A bipartisan group of senators last week asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to vet just how feasible the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is, and how its costs could affect other U.S. fusion programs.

ITER is a fusion research demonstration reactor under construction in southern France that seeks to demonstrate that fusion can be a future energy source. It is jointly financed and managed by seven countries: The U.S., along with India, Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea have each committed to fund 9.1% of the project’s cost, while the European Union has committed to about 45.5% of construction costs. But ITER members have varying estimates of how much the project could cost. The EU, for example, foresees that if all manufacturing were done in Europe, the project would cost more than $17.02 billion.

According to Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), ITER’s project costs have soared over recent years, and the project has been delayed from 2017 to late 2020, constituting a “threat” to other research efforts. “At a time when federal budgets for research are likely to be constrained for the foreseeable future, concerns have been raised that funding for other U.S. fusion energy science programs and user facilities have, and may continue to be, cut to pay for increasing ITER costs,” the senators wrote to the GAO.

Wyden and Murkowski head up the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, while Feinstein and Alexander lead the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development. The senators asked the GAO to investigate if current costs and the schedule to complete ITER are feasible, given the technical challenges it faces, and how the U.S. could reduce ITER’s costs without impacting the project.

The Obama administration requested $225 million for ITER—more than double the fiscal year 2012 funding level of $105 million and nearly half of the Department of Energy’s budget for fusion energy, the lawmakers noted.

“DOE recently pledged to cap U.S. funding of ITER at $2.4 billion, more than double the estimated U.S. contribution to the project in 2008, the most recent DOE estimate provided to Congress,” they said.

Sources: POWERnews, Senate.gov, iter.org

—Sonal Patel, Senior Writer (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)