DOE Under Secretary for Science Ray Orbach gave an upbeat, but at times a cautious, report at last week's meeting of the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (FESAC). Pointing to President Bush's FY 2007 requested increase of 10.9% for fusion energy sciences and the House approval of this figure and other Office of Science requested increases, Orbach told the committee that it was "a vote of confidence in us, in science." It is, he said, citing support on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for the research programs under his jurisdiction, "a magnificent moment in time for science."
Orbach is determined that the United States maintain its tradition of leadership in the physical sciences. "Your recommendations should be guided by keeping the U.S. at the front of the field," he instructed FESAC, which has been charged with advising DOE about the future fusion research program. "You have done a magnificent job" Orbach told the committee, which is chaired by Stewart Prager of the University of Wisconsin.
Several steps must be taken before U.S. construction funds can be spent. On May 24, Orbach initialed the ITER Joint Implementation Agreement which marked the conclusion of lengthy seven party negotiations (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2006/071.html.) This Agreement will "lie before" Congress for 120 days, as mandated by the Energy Policy Act (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/119.html.) The Office of Science kept Congress informed during the ITER negotiations and addressed comments that had arisen, so there should be no surprises. The Agreement will be signed in late November, and then ratified and formally accepted in early 2007. The ITER Organization will be established in mid 2007. During this period, the U.S. will have high-level participation in several ITER meetings. DOE has submitted candidates for three ITER Deputy Director General positions.
DOE will contribute 9.5% of ITER's construction costs, much of which will be in-kind contributions. It will provide 13.0% of the operating costs, higher than some partners' 10% contribution, an amount, Orbach said, to "keep America front and center." Orbach also spoke of the plan to increase significantly fusion energy sciences funding in coming years. In March, DOE released its Five Year Plan for FY 2007 - FY 2011 which provided calculated placeholder figures projecting steadily increasing funding for the fusion program, from $287.6 million in FY 2006 (this year) to $501.0 million in FY 2010 (see http://www.sc.doe.gov/Budget_and_Planning/index.htm.)
While the legal structure for ITER has come into focus, its actual ten-year construction is more unsettled. "We are really worried about cost and schedule for a project as complex as this," Orbach said, hastening to add that the project partners have a "tremendous responsibility to stay on budget and on time." Explaining that 70% of the support that the partners will provide will be in-kind contributions of components made in many areas of the world, Orbach asked, "will it fit, will it work?"
Despite these concerns, Orbach is a strong supporter of fusion energy. "Everyone is looking to fusion to get us out of the [energy supply] box," he told the committee. "It's up to us to make it work," adding that it is "time to get our act together and make it happen."