Orbach Draws Firm Line on Cost Overruns While Discussing ITER Project

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Publication date: 
23 July 2007

Energy Under Secretary for Science Ray Orbach touched on many subjects during his briefing last week to the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee. While most related to ITER and other fusion-related topics, he was emphatic on a central point pertaining to all projects under his watch: "The Office of Science will not have cost overruns."

"For us, this is really a critical point," he told the committee. Explaining that people trust the plans that the Office of Science puts forward, he warned that any cost overrun would have negative effects within the Department of Energy, the White House and its Office of Management and Budget, and Congress.

Orbach's comments came during a one-hour presentation to the committee on ITER's status. ITER is an experimental fusion reactor that will be built in France by China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States (see http://www.iter.org/.) Orbach recently returned from a meeting of the Interim ITER Council in Tokyo.

Many of Orbach's remarks dealt with management steps that must be completed to remove the word "Interim" from the Council's name before its meeting in late November. The ITER Joint Implementation Agreement must be ratified first by all seven parties; China and Russia have not yet done so. Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to sign the agreement within weeks, following its ratification by the State Duma in late June. China is scheduled to ratify the agreement on August 24, although this date might slip. Construction of the project cannot move forward until the agreement is ratified.

Each of seven parties must have a domestic agency that is responsible for its participation in the project. The United States established the ITER Project Office in July 2004. Most of the other domestic agencies are expected to be approved before the end of this summer, although not all will be operational this year.

Estimates about the degree to which the ITER design review is complete vary, with Orbach telling the advisory committee that "we've got to get that design nailed down." It is expected that this will be accomplished before the end of this year. Mindful of how design changes lead to cost overruns, Orbach said that once the design plan is completed the council should freeze it. The U.S. is contributing 9 percent, or $1.1 billion, to ITER's construction cost. Orbach told the committee that "I am personally committed" to the President and Congress to stay within that cap. While other ITER parties are accustomed to cost overruns, he declared that they are "something that are anathema to us." A slide from his presentation describing the Tokyo meeting included the words, "I stressed the importance of strong financial and project management for ITER, which is critical given scope and complexity."

Although there are complicated issues that must be resolved before construction can commence, Orbach was optimistic. He spoke of the "vote of confidence" that the President and Congress have given to fusion, and told the committee that they should take great pride in how support for fusion research has advanced. While ITER will be a one- to three- decade program, Orbach is looking ahead, asking what should come after this program is complete. Now is the time to start thinking about this he told the committee, asking them to develop a robust program that can assure continuation of funding after ITER is complete. "The issue is now how do we carry this forward?" he said, adding that the committee must develop a plan to keep the United States a major player in fusion energy. "We must begin planning now, " he said.