How much will the international fusion experiment called ITER really cost? That's what four U.S. senators want to know, and today they sent a letter to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) requesting an investigation of the current cost and schedule for the gargantuan experiment, under construction in Cadarache, France. They're also interested in possibilities for reducing the cost of the United States' share of the hardware, in part because of worries that ITER's ballooning costs are consuming the U.S. domestic fusion program.
"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 [sic], and may continue to be, cut to pay for increasing ITER costs," write Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the chair and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), the chair and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. GAO is Congress's investigative arm, and lawmakers frequently ask it to review projects that have raised budgetary flags.
ITER aims to show that a fusion generator, or tokamak, can generate more energy than it consumes. There's no doubt that ITER has proved to be a lot more expensive than estimated when the official agreement to build the device was signed in 2006. Back then, ITER was estimated to cost roughly $12 billion, and the Department of Energy (DOE), which funds U.S. fusion research, estimated that the U.S. share would cost $1.1 billion. Now, that number has more than doubled. DOE currently estimates that it can fulfill the U.S. obligations for $2.4 billion, as least until the ITER tokamak gets going and achieves "first plasma." However, DOE's budget request for fiscal year 2014, which starts on 1 October, acknowledges that figure "is not a bottom-up estimate but is the judgment by DOE and its oversight organizations of appropriate cost for reaching first plasma."
While the cost of ITER has skyrocketed, DOE's total budget for fusion research has stagnated. In its requested budget for fiscal year 2013—which Congress didn't pass—the Obama administration proposed trimming overall spending on fusion by 1.2% to $398 million. But it also called for ramping up spending on ITER from $105 million to $150 million, necessitating a 16% cut in the domestic fusion program and the closure of one of three U.S. tokamaks. The proposed budget for fiscal year 2014, announced last month, would boost the fusion budget by 14% to $458 million. But all of that increase and more would go to a $225 million ITER contribution, requiring further cuts to the domestic program
What GAO will be able to find remains unclear. ITER officials do not determine the cost of the project and then divide that sum among the seven ITER partners. Rather, the agreement underlying ITER specifies which parts and equipment each partner is supposed to provide and lets that country or organization determine how much that contribution costs according to its own accounting practices. So the total cost of ITER may be unknowable. ITER's own Web site gives only a ballpark estimate of €13 billion ($17 billion) and states that "[i]t's impossible to be more precise in estimating the cost of the project."
Even determining what the United States must spend to build its parts won't be easy. Like every other major DOE project, the U.S. ITER project is supposed to have a "performance baseline"—a document that specifies in detail the cost and schedule for completing the project. DOE is supposed to approve that baseline at the third of five major reviews that every major project must pass. The U.S. ITER project was supposed to undergo such a review, known as CD-2, last year. But that never happened, so U.S. ITER has no officially approved baseline. According to DOE's own rules, construction on a project should not begin before a baseline has been approved.