Ray Orbach's comments on the future of fusion energy to the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee could not have been more positive. Orbach, director of the DOE Office of Science, praised the committee for a "superb job," saying that the last eight months during which a development consensus has been arrived at, have been "extraordinary." Orbach charted a path forward for the development of fusion energy, albeit while operating under a very tight budget.
"We are in a position of strength and real credibility," Orbach told the committee at a March 5 meeting, citing the decision by the Bush Administration to rejoin the partnership to construct ITER, the world's first burning plasma machine. He cited a February 6 address by the President, in which Bush explained the U.S. position on ITER and fusion: ". . . the United States will work with Great Britain and several European nations as well as Canada, Japan, Russia and China to build a fusion test facility and create the largest and most advanced fusion experiment in the world. I look forward to working with Congress to get it funded. . . . It's an incredibly important project to be a part of." The President continued, "We have the opportunity to blaze new paths. I'm willing to get on the path. I know the members of Congress here are willing to get on the path. It makes sense for America to do so." Bush, Orbach said, wants part of his legacy to be the release of America from the straitjacket of imported oil. "It is a vote of confidence," he added.
Orbach then outlined a path forward for the fusion program. For the short term, he will be working with "a very tough budget" since the final FY 2003 appropriation, after all of the adjustments are calculated, resulted in $9 million reduction from the original request. (FY 2002 funding was $241 million; FY 2003 budget is $247 million; FY 2004 request is $257 million.) The FY 2005 DOE budget is now under consideration, and the "dimensions are still unclear" for the fusion energy sciences program. A twenty-year DOE strategic plan that will be released this month will be used to prioritize large scale capital projects across all Office of Science programs
There is not likely to be a request for additional funding in a supplemental bill for the current year, the director saying that DOE must strike a balance between its programs. Looking beyond this year, Orbach spoke with cautious optimism when he told the panel that "we are going to try to work with the President's budget [request]" for FY 2004. "My own sense is that these are going to be a couple of lean years" until ITER construction commences, he said.
While the United States has a target range of funding for its contribution to ITER, Orbach gave, understandably, no hint of what those figures are, saying it is a matter for negotiations. He added that support for the domestic fusion program must be continued.
Future workforce projections were also touched on by Orbach. "We have to do something," he said, explaining that without new efforts to increase diversity, future advances "will not work."