On the Front Burner: Efforts Underway on Critical Fusion Program

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Publication date: 
12 July 1995

The first agenda item at yesterday's meeting of the President's
Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) was a
report of the Fusion Review Panel.  The bottom line: the magnitude
of funding for the Department of Energy's magnetic fusion program
contained in the House Energy and Water Development FY 1996
appropriations bill that is now on the House floor will have severe
consequences for fusion research.  In response, PCAST members and
administration officials will be conferring with the Senate Energy
and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee in an effort to
increase fusion funding in their version of this bill, H.R. 1905.
Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) and his subcommittee colleagues may
be marking up their bill as early as next week, so time is of the

The PCAST Fusion Review Panel was established at the last PCAST
meeting in March (see FYI #52) in response to a congressional
recommendation in last year's DOE appropriations bill.  Their
67-page report was completed in three months, and released
following yesterday's unanimous vote to send it on to President
Clinton.  The panel was co-chaired by John P. Holdren and Robert W.
Conn.  Holdren reported that there was unanimous support for the
report's conclusions by all nine members of the review panel.  

It is coincidental that the report was released while H.R. 1905 is
on the House floor.  This bill provides, as this FYI is written,
$229.1 million for the magnetic fusion program.  Current year
spending is $368.4 million.  DOE requested $366.1 million (see FYI

In the report's Executive Summary, three funding levels are

The summary begins by stating, "we believe there is a strong case
for the funding levels for fusion currently proposed by the U.S.
Department of Energy (DOE) -- increasing from $366 million in FY
1996 to about $860 million in FY 2002 and averaging $645 million
between FY 1995 and FY 2005."  This provides funding for ITER
construction and "a vigorous, complementary domestic program...."

The Executive Summary continues with one of its major
recommendations: "Although the program just described is reasonable
and desirable, it does not appear to be realistic in the current
climate of budgetary constraints; we therefore have devoted most of
our effort to developing a budget-constrained U.S. fusion R&D
strategy that, given level funding at about half of the average
projected for the period FY 1996 through FY 2005 under the current
DOE plan, would preserve what we believe to be the most
indispensable elements of the U.S. fusion effort and associated
international collaboration.  This strategy would cost about $320
million per year, $46 million less than the U.S. fusion R&D budget
in FY 1995."

Although not written with the House version of H.R. 1905 in mind,
the Executive Summary describes the consequences of a third, much
reduced, fusion budget: "In addition to developing the strategy
just described for a fusion R&D program funded at about $320
million per year, we also have attempted to envision a program that
could preserve key priorities at a still lower budget level of
about $200 million per year.  We find that this cannot be done.
Reducing the U.S. fusion R&D program to such a level would leave
room for nothing beyond the core program of theory and medium-scale
experiments described above -- no contribution to an international
ignition experiment or materials test facility, no TPX, little
exploitation of the remaining scientific potential of TFTR, and
little sense of progress toward a fusion energy goal.  With
complete U.S. withdrawal, international fusion collaboration might
well collapse -- to the great detriment of the prospects for
commercializing fusion energy as well as the prospects for future
U.S. participation in major scientific technological collaborations
of other kinds.  These severe consequences - deeply damaging to an
important and fruitful field of scientific and technological
development, to the prospects for achieving practical fusion
energy, and to international collaboration in science and
technology more generally - are too high a price to pay for the
budgetary savings involved."

The Executive Summary of this report, "The U.S. Program of Fusion
Energy Research and Development," concludes:

"We urge, therefore, that the Administration and the Congress
commit themselves firmly to a U.S. fusion R&D program that is
stable at not less than $320 million per year."

Holdren said that the Senate appropriations mark-up of the Energy
and Water Development Act is "key" to the future of the program.
The subcommittee members (see FYI #14) will complete their
consideration of the FY 1996 DOE budget as early as next week,
although a definite date has not yet been scheduled.  Holdren wants
a forceful push by the Clinton Administration.  Office of Science
and Technology Policy Director John Gibbons said that he will be
taking this report to the Department of Energy and the Office of
Management and Budget, and said that briefings for Senate
committees are being planned.

Assuming that the House version of H.R. 1905 includes the $229
million for fusion, the Senate figure will have to be considerably
higher to get nearer to the $320 million level recommended by the
PCAST report.  This will be a budget item finally decided by the
all-important conference committee that will meet later this year
to finalize the FY 1996 DOE budget.  House and Senate conferees
typically split the difference on many items, making a high Senate
figure critical to the FY 1996 fusion program budget.

The thirteen senators on the appropriations subcommittee, and later
perhaps senators on the floor, are going to have to, in the words
of John Holdren, "go out on a limb" for the fusion program.  The
degree to which they do this will depend greatly on the kind of
support which is demonstrated for this program by not only the
administration, but also by the American people.  

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