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Fusion Ambitions Running Up Against Budget Caps, ITER Troubles

JUL 12, 2023
New restrictions on federal spending are likely to constrain the Department of Energy’s emerging efforts to support commercial fusion energy, despite strong political support. Meanwhile, Congress has so far refrained from subjecting construction of the international ITER fusion facility to extensive public scrutiny despite recent turmoil.
Will Thomas
Spencer R. Weart Director of Research in History, Policy, and Culture
A vacuum vessel sector originally installed 15 months ago in the international ITER fusion facility was lifted out of place this month in preparation for repairs.

A vacuum vessel sector originally installed 15 months ago in the international ITER fusion facility was lifted out of place this month in preparation for repairs.

(ITER Organization)

Federal fusion energy policy is poised to remain on a steady course this year, dashing the prospects for a major push, but also retaining momentum amid gathering headwinds.

House Republicans’ fiscal year 2024 spending proposal for the Department of Energy would raise its Fusion Energy Sciences budget by 2% to $778 million, well short of the roughly $1 billion the CHIPS and Science Act targeted and the Biden administration requested . Senate Democrats are unlikely to propose much more in their own proposal, adhering to the strict spending limits the White House negotiated with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) in May.

Although the House’s proposal for a slight increase reflects political support for fusion given the cuts Republicans are pursuing elsewhere, it would leave DOE little room to ramp up programs aimed at accelerating practical fusion power generation. These include the new Milestone-Based Fusion Development Program, which makes payments to private fusion ventures as they develop reactor designs. The program recently made initial awards totaling $46 million to eight recipients using funds already appropriated. The administration is seeking $130 million more for fiscal year 2024, but House appropriators are only proposing $35 million.

The House proposal would also provide steady funding of $242 million for ITER, the massive international fusion R&D facility being built in France. ITER has been grappling with a series of problems, including manufacturing errors requiring extensive repairs, that are expected to delay its start of operations by several years from the previous target of 2025. Senate appropriators sought to pull the U.S. out of ITER during a previous bout of trouble a decade ago, but the project is now deep into construction and Congress has refrained from putting new pressure on it.

Hearing explores federal role in supporting private ventures

Congress’ most consistent source of support for fusion has been the House Science Committee, which held a hearing on June 13 to examine the status of the nascent fusion industry and ways to accelerate its progress.

Fusion Industry Association CEO Andrew Holland testified that his organization has 37 member companies, with 22 based in the United States. He said that cumulative private investment in fusion now totals nearly $6 billion, noting that is more than double the amount from when the committee last held a fusion hearing in November 2021.

The bulk of private funding has gone to just a few companies, such as Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Helion, the latter represented at the hearing by its CEO David Kirtley. CFS and Helion have been pushing optimistic timetables for reactor development, with Helion signing a power purchase agreement with Microsoft in May that entails financial penalties if it does not provide power by 2028. The precise terms were not made public.

Kirtley said developments in fields such as electronics, fiber optics, and computer simulation enabled recent progress in fusion and asserted it may be possible to build one fusion power plant per day in the 2030s. He credited DOE’s Small Business Innovation Research program and the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy for supporting Helion’s work on early prototypes and said federal support will be needed to advance reactor manufacturing, licensing, and deployment.

DOE Lead Fusion Coordinator Scott Hsu highlighted prospective and recently launched efforts to advance commercial fusion that were included in the agency’s budget request: the $130 million for the milestone program, $120 million to establish four fusion R&D centers, and about $15 million each for design studies for test facilities and a new foray in inertial fusion energy.

Energy Subcommittee Ranking Member Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) asked Hsu why the administration did not seek funding for a program Congress has authorized to support alternatives to the tokomak reactor designs DOE has traditionally focused on. He replied that DOE was balancing priorities with available funds and noted the department is supporting alternative concepts through the milestone program and other efforts.

Holland added that the Fusion Industry Association’s member companies represent a “family tree” of fusion technologies and urged that their varied approaches receive “as much funding as possible” to avoid concentrating on just one or two technologies. Kirtley observed that Helion’s approach involved maturing a “very high-risk” technology and that federal backing ultimately helped it secure private funding.

