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,
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."