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ITER Program Focus of Senate Appropriations Hearing

Richard M. Jones
Number 103 - June 13, 2013  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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For a second year in a row, Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) questioned the merits of the ITER program because of its projected cost and impact on the domestic fusion program and other research supported by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

“I just don’t know how we continue to do this,” Feinstein said in her opening remarks at a hearing last month on the FY 2014 Department of Energy (DOE) budget request.  She was talking about ITER and the U.S. contribution to it of what she said could reach approximately $3 billion.  Compounding the difficulty of financing the reactor is sequestration, with Feinstein estimating that every year of a mandatory budget cut causes an additional cost of up to $200 million and a one year delay. 

When the ITER agreement was signed in November 2006 DOE stated that the “total value of the U.S. contribution is $1.122 billion” with 80 percent in-kind contributions and 20 percent cash.  The reactor, under construction in Cadarache, France, was to be completed in 2015.  At the hearing, Feinstein said construction is two years behind schedule, with reactor operation in 2023 or beyond. 

Feinstein criticized DOE for not including in its FY 2014 budget request an ITER project baseline detailing anticipated funding for every construction year as called for in the FY 2013 subcommittee report.   She also spoke of how “increased funding for ITER has come at the expense of a domestic program with a proposed shut-down of the MIT reactor, short operating times for two fusion facilities and significantly less research dollars.”

“So I’d like to hear your thoughts on ITER and whether it’s worth it given the costs and the impact on the domestic program and other Office of Science priorities,” Feinstein said to DOE Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman.

Poneman did not mention ITER in his short oral opening testimony.  Feinstein’s first question to him was about the reactor, noting that it was DOE’s most expensive capital project with an anticipated cost of $225 million per year for the next seven years.  She called the department’s lack of a project cost, schedule, or scope baseline “really unacceptable.”  Poneman responded that the nature of the project does not “actually allow us to control the budget of the whole project because of the many international partners who are involved.”  He pledged “complete transparency with this committee” about U.S. actions to improve project management. 

Feinstein’s other major concern was the lack of a DOE strategic plan for exascale computing, explaining that it was more than a year late, and the Administration’s request for the program.  She praised ARPA-E’s “good project management,” and noted, without comment, that funding and responsibility for the production of Pu-238 for NASA probes had been shifted to the space agency, “the only customer for that particular isotope.”

In his opening comments, subcommittee Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN) described government sponsored research “as crucial to our economic well-being.”  He said ARPA-E “has done well,” spoke highly of the importance of exascale computing, declared “I like the department’s [Energy Innovation] Hubs,” and described his efforts to work with other senators on a solution to the disposition of spent nuclear fuel.  Many of Alexander’s questions focused on the Administration’s proposal to sell the Tennessee Valley Authority and the impact it would have on the ability to produce tritium for nuclear weapons. 

Senator Tom Udall’s (D-NM) questions focused on the cleanup of plutonium waste at Los Alamos, Hanford’s nuclear waste, and the Waste Isolation Pilot Project near Carlsbad, New Mexico.  Udall also asked about barriers to advancing technology transfer at DOE.

There was no discussion of other programs supported by the DOE Office of Science.  The subcommittee previously held a hearing on the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Regarding ITER, Feinstein was one of four senators who requested the Government Accountability Office to investigate the reactor’s cost and schedule and to determine if “U.S. deliverables [could] be delayed or adjusted without compromising this schedule.”   In the House, fifty representatives wrote a letter to key appropriators requesting “adequate funding for both the domestic fusion program and the international ITER fusion project in FY 2014.” 

Last year, Feinstein raised similar concerns about ITER when reviewing the Administration’s budget request.  Of note, her subcommittee’s report stated:

“The Committee recommends $398,324,000 as requested for Fusion Energy Sciences. Within these funds, the Committee recommends $150,000,000 as requested for the U.S. contribution to ITER.”

The counterpart House report explained:

“The recommendation includes $178,000,000 for the United States contribution to ITER, the international collaboration to construct the world's first self-sustaining experimental fusion reactor, $73,000,000 above fiscal year 2012 and $28,000,000 above the request.”

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics