Good Hearing for ITER Before House Science Subcommittee

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Publication date: 
25 July 2014

“Fusion energy is the sort of high-risk, high-reward research that will benefit future generations if we are bold enough to pursue it,” said House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) at a recent hearing on the ITER fusion program.  Contrasting with the tenor of reports about the governance and construction management of the high profile fusion science project, the ninety minute hearing focusing on ITER was upbeat with strong support voiced by both Republicans and Democrats.

The ninety-minute hearing of the Subcommittee on Energy was held on July 11.  Four witnesses testified: Patricia Dehmer; Department of Energy Deputy Director for Science Programs; Robert Iotti, ITER Council Chair; Frank Rusco, Director, Natural Resources, Government Accountability Office; and Ned Sauthoff, Director, US ITER Project, Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The hearing followed the release of a Government Accountability Office report describing management problems at the international organization building ITER that prevent the Department of Energy from determining the cost and schedule of the US contribution.   Rusco described these problems in his testimony, saying “the ITER project is at a crossroads,” urging DOE to push the ITER Organization to formulate a realistic schedule and to improve project management.  Iotti did not deny these difficulties, telling the subcommittee that “unquestionably ITER has had management problems” and acknowledged that additional reforms were a work in progress.  Dehmer said GAO “did an excellent job” in the report. 

At the same time, Dehmer, Iotti, and Sauthoff were optimistic about ITER, with Iotti saying “there are no showstoppers.”  Sauthoff described ongoing construction at the ITER site, and reminiscent of the approach long-taken by NASA, how the US contribution to the project involves businesses in 40 states.  Other countries are turning to American companies for equipment and other supplies Sauthoff said.  Iotti and Sauthoff offered optimistic statements about reforms of ITER management procedures. 

Opening statements and questions from subcommittee members indicated a high level of support for DOE’s fusion program and cautious acceptance that ITER’s governance and management problems were being corrected.  Of note, Chairman Smith criticized the Obama Administration for underfunding its FY 2015 ITER request that would cut $50 million as compared to this year’s budget.  Subcommittee Ranking Member Eric Swalwell (D-CA) expressed his concern about an Administration proposal to cap annual funding for ITER at $225 million, saying “this level falls well below what is necessary to optimize the project schedule and minimize the total cost to taxpayers.” 

When asked about this by Swalwell, Dehmer spoke of the Administration’s support of ITER. When DOE was developing the FY 2015 request, she said, it had to do so against a background of no overall cost profile for the project, rumors of cost escalation, organizational management problems, and sequestration.  She stressed the need for the Office of Science to seek balance among all of the programs it supports, some of which have made major discoveries that offer great potential.  Dehmer said she was looking forward to the June 2015 scheduling report from the ITER Organization.  Not surprisingly, she would not say what the Administration’s budget recommendation would be for FY 2016.  Later in the hearing, Dehmer referred to calls for more aggressive funding for ITER, and said “we simply can’t do that because there are so many other projects.”  When asked about the full ramifications of a US withdrawal from ITER (that under the enabling agreement is allowed after October 2017), Dehmer said that was an unknown. 

Several members asked questions about other work supported by the Office of Science.  The contributions of the domestic fusion program were discussed, as was the importance of other research programs.   

At the end of the hearing the witnesses were asked to comment about the probability that fusion research will lead to a power system. While quite optimistic, none predicted success with absolute certainty, describing it as a long-term, high-risk project with a potentially very high return.