Trump administration must decide whether to back the biggest nuclear fusion project ever

Science and Technology June 5, 2018

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

“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.”

— Man hired to sweep Scott Pruitt’s office for bugs is in business with a top EPA security official: Two Senate Democrats, Thomas R. Carper (Del.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), are asking Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt to explain how a business associate of his top security official was granted a contract with the agency.

Pruitt’s head of security, Pasquale Perrotta, advised EPA officials to hire Edwin Steinmetz, a member of the management team at a security company he runs, according to an administration official who spoke to The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal agency decisions. Steinmetz completed a “roughly $3,000 contract to sweep Pruitt’s office for concealed listening devices.”

— Meanwhile at the EPA: The agency has dismissed a civil rights case from residents of a small predominantly African American town in Alabama who said a landfill has been causing physical and mental illness. The agency said there is “insufficient evidence” officials in the state violated the Civil Rights Act by allowing the landfill, which contains heaps of coal ash, to operate near Uniontown. “Uniontown has been framed by advocates as one of the most egregious examples of environmental racism in the US, where a largely poor and black population has had a polluting facility foisted upon it with little redress,” the Guardian reports.

— The birds, again: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke argued wind power is contributing to global warming and that turbines kill hundreds of thousands of birds. “We probably chop us as many as 750,000 birds a year with wind and the carbon footprint on wind is significant,” Zinke said during an address to the CERAWeek energy conference in Houston.

Both claims were overstated, Time magazine reports. “Spread out over the life cycle of a typical turbine, scientists estimate that the typical wind plant generates between .02 and .04 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced. Even at the high end, that’s less than 3% of the emissions from coal-generated electricity and less than 7% of the emissions from natural gas-generated electricity.”

— Give us more time: Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), sent a letter to Zinke this week calling for an extended comment period on the Trump administration’s proposed five-year offshore drilling plan. The comment period is scheduled to end Friday. “Given the large scope of the Draft Proposed Program, we believe a 60-day extension of the deadline for comments is necessary to allow for more public hearings in coastal areas and to give the public sufficient time to submit comments,” the letter reads. “There should be more meetings in coastal communities, large and small, in all areas included in the proposal.”

— A new plan to save coal: Energy Secretary Rick Perry is calling for the development of new coal power plants that would produce more electricity from less coal, the Houston Chronicle reports. The new plants would be paid for under Energy’s proposed 2019 budget, which calls for an 80 percent cut from the more than $196 million budgeted by Congress last year for research and development for carbon capture.