The ITER decision

iterusMay 2 may be a pivotal date for the fusion energy community in the United States.

That’s when the Department of Energy is supposed to provide key appropriators with a report about the status of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor — the biggest fusion project ever — and make a recommendation on whether the United States should remain a partner in the international endeavor.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who chairs the Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee, earlier this week said he was anxious to hear from Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz . That was after his subcommittee approved a version of the 2017 energy and water appropriations bill that eliminated funding for the U.S. work on ITER.

The U.S. involvement in the fusion reactor, which is being constructed at Cadarache, France, is based at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The U.S. director, Ned Sauthoff, was out of the country when I tried to reach him for comment about the status of ITER, etc., but he responded via email and provided some background on the forthcoming decision.

Sauthoff underscored the importance of the Moniz recommendation on May 2, and he said the Department of Energy report is being formulated with a “range of key inputs.”

Here’s how Sauthoff described those sources:

—- An independent review of the plan presented by ITER Director General Bernard Bigot at the November 2015 Council meeting. As one of the elements of his “action plan” that he presented to the Council in March 2015 as part of his selection/appointment, Dr. Bigot called for the development of a realistic schedule and cost. The schedule was developed during 2015 by a major effort of the ITER Organization Central Team in France and the 7 Domestic Agencies around the world; their detailed schedules were refined, integrated and reviewed, leading to presentation of 2 schedules to the November 2015 Council: (a) the fastest technically-achievable schedule, and (b) a reference schedule that took into account budgetary constraints of the Members and their plans as of September 2015. The Council received the inputs and commissioned an independent review.

—- A new Management Assessment, following up on the 2013 Management Assessment led by (former ORNL Director) Bill Madia.

—- An extraordinary Council meeting to be held in Paris on April 27 to receive input from these two reports as well as to enable high-level discussions between the Members.

Sauthoff said the U.S. ITER Project Office in Oak Ridge has provided “much data to DOE based on their requests for a range of scenarios for costs and schedule corresponding a range of assumptions and constraints.”

He added: “DOE is and will be integrating all this input in its formulation of its May 2 recommendation/decision regarding whether the US should continue to participate in ITER or withdraw. I expect that the Senate appropriators will take this report into consideration in their derivation of the FY2017 budget for US participation in ITER.”

Stay tuned for more updates on this situation.

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.