Nuclear war on the Hill

Politico Boer Deng June, 2015

Fusion research splits the House and Senate. Why? Because, er… science.

On a patch of land in Saint-Paul-les-Durance, in the South of France, cranes recently installed two massive electrical fixtures, industrial gray and 87 tons each — the first components of a plant that will house the world’s biggest scientific project.

If it succeeds, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, will turn hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, into virtually limitless clean energy. But success is far from assured, getting results will take years, and construction is behind schedule.

Now Congress has split on whether to continue supporting the enterprise at all. This summer, the Senate is expected to vote on an appropriations bill that would kill America’s planned $150 million contribution to ITER for next year. The House, meanwhile, wants to keep paying. Last month, the chamber passed spending that leaves next year’s ITER money intact.

Ambitious science projects frequently crash into funding rocks, and nuclear fusion is a particularly vexing problem for politicians. More than four decades have been spent trying to turn the reaction that fuels stars and H-bombs into a viable source of energy. Is it worth shelling out ever more on a very risky bet with a big potential payoff — a step towards securing the world’s, not to mention the country’s, energy future? Or is it yet another boondoggle science project recklessly spending taxpayer money?

For fusion’s believers, ITER may seem worth the price tag, now estimated at $19.4 billion. Billed as “a new model of international scientific collaboration,” it boasts 35 countries contributing money, products, and expertise. First proposed at the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev Geneva summit, it began as a partnership intended to lessen Cold War tensions. Europe, Japan, and others later joined. Its acronym is a Latin word meaning “the way.”

But like many “big science” projects, it has a record of overrunning its cost estimates. Americans pulled out of the consortium before, in 2000, due to worries about expenses and premature technology. Better science and a slimmed-down budget projection eventually wooed Congress to rejoin in 2006. Yet money was nearly eliminated two years later, when the tab began growing again, even as government budgets tightened.

Back then, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who is now in charge of energy appropriations, said the cut was a mistake. But more money troubles, further delays, and a sobering 2013 report on ITER’s ineffective process and substantial hurdles changed the conversation. Now he wants to deny funds, and is supported by fed-up colleagues from both parties. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, has long been a critic. Some years, ITER has taken up 40 percent of the Department of Energy’s fusion research budget. That money could be put towards energy research with more promise, she argues, and to prevent having to close reactors at home.

Oddly, for a Republican-led House generally bent on finding cuts, the lower chamber embraces the project. But it doesn’t take a particular stretch of the imagination to understand what’s behind at least some of its support. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) is an ITER booster; Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is right next to his district. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who chairs the energy appropriations subcommittee, has a national fusion research facility in his. (Neither returned requests to comment by deadline.)

Of course, it’s possible that congressmen are simply more convinced of ITER’s scientific importance. Stephen Dean, a lobbyist, says he has found it easier to talk to members of the House about fusion. Indeed, normally squabbling partisans on both sides have touted their belief in fusion with relish: It’s clean energy, which Democrats like, and a muscular step towards nuclear energy, which sounds pretty Republican.

Plenty of physicists are skeptical of ITER, however. “I was on the site and it’s appalling how little work has been done,” says Michael Lubell of the American Physical Society. Some researchers have derided the Department of Energy’s most recent fusion strategy, which includes ITER, or have written to Congress to plead for pulling out of the experiment. The technology the reactor will use is too costly to be viable, they say, and the money would be better put toward research on alternative designs.

But it is unclear what exactly canceling the appropriations will achieve. As most of the ITER money allocated by the spending bill is given out to labs, universities, and manufacturers in America that are making parts for the reactor, it is not as if the checks were going to profligate partners. Stopping them would do little to encourage more prudence. And at this point, some 87 percent of the parts Americans are making for ITER have been finished: What would be their use, if they are not shipped off to the reactor? The Department of Energy, for its part, has argued that the answer to fixing the project’s crippled operations lies in more financing, not less.

ITER’s doubters are right to observe, though, that without better accountability, it could indeed be doomed — if not by tightening purse-strings, then by the weight of its own inertia. The original plan to finish construction by this year has been pushed back to 2019, at best. Full operations and results will not come until the 2020s. Whether it survives the current appropriations process, there will be many more budget cycles for uncertainty to register. “The way” forward is anything but clear.