Senators Seek Investigation of ITER Program

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Publication date: 
3 May 2013

Four key senators have asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the cost and schedule for the completion of ITER and the feasibility of delaying or adjusting  U.S. contributions to the fusion reactor.  This request came in the form of a letter sent today to the U.S. Comptroller General.

“At a time when federal budgets for research are likely to be constrained for the foreseeable future, concerns have been raised that funding for other U.S. fusion energy science programs and user facilities have, and may continue to be, cut to pay for increasing ITER costs,” the senators write.  These four senators have the greatest responsibility in the Senate for the budget of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science that funds the Fusion Energy Sciences Program.  They are: Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Chairwoman of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee; Lamar Alexander, (R-TN) Ranking Member of this subcommittee; Ron Wyden (D-OR), Chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee; and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Ranking Member of this committee.

The United States, European Union, India, Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea signed the Agreement on the Establishment of the ITER International Fusion Energy Organization for the Joint Implementation of the ITER Project in November 2006.  DOE explained at that time that the U.S. would participate as a non-host partner in the construction phase at a level of 9.09 percent.  This contribution was to be 80 percent in-kind contributions, 20 percent cash, and personnel.  At that time DOE stated “the total value of the U.S. contribution is $1.122 billion.”  ITER is being built at Cadarache, France, and was originally scheduled to be completed in 2015. 

The Obama Administration requested a 14.3 percent or $57.3 million increase in the budget for the Fusion Energy Sciences program for FY 2014 to $458.3 million.  The FY 2012 budget was $401.0 million.  About this request a DOE budget document states:

“Fusion Energy Sciences (FES) supports research to develop fusion as a future energy source. The FY 2014 Budget Request funds U.S. contributions to the ITER project for long-lead procurements required in construction of the facility; the majority of these contributions will be spent on in-kind hardware sourced from U.S. industries, national laboratories, and universities. Domestic research continues in most areas, while program balance is maintained consistent with National Academies recommendations to promote overall federal stewardship of plasma science.”

The Senate news release announcing this letter explains that DOE allocated $225 million for ITER within this request, up from $105 million in FY 2012.  The release further explains that DOE has capped the U.S. contribution at $2.4 billion with an estimated operational date of late 2020.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) will conduct this study.   GAO has previously produced reports on fusion research, and describes itself as “an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress. Often called the ‘congressional watchdog,’ GAO investigates how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars.” In addition, “Our Mission is to support the Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities and to help improve the performance and ensure the accountability of the federal government for the benefit of the American people. We provide Congress with timely information that is objective, fact-based, nonpartisan, nonideological, fair, and balanced.”

The letter follows:

“Mr. Gene Dodaro
Comptroller  General
U.S. Government Accountability Office
Washington , D.C. 20548

“Dear Mr. Dodaro:

“In pursuit of nuclear fusion, the U.S. government helps fund the world's largest energy research project, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). By agreement, ITER is financed and managed by seven member entities -- the European Union (EU), India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea and the United States. To meet its funding requirement of 9.1% of the total ITER project cost, the U.S. contributes procurement of hardware, assignment of personnel, and cash. ITER is currently under construction in Cadarache, France with an estimated completion in late 2019, followed by a multi-year demonstration and deactivation period.

“Reactor  construction  was originally  estimated to be  complete in 2017.   However,  ITER completion dates have  frequently  lengthened  and  project cost  estimates  have  roughly  tripled  since the original  ITER agreement was established  in 2006. Rem  Haange, Director of the ITER Project, has publically  stated that there have been delays in ‘critical and super critical  items’ and that the ITER Project team ‘has introduced methods to understand the slippages and to stop them.’ At a time when federal budgets for research are likely to be constrained for the foreseeable future, concerns have been raised that funding for other U.S. fusion energy science programs and user facilities have, and may continue to be, cut to pay for increasing ITER costs.

“We are requesting that GAO investigate the following:

1. What is the current cost and schedule for completion of ITER? Do experts believe this cost and schedule are realistic given the technical challenges of the fusion energy project?

2.  Could U.S. deliverables be delayed or adjusted without compromising this schedule? How do U.S. deliverables relate to the timely completion of the construction?

3. Are there strategies or alternatives to reduce the cost of the U.S. deliverables?

“Please contact  . . . the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources or . . .  the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development of the Committee on Appropriations staffs if you, or your staff, have any questions concerning this request.