Flurry of Fusion & Facilities Questions at House Science Hearing on DOE Budget

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Publication date: 
24 March 2016

At a hearing to review the Department of Energy budget request, multiple members criticized the administration’s proposed cuts to Fusion Energy Sciences, advocated for rethinking the department’s portfolio of fusion research, and asked questions about the status of ITER, the National Ignition Facility, the Advanced Photon Source, and the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility.

“I’m pleased to see this budget proposal build on COMPETES and congressional appropriations to provide priority funding for basic R&D. Unfortunately, the president’s budget proposal doesn’t stop there. … Instead, the FY 2017 proposal reads like a wish list for the White House’s political allies,” said House Science Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) at the outset of a March 22 hearing to review the president’s fiscal year 2017 budget request for the Department of Energy (DOE). Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz was the sole witness.

Smith dismissed the president’s proposed Mission Innovation initiative to double clean energy research and development (R&D) over five years as unbalanced and reliant on budgetary “gimmicks.” His opening statement made clear his stance that the Office of Science should be prioritized over the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), a sentiment later echoed by Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL).

Committee ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) presented a contrasting viewpoint in her opening statement, applauding the Mission Innovation initiative and saying she fully supports the funding requests for EERE, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, and the Office of Electricity. However, Smith and Johnson were united in opposition to certain proposals in the budget request.

Both pushed back on the proposed $40 million cut to the Office of Science’s Fusion Energy Sciences program. After noting that this funding level would be $90 million below the level authorized in the House-passed “America COMPETES Reauthorization Act,” Smith said that “if Mission Innovation is about investing in long-term research for clean energy, fusion should be a priority.” Johnson also alluded to frustration with the fusion program’s “continued inability to support innovative new research areas.”

Members probe Moniz on the future of fusion

Like Smith and Johnson, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) criticized the cuts to the Fusion Energy Sciences program, although she noted her appreciation for the “reasonable” funding request for the National Ignition Facility (NIF) based at Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Lofgren and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), whose district includes NIF, recently sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee supporting the president’s $330 million request for NIF. The letter garnered 24 other signatures, all by Democratic members of Congress.

However, in her opening statement, Lofgren questioned DOE’s portfolio of fusion research. Pointing to the recommendations of a 2013 National Academies report, she asked why DOE has not established a program to support research on use of inertial fusion for energy generation. Currently, NIF is mostly dedicated to research relevant to stewardship of the nuclear weapons stockpile.

In response, Moniz argued that the Academies recommendation to establish a national inertial fusion energy R&D program was contingent on first achieving ignition at NIF. He also pointed out that although the primary mission of NIF is “unquestionably” to inform stockpile stewardship efforts, almost 20 percent of the laser shots last year were dedicated to other purposes. Lofgren disagreed with Moniz’s interpretation of the recommendation, stating flatly “I don’t think that’s correct,” and vowed to follow up with him on the subject.

Moniz later emphasized that the future direction of DOE’s fusion energy portfolio is largely dependent on whether or not the U.S. decides to continue to support ITER:

The elephant in the room, frankly, is the trajectory for the ITER project.

DOE is submitting a report to Congress in early May with its recommendations on this subject. Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) inquired about whether DOE is doing any “contingency planning” to prepare for the U.S. exiting or remaining in the project. Moniz replied that such planning is occurring and noted that staying in the project is “likely to require a significant increase in the scale of the fusion budget.”

Questioning the wisdom of supporting ITER, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) asked “Aren’t we putting an awful lot of eggs in that one basket?” He then expressed interest in pursuing smaller scale fusion experiments, drawing an analogy to NASA’s switch to a “faster, better, and cheaper” approach after struggling with “giant white elephant projects.”

Illinois delegation keeping tabs on lab upgrades and tech transfer

All four members of the Illinois delegation on the committee asked questions focused on the national labs. First, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) asked about the timeline for upgrading the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Lab and the importance of maintaining leadership in light sources. Moniz assured him that DOE is on a “systematic march” toward upgrading the light sources. Foster later echoed Lipinski’s sentiments, indicating his strong support for the Advanced Photon Source upgrade.

Turning his attention to technology transfer, Lipinski highlighted his deep interest in the subject and asked for updates on the new Office of Technology Transitions and Lab-Corps program modeled off the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program. Moniz noted that there is a lot of enthusiasm at the labs for these types of activities and that focus on technology transfer has been “elevated quite dramatically.”

Picking up where Lipinski left off, Rep. Darin LaHood (R-IL) asked what more could be done to enhance technology transfer to the private sector. Moniz responded by saying that clear direction to the lab directors that technology transfer is part of their responsibility is perhaps more important than establishing additional programs.

Last but not least, Foster (who used to work at Fermilab) and Hultgren (whose district includes Fermilab) unsurprisingly inquired about progress on the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility (LBNF).

“I’m somewhat disappointed to see that LBNF received less than they need to to [sic] move forward at full schedule,” said Foster. “I trust that you and DOE are still supportive of this project?” Moniz was quick to assure him of DOE’s commitment to the project:

No bones about it, [LBNF] is a high priority project, the highest priority project, certainly in particle physics.

Foster clarified that he believes the domestic funding is adequate and that his concern is directed at the pending international contributions. Hultgren also asked about the progress in securing international commitments. Moniz noted that discussions with potential partner countries so far have been “very encouraging” and that he is very optimistic about the prospects for the project.

Hultgren concluded, “That means a lot to us, [and] I know it means a lot to the physics community. [Let us know about] any way we can be helpful. This is something that pulls us [in Congress] together.”

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