NRC Committee Reviews DOE Fusion Plan

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Publication date: 
19 November 2008

A National Research Council committee has given a positive review to the Department of Energy's plan for the participation of the U.S. fusion community in the ITER program.  The committee's comments on U.S. funding for the ITER program were far more guarded, with it warning that a December 2007 congressional decision to withhold FY 2008 ITER money "threaten[s] to keep the U.S. from being a participant in this important endeavor, and thus its ability to capitalize on advancements from ITER."

Since then, Congress made about $20.5 million available to ITER for the first five months of FY 2009 (a final appropriations bill has not yet been enacted.)  This compares to the FY 2009 request of $214.5 million for ITER (note that this is a corrected figure from that shown in FYI #107.)  The entire FY 2009 Fusion Energy Sciences program request was $493.1 million.

The 26-page NRC report, "A Review of the DOE Plan for U.S. Fusion Community Participation in the ITER Program" was prepared by the Committee to Review the U.S. ITER Science Participation Planning Process, chaired by Patrick L. Colestock of Los Alamos National Laboratory.   This committee was under the Plasma Science Committee, Board on Physics and Astronomy, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences of the NRC.  Legislation passed in 2005 mandated both a DOE report on the U.S. fusion community's participation in ITER ("Planning for U.S. Community Participation in the ITER Program") and a subsequent external review of this report.

The NRC committee's review of the DOE report and the program was quite favorable, concluding that: "The 2006 DOE plan for U.S. participation in ITER is operating and has proven effective in beginning to coordinate U.S. research activities and the development of the ITER program. U.S. scientists have been well engaged in the planning for ITER, and the United States should endeavor to maintain this level of activity. The plan in its current form is well aligned with DOE Office of Fusion Energy Sciences goals."

The committee identified "Important considerations that are not reflected in the current DOE plan for U.S. participation in ITER [that] should be addressed during the further development of the DOE plan. These considerations include: Existing gaps in planning for a Demonstration Power Plant;  Dissemination of information on and the results of ITER research activities to the broader scientific community; and Planning for the recruitment and training of young scientists and engineers."  The committee also identified goals, procedures, and metrics for DOE's planning of the fusion program.

Of perhaps greater interest to the wider physics community is the section of the report regarding ITER funding.  The preface explains: "The committee was appointed on October 1, 2007, and met in Washington, D.C. on December 14-15, 2007. Soon after, the FY2008 Consolidated Appropriations Act became law, under which U.S. contributions for ITER were unexpectedly eliminated. Although this committee was not specifically tasked to assess the implications of the FY2008 budget, it believes that the budget will necessarily affect U.S. researchers’ ability to participate fully in the ITER project, and it therefore felt obliged to address this issue."  The review committee  later said, "The committee underscores as its greatest concern the uncertain U.S. commitment to ITER at the present time."  A section of the report amplified this concern as follows:

"The committee is concerned that the lack of funding stability will make it difficult for the U.S. to effectively participate in ITER, and ultimately, to access and thus benefit from the valuable scientific and technical knowledge to be gained from the facility. ITER is the most globally participatory science project in history, and represents a significant step forward in the worldwide effort to develop commercially-viable fusion power. These funding developments threaten to keep the U.S. from being a participant in this important endeavor, and thus its ability to capitalize on advances made from ITER. It also, therefore, potentially impairs the U.S.’ ability to participate effectively in and benefit from future  fusion projects that will bring commercial fusion power closer to reality. It would be a tremendous loss if the U.S. were unable to participate, and thus severely limit the DOE/OFES’ [Office of Fusion Energy Sciences] ability to achieve its overarching goal.

"The committee notes the wise decisions taken by DOE to keep the U.S. engaged, to the extent    possible, in the ITER project despite budget difficulties. As the IO [ITER international organization] develops its full functionalities it will be imperative that the U.S. establish itself as a stable and participatory partner if it is to accomplish the goals set forward by DOE, Congress, the President, and the plasma science community. The committee is concerned, however, about the ramifications that the FY08 appropriations will have on the continued progression of developing a U.S. plan for participation in the ITER project, as well as on the establishment of robust participation by U.S. scientists in the ITER research effort. As stated earlier, the FY08 budget does not allocate funds to ITER as planned. Such unexpected, dramatic oscillations in commitment not only adversely affect the U.S.’ national standing amongst its peers in the ITER project, they deleteriously weaken the efficacy of careful planning that otherwise ensure balance across the nation’s broad scientific enterprise. Stable and predictable funding has been recommended in numerous NRC and FESAC reports, and this committee echoes the sapience of those recommendations.  Failure to meet its obligations from the outset of the project will also jeopardize other countries’ willingness to collaborate with the U.S. in future major scientific projects, possibly including a DEMO reactor. If the participation of U.S. scientists at ITER is a Congressional priority, the stability of the U.S.’ contributions to the project needs to be ensured."

A prepublication version of this NRC review is available.

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