Uncertain Future for Department of Energy Fusion Program

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Publication date: 
23 February 1995

There were strong signals at a February 15 hearing of the House
Subcommittee on Energy and Environment that DOE's fusion energy
program is facing an uncertain future.  Subcommittee chairman Dana
Rohrabacher (R-California) signaled his uneasiness about fusion in
his opening remarks, saying, "We must decide if the modest success
shown for the billions spent is worth billions more required to
continue the program for at least another 30 years."  Rohrabacher
is intent on reducing spending for DOE programs under his
subcommittee's jurisdiction -- both in FY 1996, and in "billions of
dollars in future spending."

First to testify was Dr. Martha Krebs, Director of the DOE Office
of Energy Research.  Krebs highlighted research progress at the Los
Alamos, Fermi, and Princeton labs.  She discussed the $100 million
Science Facilities Initiative, DOE's budgetary response to the
Drell panel's high energy physics program recommendations, and the
shelving of the Advanced Neutron Source (ANS.)

While complimenting Krebs on her moderate budget request and the
ANS decision, Rohrabacher was quick to ask Krebs for her highest
and lowest program priorities.  He said the subcommittee must make
budget decisions now, cautioning "we're going to establish them for
you," if DOE does not prioritize.  Rohrabacher turned to the fusion
energy program, asking Krebs, "Is this still a viable option?"
Krebs replied affirmatively, adding that substantial political will
and money will be necessary.  While committee members' questions
covered other programs, fusion was a common topic.  During one
exchange, Krebs said that if the tokamak program was canceled,
"there are alternatives to explore."

Next to testify were the directors of five DOE laboratories, all of
whom support the Science Facilities Initiative.  There was much
less consensus about where program cuts should be made, one
director saying that arriving at judgements across various fields
was difficult.  Rohrabacher complained that no one wants to say
where reductions should be made.  He commented that while he was
"very favorably" looking at the director's requests, they would be
more likely to get what they want if they offered reduction
recommendations.  "Don't forget the position we are in," he said.

Last to testify were Dr. Robin Roy of the Office of Technology
Assessment and Dr. David Baldwin of Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory.  Roy directed a fusion energy workshop, and presented
an 87-page OTA report on the program (to be summarized in a future
FYI.)  Roy questioned the program's projected costs and focus on
tokamaks, saying about alternatives, "there is merit is examining
them."  Baldwin called the TPX "very important to the country,"
warning that fusion progress would be delayed by a decade without
it.  DOE's focus on tokamaks was based on their record of success,
he explained. 

Rohrabacher opened the hearing declaring, "I have not prejudged
individual programs, but, as you can see, some tough choices have
to be made and this subcommittee will make them."  The hearing
closed on a discussion about tokamaks, the chairman saying, "I do
think we should be looking at alternatives."

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