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FYI Number 9: January 25, 2002

U.S. May Consider Rejoining ITER

In a January 3 letter, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham indicated his willingness to consider renewing U.S. participation in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), an international fusion experiment. Abraham's letter states, "I have agreed to explore the current ITER option before us to determine if it is appropriate for the Department - and for the Nation - in the light of the President's National Energy Policy." Abraham's letter was in response to a November 1 letter from House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and Ranking Member Ralph Hall (D-TX), which urged the Secretary to reconsider U.S. participation. That letter concluded, "If we do not begin to examine ITER soon, we may lose the chance to join as a partner."

The U.S. participated with Russia, Japan, and the European Union in the ITER project throughout much of the last decade. But as the engineering design phase reached completion in 1998, ITER's projected cost had burgeoned beyond $8 billion. It was decided that the construction phase would be delayed for several years, as the international partners considered options for reducing costs. In FY 1999 report language, both House and Senate appropriators raised concerns about the U.S.'s continued participation in ITER, as did then-Science Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI). Although the Energy Secretary at the time, Bill Richardson, signed a one-year extension to the U.S.'s participation, U.S. ITER funding was slashed from over $50 million in FY 1998 to $12.2 million in FY 1999, with the funding to be used for "completion of ITER-related activities" and "orderly ITER closeout costs." DOE was "directed not to sign an extension of this [ITER] agreement without the written consent of the authorizing and appropriations committees of the House and Senate."

Since that time, Russia, Japan, the EU and Canada have proceeded without U.S. participation. A series of negotiations is underway that is expected to lead, by the end of this year, to an agreement governing joint implementation of the program, which as currently designed is now expected to cost around $5 billion. Canada, Europe and Japan have all proposed sites for ITER construction.

ITER would be a burning plasma experiment, a type of project viewed as an important next step in the pursuit of fusion energy. Boehlert's Science Committee was responsible for provisions in last year's House-passed version of a National Energy Policy bill (H.R. 4) that call for the Energy Secretary to develop a plan for a domestic burning plasma experiment and also allow the Secretary to submit a plan for U.S. involvement in an international burning plasma experiment (see FYI #105, 2001).

In November, Boehlert and Hall wrote to Abraham, asking that a U.S. representative be sent to the international negotiations. "The current ITER proposal merits consideration," the letter said. "It is a far cry from the original ITER program, which collapsed under the weight of its projected cost.... The burning plasma experiment that would be conducted at ITER is the next logical step toward understanding the physics of fusion reactors.... While we are not ready to offer our unqualified support for this initiative, we do believe exploring the current ITER option makes sense."

The body of Abraham's January 3 letter follows:

"Dear Chairman Boehlert:

"Thank you for your letter of November 1, 2001, which encouraged the Department of Energy to send representatives to the international discussions recently begun on the future of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project and which pointed out the urgency of taking advantage of the opportunity that ITER represents.

"Both the Department and the U.S. fusion community recognize the importance of burning plasma physics to continue the progress of fusion energy sciences. We have been following closely the progress by the ITER Parties in developing a more attractive, lower cost design for the proposed facility, and most recently, the movements toward concrete site proposals and detailed preparations to begin construction.

"Representatives of other governments have asked that the Department review its current policy toward ITER. I have agreed to explore the current ITER option before us to determine if it is appropriate for the Department - and for the Nation - in the light of the President's National Energy Policy. We will proceed carefully and deliberately, since a U.S. commitment to ITER could imply commitment beyond this Administration. I anticipate completing our initial review in the next few months."

The FY 2003 request for Fusion Energy Sciences, which is due to be released with the Administration's budget submission next week, may provide an indication of DOE's intentions for ITER. Fusion funding has remained essentially flat at about $248.5 million for the last three fiscal years.

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3094

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