Fusion Energy Could Bring the Stars' Power to Earth

Fusion Energy Could Bring the Stars' Power to Earth

Harnessing the power of the stars here on Earth could supply our future energy needs. If we replicate the same nuclear reactions that occur in a star within a fusion reactor, the heat from these reactions could be converted into abundant renewable and reliable electricity. 

The potential benefits from a fusion reactor are incalculable; the fuel is abundant and widely accessible and the carbon footprint is zero. When commercial fusion becomes available, it will revolutionize the energy market and significantly reduce global carbon emissions. This technology will lead the way to addressing climate change.

In short, fusion is a safe, reliable, and clean source of energy. While we cannot predict when fusion will become a viable part of our energy portfolio, future generations will benefit greatly when it is developed. 

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, which I chair, oversees the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science, which includes its Fusion Energy Sciences program. Earlier this year, we heard from researchers about innovative approaches to solving the challenges of fusion science and the next steps for the U.S. fusion research program. 

A critical step on the path to achieving commercial fusion energy is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project. The ITER project is a major scientific collaboration between the European Union, Japan, South Korea, China, India, Russia, and the United States. It will design, build, and operate what will be the world’s largest magnetic fusion reactor. 

The U.S. has agreed to supply personnel, deliver hardware, and provide funding for the ITER project. With the United States contributing 9 percent of construction costs and 13 percent of the total for operations, deactivation, and decommissioning of ITER, our scientists will be able to access 100 percent of the discoveries achieved through this first-of-a-kind facility. That’s a good deal for the American people. 

Though located in France, ITER is truly an American research project. More than 80 percent of total U.S. awards and obligations to ITER fund researchers and facilities here in the United States. As of December 2017, the U.S. ITER organization has awarded more than $975 million in research and engineering funding to approximately 600 U.S. laboratories, companies, and universities. 

The head of ITER, Dr. Bernard Bigot, was here in Washington, D.C. last week with President Macron to convey the French government’s commitment to the project. According to Bigot, the ITER Organization is making progress in project construction. Since March 2015, 32 ITER Council milestones have been achieved on schedule and on budget and the project schedule remains on track for the launch of ITER research operations in 2025. Today, the project component manufacturing and worksite construction is more than halfway complete. 

According to the research community, a minimum of $163 million in-kind contributions and $50 million cash contributions in fiscal year 2019 are necessary to maintain the scheduled U.S. contribution to this project. The $122 million in funding included for ITER in the recent omnibus is a step in the right direction, but more must be done to ensure that the U.S. will be able to meet its long-term commitments. Reduced annual funding will cause construction delays that will increase overall project costs.

If Congress underfunds the ITER project, it will jeopardize American leadership in fusion science. With China and Russia collaborating through ITER to produce and share fusion research, we cannot afford to lose our seat at the table. Nor can we expect to receive international support for our domestically built projects if we do not honor our international obligations. 

It is imperative that the United States uphold its commitment to ITER and fully fund the fusion research program at DOE. To maintain America’s global standing as the leader in science, we must meet our international commitments and support this basic research that will lead to transformative clean energy technologies. Let’s bring the power of the stars to Earth! 

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is chairman of the House Science Committee.

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