Companies that have secured substantial private investment are among those that received funds through the milestone program, including CFS though not Helion. However, most were smaller startups pursuing less-developed technologies. Hsu said during another exchange that DOE had deliberately offered smaller sums to a larger number of recipients and explained in his written testimony that the objective was to hedge against some projects failing while also selecting ones credible enough to attract private support.

Lead DOE appropriator looks to fusion program’s future

granger-fleischmann.jpg

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN), right, is the House’s lead appropriator for the Department of Energy and a proponent of fusion energy. However, the House Appropriations Committee, chaired by Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), left, has set limits on the spending it will propose that are lower than the caps President Biden and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) agreed on in May. (House Appropriations Committee)

Although the House’s proposed fusion funding would not support major new initiatives, fusion policy is on the mind of the lead House appropriator for DOE, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN). Fleischmann’s district encompasses Oak Ridge National Lab, which conducts fusion research, houses the U.S. ITER program office, and collaborates with a number of private fusion ventures, including six receiving milestone program funds.

Fleischmann also sits on the Science Committee and used its hearing to solicit views on whether DOE’s fusion energy efforts should continue to be funded primarily through the Office of Science, which is focused on basic research.

Holland unequivocally argued it should not, saying the goal of building fusion power plants calls for an applied R&D program that stands on its own. Hsu said DOE needs to ensure it continues supporting basic fusion and plasma science and focus for the moment on launching its new efforts, but he welcomed further discussion of the issue.

The organization of DOE’s fusion efforts was further broached in language Fleischmann’s appropriations panel included with its spending proposal. Endorsing the milestone program’s “multi-pronged approach across many technology readiness levels,” it instructs DOE to consider at what point it should hand projects from the milestone program, which resides within the Office of Science, to the department’s new Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, which oversees commercial-scale projects.

ITER retains committee support despite problems

Neither Fleischmann nor any other lawmaker at the Science Committee hearing brought up ITER’s recent problems.

The only time the committee has publicly addressed the matter was in a bipartisan letter to DOE and ITER last December, which noted the committee had learned about the problems from a visit to the ITER site in October by now-retired committee member Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA). The committee recounted that ITER officials told McNerney they had first discovered systematic manufacturing errors in major facility components in April 2022 and that “at best, the issue would delay ITER’s first phase goal of achieving first plasma; at worst, it could be ‘project-ending.’”

The committee stated it understands that “unexpected issues can occur in projects of this magnitude and complexity, especially in a first-of-its-kind project,” but also expressed disappointment it had not been previously informed. The committee also noted its longstanding bipartisan support for ITER and included as attachments five years of letters it had sent to appropriators urging full funding for the facility.

Reflecting the committee’s support, Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) used his first question at the hearing to ask another witness, U.S. ITER Project Director Kathy McCarthy, to defend the project against criticisms that its relevance has diminished amid the expansion of commercial ventures. She replied that, even if some of those projects achieve major milestones first, ITER will conduct research relevant to a variety of fusion concepts that will help the current collection of companies mature into a full industry.

McCarthy briefly discussed ITER’s problems in her own opening remarks and included additional details in her written testimony . She reported that civil construction at the ITER site is 85% complete and ITER has credited the U.S. with completion of 60% of the equipment it is contributing to the project, none of which is implicated in the manufacturing errors requiring repair. Preparations are currently underway at ITER to begin those repairs later this year.

ITER is still assessing the cost and schedule implications of its problems as part of a new baseline estimate it is preparing, which was the main subject of discussion in mid-June at the biannual meeting of the ITER Council, the project’s international governing body. ITER’s readout  of that meeting states it expects to finish the estimate in 2024. It also reports that ITER is considering a significant design change, switching the facility’s plasma-facing wall material from beryllium to tungsten, and that it has promoted two officials, Sergio Orlandi and Alain Bécoulet, to the respective roles of construction project leader and chief scientist.

Earlier this year, ITER initiated searches for both those roles, as well as for chief engineer, head of procurement, head of finance and project control, and head of human resources. McCarthy’s written testimony indicated the turnover reflects “organizational adjustments” being made by Pietro Barabaschi, who took over as ITER’s director-general last October following the death of his predecessor, Bernard Bigot.

DOE’s latest budget request stated that the department is currently establishing its own firm baseline cost estimate for the total U.S. contribution to ITER and anticipated the figure would remain under the current upper-bound estimate of $6.5 billion.

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