annual price tag for the U.S. share of the project is expected to go up to about $200 million in fiscal year 2019.

“I think we may have turned a corner but there’s still a lot of hard work ahead of us,” Wade said. “I think the members of Congress for the first time really understood this is a real project and is on solid track to be successful.”

The seven countries taking part in the ITER project are the European Union, the U.S., Russia, China, South Korea, Japan and India. The EU has a 45 percent stake in ITER, with the other six countries contributing 9.1 percent each.