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FYI Number 65: May 22, 2001

Representatives Promote Fusion Energy R&D

As President Bush's National Energy Policy generated media coverage last week, energy was also a topic on Capitol Hill. At a May 9 press conference in front of the Capitol Hill power plant, Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Rush Holt (D-NJ), Randy Cunningham (R-CA) and Mike Honda (D-CA) announced a bill to authorize increased funding for fusion energy research. "We need to raise the level of attention to fusion," said Holt; "it's time we call attention to it again." Lofgren declared, "It is time for the country and the world to move beyond caveman technologies" of burning coal and oil.

The bipartisan bill, H.R. 1781, has 14 Democratic and 8 Republican co-sponsors, and is entitled "The Fusion Energy Sciences Act of 2001." It would authorize $320 million for DOE's Fusion Energy Sciences program in FY 2002, $72 million above the President's request of $248 million, and close to the level recommended for FY 2002 back in 1997 by the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). Funding of $335 million would be authorized for FY 2003.

The bill finds that "the Fusion Energy Sciences Program budget is inadequate to support the necessary science and innovation for the present generation of experiments." It would continue current efforts in fusion research and require the Secretary of Energy to submit to Congress a plan to ensure a strong scientific base program. It would require, by July 2004, that the Energy Secretary send to Congress a plan for a domestic Burning Plasma Experiment. The Secretary could also submit a plan for U.S. involvement in an international Burning Plasma Experiment. The bill does not go so far as to authorize construction of such an experiment. Support for a burning plasma experiment was one of the primary recommendations of a recent National Research Council report entitled "An Assessment of the Department of Energy's Office of Fusion Energy Sciences program." (The report can be read here).

Lofgren remarked that the bill does not make any recommendations regarding ITER, the international experimental reactor that the U.S. dropped out of several years ago. The bill is "agnostic as to ITER ," she said. The bill was introduced in May 9 and referred to the House Science Committee. It is notable that while the former chairman of the science committee's subcommittee on energy is a bill co-sponsor, neither the current energy subcommittee chairman, Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), nor full committee chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), are co-sponsors.

Many of the bill's 22 co-sponsors also joined in an earlier effort led by Holt and Cunningham to encourage greater funding levels for fusion in this year's appropriations process. On April 9, 83 Representatives signed a letter to House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Sonny Callahan (R-AL), which stated, in part, "We are writing to highlight the importance of the U.S. Fusion Energy Sciences program and to request that you increase the funding available for this research." The letter noted that several recent studies from scientific panels such as PCAST, the Secretary's Energy Advisory Board (SEAB), and the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (FESAC) "have thoroughly examined the issue of funding for the fusion program and have concluded that at existing budgetary levels, the program is substantially underfunded.... These studies have made it clear that existing fusion research facilities at universities and laboratories are severely underutilized due to budgetary constraints, that more dollars must be expended for theory and computation, for broadening the connections to other areas of science, for international collaborations and for enabling materials and technology work."

The Bush Administration's May 17 National Energy Policy, while it focuses mainly on nearer-term issues, does mention fusion. "Fusion," the report states, "has the long-range potential to serve as an abundant and clean source of energy.... Both hydrogen and fusion must make significant progress before they can become viable sources of energy. However, the technological advances experienced over the last decade and the advances yet to come will hopefully transform the energy sources of the distant future." The National Energy Policy report can be accessed under "News" at the White House web site.

"The bottom line," said Rep. Honda at the press conference for H.R. 1781, is that "any long-term solution to our energy crisis must be based upon sound science and innovation, not politics as usual."

Audrey T. Leath
Public Information Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3094

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