Outlook for DOE's Fusion Energy Sciences Program

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Publication date: 
14 November 2008

Gene Nardella, DOE Acting Associate Director of Science for Fusion Energy Sciences told the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee that he would be discussing the program's "highlights and low lights" during his November 6 presentation.  The highlight: Congress is "still very supportive" of the fusion program.  The low light: the United States "cannot live up to our  commitments" to the ITER project with the amount of money Congress has previously appropriated.

Nardella was succinct: “the key thing for us is the appropriation."  Given the lack of an FY 2009 DOE appropriations bill, the program is being funded under a stop-gap continuing  resolution funding bill that provides, when combined with additional supplemental funding, $20.5 million for the first five months of FY 2009.  The Administration requested $493.1 million for the entire year.  The resulting shortfall has required the Department of Energy to back off its commitments  to ITER for equipment, staffing, and the central reserve fund.  DOE is now running, a "very tight, very effective" fusion program while it awaits the outcome of the FY 2009 appropriations cycle.  An exhibit stated “Despite the funding problems, the U.S. has remained fully engaged in ITER activities at the international level, including those subsidiary bodies associated with its governance.”Nardella is hopeful that Congress will settle on a final funding bill before the continuing resolution runs its full course into early March.

DOE is looking ahead to the incoming Obama Administration and the new Congress. Nardella told the advisory committee, chaired by Martin J. Greenwald of MIT, that ITER "will be high on the list" for Congress when it reconvenes.  The fusion community must now work to  demonstrate to President-Elect Obama’s transition team the value of the ITER program.  In doing so, the community should explain that ITER is the largest part of the fusion program, but not the only part.

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees and their subcommittees have been very supportive of the Administration’s FY 2009 fusion request.  The House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee recommended a 65.2 percent increase over the FY 2008 budget and provided the full ITER request.  The subcommittee stated: “Given the tremendous potential of fusion energy to provide a long-term solution to our energy needs, this Committee believes it is essential that the U.S. continue to play a leadership role in this area.”  The fusion program received similar support from Senate appropriators in their version of this bill, with a 63.2 percent increase.   One of Nardella’s exhibits stated “The FY 2009 Appropriation will determine the extent that the project can resume fulfilling its commitments to design and R&D, long-lead procurements, and funding contributions to the ITER Organization.  A year-long CR [continuing funding resolution] could be problematic depending on specific guidance,” with Nardella saying that limited or no funding for ITER would cause cost and schedule problems in coming months.

Also discussed was report language included by House appropriators in their committee report: “the [Energy] Department is directed to provide the Committee with a report no later than March 1, 2009 which describes a bold, credible plan for a world-leading U.S. fusion program as this area becomes an increasingly international endeavor."   Nardella told the  fusion energy advisory committee that DOE is “working very hard” to develop a plan that will give Congress “a flavor of where we are going.”  The plan will outline  the fusion program’s goals and stategy in the next four to eight years, and will draw on four reports and studies.  The advisory committee will get a draft of the plan in the next few weeks and will meet to discuss it in mid-January.

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