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FYI Number 117: August 2, 2005

Fusion Advisory Committee Questions Impact of ITER

With Cadarache, France now chosen as the site for ITER, the predominant discussion item at the July 19 meeting of DOE's Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (FESAC) was how U.S. participation in ITER will impact the domestic fusion research effort. As a 10-percent partner in ITER, the U.S. is expecting to contribute a little more than $1.0 billion over approximately the next 10 years as the facility is built. Committee members worried that potential cuts to the domestic program in order to support ITER would leave U.S. researchers in a position of not being able to get the maximum benefit from the international facility.

ITER is an opportunity for the U.S. community to do research on a scale that would not otherwise be possible, Ray Orbach, the Director of DOE's Office of Science, told the committee. He acknowledged that sacrifices would be required but called for "unity," reminding FESAC members that ITER would be "your machine." N. Anne Davies, Associate Director for Fusion Energy Sciences (FES) at DOE, reviewed how the FY 2006 budget request and the House and Senate Energy and Water Development appropriations bills would affect the fusion programs. She commented that there are "a lot of things swirling" in the budget process. The committee also considered a report on the value of the three major toroidal magnetic fusion facilities in the U.S. The report, as well as the presentations given at this July 19 meeting, can be found at http://www.ofes.fusion.doe.gov/More_HTML/FESAC_Charges_Reports.html.

"It was a most moving experience," Orbach said of the decision on an ITER site. The parties came to agreement "for the good of humanity…. It was the world coming together to solve a common problem in a collective fashion." He cautioned that "in some ways this was the easiest part." The next steps are to develop some form of treaty or executive agreement on the project itself, and to select a Director General. Although he acknowledged that it would require "a fairly aggressive" schedule, he hoped an agreement could be developed by the end of 2005 for the Administration and Congress to start reviewing, with a formal agreement signed by the end of spring 2006. It is "terribly important" that the U.S. proves itself a credible partner and that "the partners feel we are responsible members of the ITER team," Orbach said. He also warned that "we are going to run across different national approaches to issues every step of the way."

To concerns about maintaining a robust domestic program, Orbach said he has testified before Congress that a strong U.S. domestic program is essential for the success of ITER. But he also stated that the balance between ITER funding and the domestic program was "arbitrary," and said every community has had to make "sacrifices" when a major new facility is built. "What I want to avoid," he said, is "any conflict between the domestic program and ITER…. This is your machine."

Orbach told the committee that it is time to "think globally. As we move into this new world, we need to think about the total resources available on a worldwide basis" for fusion research. He emphasized that ITER is a presidential priority, and while the fusion program would have to be reoriented around it, "the strengths we bring to the table must not be injured in the process." A FESAC member pointed out that for the next 10 years ITER would be a construction project, not a research facility, and worried about keeping the program and researchers "on ice for 10 years." Orbach replied that other major facilities have taken years to build, and other research communities have learned how to "keep their programs alive." "Look, we're all worried about it," he added, but "we haven't worked this hard to cause damage" to U.S. fusion efforts. He also pointed out that when a big new project is built, it often raises funding for the core programs with it.

Ned Sauthoff of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory discussed the current status of the ITER project and efforts to reduce cost and risks. "We have long recognized," he said, "that probably the biggest risk is management." The project will require the seamless working of international and domestic teams and the melding of different approaches to project management. Sauthoff estimated that the cost for the U.S. contribution could reach as high as $1.4 billion, but by finalizing the project's scope, reducing the need for contingencies, and reducing risks, he hoped it could be brought in line with a cap of $1.122 billion imposed by OMB in the FY 2006 budget request.

Davies commended Orbach for his contributions to bringing the site selection process "to fruition in a way that was satisfactory to everyone." She noted that both House and Senate appropriators had rejected the cuts to the domestic fusion program that the Administration had proposed in order to support ITER, including suspending the fusion materials science research program, reducing the high energy density research program, eliminating an inertial confinement fusion concept, and cutting back other FES programs. She explained that the Administration's proposed reductions to FES in future years were "formula-driven" by the deficit-reduction effort and that Orbach was "doing battle" to increase those levels.
Both the House and Senate bills sought to restore funding for the domestic fusion program, Davies said, although Senate funding of ITER was dependent upon a site selection decision. She also described an amendment to the Senate bill by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), chair of the Senate Energy and Water Development appropriations subcommittee, calling for a Government Accountability Office review of FES programs and the possibility of shutting down one of the main U.S. fusion facilities. She referred to the fusion budget as "in play," and voiced hope that "we don't lose any facilities…or any big chunks" of the fusion program.

Jill Dahlburg of the Naval Research Laboratory introduced, for the committee's consideration, a report by the FESAC Facilities Panel on the three major U.S. fusion facilities (Alcator C-Mod, DIII-D, and NSTX). In requesting the report, Orbach expressed a commitment to "a strong base fusion research program" but indicated that he wanted to operate facilities only if they enabled "unique and important research." The panel concluded that the three facilities have diverse but complementary characteristics, that each is a leading element of the world fusion program, that they are highly effective as a group, and that they contribute to U.S. leadership in many aspects of fusion energy sciences. Pointing out that the next major opportunity for fusion research will be offshore, the panel called for continued operation of all three facilities, and stated that "the loss of any of the three…would fundamentally jeopardize the ability of U.S. researchers to perform relevant research, and thus would undermine the current U.S. position of international excellence."

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
301-209-3094

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