Legislative efforts highlight challenging path for fusion energy

The fusion debate on Capitol Hill is heating up.

The issue popped up in a flurry of letters, bills and comments in the past week as appropriators weighed proposed cuts to the Department of Energy's overall fusion budget.

Congress also is waiting for a report from Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on U.S. participation in a multibillion-dollar global fusion project that some lawmakers think is a waste of money.

Among those weighing in is Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who introduced a bill last week requiring the secretary of Energy issue a report on "fusion innovation" -- a technology path that holds the potential to power the world several times over with the same power source as the sun.

The measure, H.R. 4727, would require DOE's report to outline fusion energy designs with the potential of achieving net energy production within 15 years. It would also task DOE with identifying "budget requirements" to deploy targeted innovative designs. Similar language passed the House earlier this year as part of a nuclear innovation bill.


"We've been trying to develop commercial fusion for more than half a century, and we don't have enough to show for it at this point," said Grayson, ranking member on the Science, Space and Technology Committee Subcommittee on Energy, in an interview. "It is possible to accomplish the same things faster, cheaper and better."

While Grayson has been outspoken on the issue before, the bill comes at a time when fusion is under scrutiny by lawmakers and the international community.

At a Senate hearing last week, for example, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) reiterated concerns about U.S. participation in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, an international project among 35 nations to develop the first device to maintain fusion for long periods of time.

The United States is funding about 9 percent of the multibillion-dollar initiative, which is under construction in southern France. It has been plagued by cost overruns and delays.

Fusion power relies on the same nuclear reaction powering the sun and stars -- hydrogen nuclei collide and fuse into heavier helium atoms. The challenge for human-generated fusion typically has been powering a machine that releases more energy than it consumes. ITER is hoping to flip this problem on its head by generating 500 megawatts from 50 MW of input power.

For Grayson, DOE should be supporting more types of technologies beyond the ITER model. Alternative technologies are "for the most part starved of all resources," he said. For example, existing federal research and ITER are focused on a specific type of fusion machine -- the tokamak. It is a doughnut-shaped device that aims to generate heat for later use in a conventional power plant, by fusing hydrogen atoms in a chamber.

There are alternative technology approaches, though, that some think may achieve results faster. Germany's stellarator, for example, recently began tests (Greenwire, Feb. 3). Private companies -- some of which are supported by billionaires like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen -- also are examining alternative fusion technologies.

Grayson's bill originated from an earlier measure, H.R. 3440, which would require DOE to build a "competitive, merit-reviewed" funding system to solicit proposals for engineering designs for innovative fusion energy systems.

"It seems to me that the ITER project is unfortunately resulting in the consequence that alternative models for commercial fusion are being starved of resources. That should not occur," said Grayson. "That's not the way private industry does its research. They don't take all available funds and stick it into one project with ... unpredictable results."

At the same time, he did not take a position on whether the United States should withdraw from the project entirely.

Feinstein echoed Grayson's concerns to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on DOE's fiscal 2017 budget last week.

"I don't know why we need to participate, candidly. ... If we continue to do so, the costs are huge. And I mean, I'm really doubting," said Feinstein to Moniz about ITER. The fiscal 2017 budget request is calling for an increase in spending on ITER, despite a proposed reduction for DOE's fusion programs overall.

Last year's budget requires DOE to make a recommendation by May 6 on whether the United States should remain a partner in ITER or not, Feinstein noted.

Moniz said the management of the international project was "upgraded" with the choice of Bernard Bigot as the new director-general of ITER last year. Among other things, Bigot is pushing for a more centralized governing organization to speed up construction and minimize the possibility of any one country holding things up.

After praising Bigot, Moniz told Feinstein that DOE would "have to see in April what the -- what the project review information is, and then we'll get back to the -- to the Congress in early May."

Chairman is a supporter

ITER itself is expected to outline its schedule in more detail this year, although conventional wisdom is that it won't be operational until 2025. The project last formalized a schedule more than five years ago, a scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory said in a January interview. In November, it announced that it was "progressing well despite delays," including through shipment of components from the United States.

The project has congressional supporters who say it holds great potential. Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the science panel, is one of them.

A committee aide said yesterday, "As Smith has said before, DOE should provide the U.S. ITER program with the funds it needs to accomplish its goals, as long as the project meets future milestones."

This week, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) spearheaded a letter from lawmakers to House appropriators, urging support for DOE's fusion programs.

"The United States has always led the fusion field, playing a key role in its origination and conducting many of the milestone experiments," the letter said.

Others say that DOE is wise to narrow its focus on a few main fusion technologies, given budget constraints.

Feinstein, meanwhile, has questioned Moniz on a separate project, the National Ignition Facility (NIF), the world's largest energetic laser facility, housed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It also envisions breakthroughs in fusion research by focusing laser energy on hydrogen fuel.

"This is a very expensive program," Feinstein said.

Moniz said the chief goal -- to examine technical issues with relevance to nuclear weapons -- "has been done."

This week Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) led 24 lawmakers who sent a letter to the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee urging support for the facility. The Obama administration is calling for $330 million in fiscal 2017.

"The National Ignition Facility is making important advances toward achieving fusion ignition in the laboratory for the first time, bringing star power to Earth," Swalwell said. "It's vital that the United States continue to fund this research and remain a world leader in this field, and not let China or Russia jump ahead."

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