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Frelinghuysen, Holt visit PPPL to report on bipartisan efforts

Two members of the U.S. Congress from New Jersey visited the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) on Wednesday, June 13, to announce that the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to restore $76 million in funding for fusion energy research.

Republican Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (NJ-11) and Democratic Rep. Rush Holt (NJ-12) said strong bipartisan support for the bill in the House showed the importance of maintaining a vibrant program to develop fusion as a clean and abundant source of energy. Holt and Frelinghuysen spoke to members of the press and PPPL staffers at the site of the National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX), the Laboratory’s major fusion project, which is being upgraded. The Congressional representatives said the bill would preserve U.S. support for both the domestic and international fusion programs.

The House vote on June 6 restored funds that the Obama administration had reduced in its proposed budget for DOE for fiscal 2013, which begins in October. The measure will next go to a House-Senate conference committee after the Senate completes its own version of the DOE budget. The Senate Committee on Appropriations voted in April to endorse the lower budget that the administration has requested. Frelinghuysen said House members were now reaching out to key senators in both parties to discuss the legislation. “The higher (budget) number needs to prevail,” Frelinghuysen said.

The administration’s proposal left the total fusion budget for fiscal 2013 little changed from the $398 million fusion budget for the current fiscal year. But the President’s request reduced $49 million from the domestic fusion program and added $45 million to the U.S. contribution to ITER, an international fusion facility that is being built in Cadarache, France, as the next major step toward fusion energy.

The House bill increases funding to both the domestic program and ITER by adding $76 million to the administration request and bringing the total fiscal 2013 budget to nearly $475 million. The added funds would restore $49 million to the domestic program and raise it to some $296 million. ITER would receive $178 million under the House bill, or some $28 million more than the administration requested.

PPPL Director Stewart Prager told the news conference that ITER and the domestic program are vital to each other. “ITER will lead the way for international fusion, and the domestic program is strongly correlated and synergistic with it, and we need both,” Prager said. The House bill funds both programs, he said.

Holt, a former assistant director of PPPL whose congressional district includes the Laboratory, said a bipartisan group of 48 House members had written to Frelinghuysen, a longtime champion of fusion energy, to seek his help in restoring fusion funds. Under the proposed cuts, “the entire fusion program was in jeopardy,” Holt said. He termed it “ironic that this Lab and the fusion program continue to struggle for funding, when the progress and the promise is as great as at any time in the 60-year history of the Lab.”

Frelinghuysen, who chairs the energy subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations, shepherded the bill through committee and presented it to the House. “The president’s budget fell short, but I think we’ve improved upon it,” Frelinghuysen said.

Both members of Congress noted that the proposed cuts would reduce workforces at PPPL and other U.S. fusion laboratories. PPPL could lose up to 100 employees, including scientists, engineers and technicians, Holt said. This would cut the Laboratory workforce by more than 20 percent. The administration budget would also shutter Alcator C-Mod, a major fusion experiment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Plasma Science & Fusion Center. The House bill reinstates Alcator C-Mod funds.

Attendees at the news conference included Shirley M. Tilghman, the president of Princeton University, which runs PPPL; and Peter Cantu, the mayor of Plainsboro, where PPPL is located. “Fusion energy is going to be important in the future,” observed Tilghman, who together with Prager hosted the event. “And it is important that America have an important role to play in fusion energy.”

U.S. Department of Energy
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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