ITER, the international fusion experiment under construction in Cadarache, France, aims to prove that nuclear fusion is a viable power source by creating a "burning plasma" that produces more energy than the machine itself consumes. Although that goal is at least 20 years away, ITER is already burning through money at a prodigious pace. The United States is only a minor partner in the project, which began construction in 2008. But the U.S. contribution to ITER will total $3.9 billion—roughly four times as much as originally estimated—according to a new cost estimate released yesterday. That is about $1.4 billion higher than a 2011 cost estimate, and the numbers are likely to intensify doubts among some members of Congress about continuing the U.S. involvement in the project.
The United States and ITER share a complicated history. The project was first proposed in 1985 as a joint venture with the Soviet Union and Japan. The United States backed out of that effort in 1998, citing concerns over cost and feasibility—only to jump in again in 2003. At the time, ITER was envisioned to cost roughly $5 billion. That estimate had grown to $12 billion by 2006, when the European Union, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and United States signed a formal agreement to build the device. The United States agreed, essentially, to build 9% of the parts for the reactor, at whatever price was necessary.
ITER was supposed to start running by 2016. Since then, however, the project has been plagued by delays, cost increases, and management problem. ITER is now expected to cost at least $21 billion and won't turn on until 2020 at the earliest. And a recent review slammed ITER's management .
The cost of the U.S. contribution has increased, too, although by how much has been unclear. Officials with U.S. ITER had not released an updated cost profile for several years, until Ned Sauthoff, project manager for U.S. ITER at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, did so yesterday. Speaking to a meeting of the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee in Rockville, Maryland, Sauthoff reported that the total cost of the U.S. contribution would be $3.9 billion by the time the project is done in 2034. The schedule assumes that ITER won't start running until 2024 or 2025. In comparison, an April 2011 funding profile pegged the cost of U.S. ITER at $2.5 billion.
The reason for the difference lies mainly in the timing. The 2011 cost profile would have seen spending on U.S. ITER plateau at $350 million per year from 2014 through 2016. However, in 2013, DOE officials decided (as part of their budget request for the following year) to cap spending on ITER at $225 million per year to prevent the project from consuming the entire budget of DOE's fusion energy sciences program. Stretching out the budget invariably increases costs, researchers say. This year, the fusion program has a total budget of $505 million, including the $200 million Congress ultimately decided to spend on ITER. Sauthoff stresses that ITER researchers are making concrete progress in construction. "There is very strong progress in the fabrication of components around the world," he said in an e-mail after the meeting. "US components needed for the construction sequence are being completed for delivery in 2014 and 2015."
The new numbers appear to be giving some members of Congress heartburn. In a separate hearing yesterday on the proposed 2015 budget for DOE, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the chair of Energy and Water Development Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, said that a review by DOE officials suggested that the cost of U.S. ITER could rise as high as $6 billion—more, if the concerns over ITER management are not addressed. "I'm really beginning to believe that our involvement in ITER is not practical, that we will not gain what we hope to gain from it, and instead this money could be much better be spent elsewhere," Feinstein said.
Could the United States really back out of ITER? The Obama administration conceives of the U.S. commitment to ITER as being on a par with a treaty agreement, one Washington insider says, so the administration simply cannot walk away from that commitment. But one Senate staffer who works for the Democratic majority says that's only the administration's position. In fact, the staffer says, the administration seems to be split, with officials at the State Department arguing that the U.S. commitment to ITER is inviolable and officials at DOE indicating that they'd be just as happy without the project on their hands. The staffer suggests that the conflict explains why the administration requested only $150 million for ITER next year instead of the supposed maximum of $225 million it had set earlier.
The Senate staffer suggests that if administration officials can't make up their minds about ITER, Congress could do it for them in the next several months, as they write annual spending bills. "Our intention is make a decision for ourselves in our markup [of the 2015] budget," the staffer says. "They won't have a choice."