The Energy 202: Trump administration must decide whether to back the biggest nuclear fusion project ever

Washington Post Dino Grandoni | March 7, 2018

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the retiring chair of the House Science Committee, has rarely been in agreement with Democrats. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee is known for its partisan bickering. Under Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), Republicans opened probes into federally funded climate scientists that Democrats have derided as politically motivated witch hunts.

But the panel showed a rare bit of bipartisanship during a hearing Tuesday with Democrats and Republicans generally uniting in opposition to a Trump administration proposal to cut funding for a high-risk, high-reward international research project into a carbon-free form of energy — nuclear fusion.

The United States is collaborating with five nations and the European Union to conduct the largest fusion experiment ever, agreeing to pay for one-eleventh of the cost of a fusion reactor being built in southern France called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor.

But the White House’s proposal of $75 million to fund the megaproject in fiscal 2019 falls far short of that pledge.

The United States needs to spend at least $213 million in cash and equipment to maintain the scheduled contributions to ITER, Smith said Tuesday. ITER spokesman Laban Coblentz said by email that figure “corresponds to the projected needs.”

“Reducing annual funding will only delay ITER instruments being built here in the U.S. and cause construction delays that increase overall project cost,” Smith said.

Even with House backing, the fate of U.S. funding for ITER remains uncertain. While in years past House Republicans and the Obama administration supported funding ITER even as it faced cost overruns and schedule delays, Senate appropriators, led by Lamar Alexander (R–Tenn.), agitated to terminate funding.

The difference now is President Trump, whose administration will have to decide whether to back this energy-related international agreement, unlike it did with the Paris climate accord. Currently, the Trump team is reviewing all civil nuclear energy activities, including ITER.

Over the past half-century, the Energy Department has poured billions of dollars into nuclear fusion research, all without yet producing a reactor that put out more energy than it put in.

The prospect sounds like it’s from science fiction: With the new technology, someday theoretically we’ll be able to power cities with miniaturized suns. Made hot enough for long enough, hydrogen atoms can fuse together to form helium, like in the center of stars, releasing in the process a tremendous amount of energy.

Yet the huge magnetic containers and superpowered lasers necessary to bring hydrogen to that state are expensive. Energy efforts at fusion research are littered with half-done studies and never-realized schemes, constrained by budget cuts during President Ronald Reagan’s tenure and former speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) time running the House.

The upside, if the technology works: Fusion could provide nearly unlimited power from a plentiful fuel with little or no nuclear waste and zero atmosphere-warning emissions.

Or as Rep. Randy Weber (R-Tex.) put it Tuesday: “The potential benefits to society from a fusion reactor are beyond calculation.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, the No. 2 Democrat on the committee, echoed that sentiment. “Given the huge potential benefits of developing a viable approach to fusion energy, I believe this is an area where we should strongly investing in,” Lofgren said. “Unfortunately, that’s not what we’re seeing in the Department of Energy’s recent budget request.”

After the United States signed a pact to start ITER in 2006 under President George W. Bush, some members of Congress worried other countries would back out of their commitments to fund the project.

A dozen years later under another Republican president, it’s the United States that is in danger of reneging on its pledge.

“A shortfall in contribution of any single member,”
Bernard Bigot, director-general of ITER, told Congress, “will have a cascading, strong effect in delays [and] cost.”

Bigot said later in an interview with The Washington Post that unless the United States ponies up by June, he will have to inform the other member nations that ITER will be delayed again.

“Clearly, we put the project in danger,” he said. “Everybody has to understand, if the U.S. doesn’t comply, it will be all the other six members which will be blocked, with overcosts for them.” ITER is scheduled to produce its first plasma by 2025.

The ITER leader raced through Washington this week on a whirlwind lobbying tour, speaking to officials at the Energy and State departments and at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (which still has no leader) in addition to testifying before the Science Committee. Bigot said he was optimistic after talking with the Trump administration officials.

Concern about ITER, which is plagued with the ballooning costs and delayed schedules that have afflicted other fusion projects and caught the eye of auditors at the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2014, colors some on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum.

“Controlled fusion to produce electricity has been an elusive goal sought for 50 years,” said Matthew McKinzie, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental nonprofit group. “While ITER may have promise as a plasma science research facility, it isn’t plausible as an economic energy source that can scale up to address climate change.”

“I’d love to believe in the dream of fusion energy. I’d love to believe that,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), the only member of the House science panel to voice frustration over the United States funding ITER. “But we know with the expenditure of that kind of money that we’ve spent on fusion energy, we could have developed fission energy alternatives that are for sure — not just computer models.”

And crucially, Alexander, chair of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development, has unsuccessfully moved to pull the United States out of ITER at least twice before, even though Oak Ridge National Laboratory in his state of Tennessee hosts the U.S. ITER office.

In the past, House lawmakers had the Obama administration on their side, even if the United States over the past three years has actually been short on its ITER contributions. James W. Van Dam, acting associate director of the Energy’s Office of Fusion Energy Sciences, told the House science panel project is currently under review in the Trump administration, but that the project “has the potential to contribute to American energy dominance.”

Van Dam, a career official, added: “I think we need to stay in the ITER project.”