Senator Alexander Warns of $750 Million ITER Default

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Publication date: 
21 April 2008

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has gone on record warning that the United States might be liable to a $750 million default clause in the ITER agreement.   Lamar's comments, made at an April 9 hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, were addressed to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

The Administration requested $160 million for ITER last year for the U.S. contribution to the project this year.  The report accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act passed in December contained the following language: "$0 for the U.S. contribution to ITER, and $10,724,000 for Enabling R&D for ITER," later stating, "Funding may not be reprogrammed from other activities within Fusion Energy Sciences to restore the U.S. contribution to ITER."

Alexander told Secretary Rice:

"Usually, we Senators like to catch the administration in embarrassing mistakes. I want to ask you if you can help us out of an embarrassing mistake, at least I believe it was, that we made in the complicated congressional appropriations process last year, and that's the United States' commitment to deal with the fusion project in France . . . "

". . .  we are in a situation where the whole world is talking about climate change, where we have clean air problems in the United States, where the Olympics are causing more attention to the clean air problems we have in China, where they're building two new coal plants every week, so we are told. India, the same."  " . . . the Tennessee Valley Authority alone, in our region, says it will need the equivalent of a new coal plant every year or more or a new nuclear plant every year and a half.

"And along comes this idea of fusion, which is a longer term idea, but nevertheless, we, along with the European Union and China and India and Japan and South Korea and Russia, agreed to enter into an international project.

"I know you know all this, but I am saying this so that we can get it out on the record. We have agreed to pay for nine percent of the $1.1 billion cost, that 80 percent of the hardware will be built in the United States, shipped over there.  So it is friendly to us on jobs. And the president requested $160 million for this last year, which would have kept our commitments.

"Well, in the final result, in the omnibus appropriation bill, that got dropped.   . . . I am sure it came up against other worthy projects, but here is where we are left with.   We are left with, number one, this embarrassing mistake means that at a time when we are concerned about climate change, clean air here and in the world, that we are not doing what we agreed to do in order to help the world do this problem.

"I hear a lot of Senators on my side of the aisle say, 'Well, we shouldn't do more until the rest of the world does more?' Well, they've agreed to do more here.   They're doing their part. And what do we do? We say we won't do what we have agreed to do. That's the first thing.

"And the second thing, the deal we made said that if we don't put in our $160 million, we might get charged $750 million. In other words, we said, as a guarantee, that if we back out, if we don't live up to the deal, it's going to cost us three-quarters of a billion dollars.

"So my question to you, Madam Secretary is wouldn't it be wiser for us to live up to our commitment to clean the air, to advance this ultimate solar energy and to spend $160 million this year in support of the international thermonuclear experimental reactor, the fusion project, rather than back down from something we've agreed to do and cost us potentially $750 million a year?

Secretary of State Rice replied:

"Yes. On ITER, Senator, we are very supportive of this project. We believe that it is a great example of high level international cooperation on some of the more promising scientific potential breakthroughs of our time and we'll have many of the benefits that you talked about. The president did request $160 million in 2008. There is a DOE request in 2009. And we work very closely with DOE [Department of Energy] on this project, on the diplomacy of this project, but we're very supportive and I hope it will be fully funded."

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees are readying their versions of a supplemental funding bill.  There has been discussion about including additional current year funding for the DOE Office of Science in this bill, including a letter  that Alexander and other senators sent to top Senate appropriators stating: "ITER is a multinational scientific project and has been one of the Office of Science's top priorities for the last several years. The President's proposed budget tor Fiscal Year 2008 included $l60 million for the project. It is imperative that Congress appropriate supplemental funding for ITER as soon as possible to keep our commitments to our international partners, keep this important project on track, and avoid losses in scientific talent among U.S.-based employees working on ITER."