Here at ASP, we have highlighted the importance of fusion energy to our nation’s energy and national security. The U.S. has historically led in fusion energy research, but other countries are beginning to move ahead. China, Japan and Korea have constructed superconducting tokamaks, technologies that are more advanced than what we have in the United States.
Along with national programs, the internationally-backed ITER facility, which is currently under construction in France, will demonstrate that net energy gain is possible (more power out than is put in). ITER is a top priority for fusion scientists, as its success will determine how quickly we can commercialize fusion energy.
However, the success of ITER is contingent on strong support from individual countries. That means that the advancements and innovations from U.S. research labs and universities are critical ingredients for the ITER facility. Therefore, if we are to commercialize fusion reactors in the coming years, it will be done because of a symbiotic relationship between ITER and country-specific labs around the world. One cannot be successful without the other.
The European Union is financing 45% of the total cost of ITER, with six other nations (one of which is the United States) chipping in 9% each. That means that the ITER bill for the U.S. totals a relatively modest $2.8 billion spread over 10 years.
However, U.S. funding for both ITER and the American domestic fusion program comes out of the same pie, pitting the two against each other. Congressional efforts to cut government spending have put appropriators in a bind. In order to meet its international commitments, President Obama has proposed to take $45 million out of the domestic program (a 16% cut), and reallocate that money to ITER. The cut to the domestic program would essentially shut down MIT’s Alcator C-MOD fusion project, a facility that is researching smaller and cheaper ways of doing fusion. Scrapping the MIT program would be a huge setback.
The Senate is going along with the President’s budget, appropriating $398 million for the Office of Fusion Energy Sciences, the office through which fusion labs get their funding. The House on the other hand, balked at the President’s request. Instead, it increased funding to $475 million. The two appropriations bills have not been reconciled. Fusion Power Associates has a good explanation of the details here.
Realistically, fusion funding is a sideshow compared to other budget fights in Congress, so the fusion program is hostage to the political season. House Speaker John Boehner reached an agreement with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to pass a six-month continuing resolution when Congress returns in September. The six-month continuing resolution will mean that fusion funding remains unchanged from FY12 levels (no cuts), at least through early next year. So, while the fusion program has been spared for a few months, the budget fight will resume in early 2013.
Check out ASP’s Fusion site here.