"I don't have much time," DOE Office of Science Director
Orbach said to the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee
(FESAC) when describing the steps leading to a decision about
possible U.S. participation in a proposed burning plasma
facility. Orbach's positive comments about the future of
fusion energy came during a two day meeting this week that
discussed a consensus strategy document calling for an
expanded U.S. fusion program, with the initial focus on
participation in ITER.
The budget for DOE's fusion energy sciences program has been
very constrained since the mid-1990s. Congress cut the FY
1995 budget of $373 million to $244 million for the following
year, and advised that funding would remain flat for several
years. That prediction was accurate: the FY 2003 House DOE
appropriations bill recommends $248.5 million for the fusion
FESAC met to review a 48-page report that would move DOE's
fusion program onto a new page. It followed several
conferences that reached nearly unanimous conclusions about a
burning plasma program as a major component of a comprehensive
fusion energy plan. The "Report of the FESAC Panel on a
Burning Plasma Program Strategy to Advance Fusion Energy"
identifies two proposed burning plasma facilities, ITER and
FIRE, as "attractive options." Since additional work before
the construction of each is necessary, a strategy allowing
for the possibility of either facility is appropriate. The
report recommends that a potential third facility, IGNITOR,
be supported by research collaboration and the contribution of
The report was produced by a 47-member panel chaired by Stewart Prager.
The report's full findings and conclusions can be read at http://www.ofes.fusion.doe.gov/More_HTML/FESAC/Austinfinal.pdf
One of the major recommendations was "Since ITER is at an advanced
stage, has the most comprehensive science and technology program, and
is supported internationally, we should now seek to join the ITER negotiations
with the aim of becoming a partner in the undertaking." Furthermore,
"The desired role is that the U.S. participates as a partner in
the full range of activities, including full participation in the governance
of the project and the program. We anticipate that this level of effort
will likely require additional funding of approximately $100M/yr. The
minimum acceptable role for the U.S. is at a level of effort that would
allow the U.S. to propose and implement science experiments, to make
contributions to the activities during the construction phase of the
device, and to have access to experimental and engineering data equal
to that of all partners." DOE should conclude its negotiations
with ITER partners by July 2004. If ITER negotiations are successful
the FIRE activity should be terminated. If negotiations fail, FIRE should
be advanced, "with strong encouragement of international participation."
ITER's total "value" is $5 billion in current dollars, which
include an explicit contingency fund. The U.S. share, as a full
non-host participant, would be one-fifth of this cost over ten
years, or $100 million a year. An advanced pre-conceptual design
cost estimate for FIRE is $1.2 billion, including a 25%
On the first morning of the two day meeting, FESAC Chair Richard
D. Hazeltine asked committee members for their first reactions to
the report. While several recommended changes in wording, there
was no disagreement about the report's conclusions.
Director Orbach's reaction to the report's findings was
enthusiastic, with him saying "we are very proud of what you have
accomplished." He views fusion energy as being very important in
meeting the world's future energy needs. Orbach said the report's
recommendations should be implemented, adding that a proactive
stance by the United States "is precisely what is needed."
Orbach's objective is electricity on the power grid from a fusion
The environment is the compelling driver for fusion energy, Orbach
stated, since plentiful fossil fuels are environmentally "terribly
expensive." He sees fission generating plants as a short-to-mid
term solution, with fusion generating plants coming into play
toward the end of the century.
Orbach described a "very skeptical" attitude on Capitol Hill
fusion's potential. The fusion community's consensus is very
important to making the case for higher funding. Having a
credible cost and management plan will be essential. Also
necessary is an effort to educate and engage the public about the
benefits of fusion energy.
Orbach asked FESAC to complete its report by the end of September.
He hopes that a National Academy report on fusion will be done by
December so that he can deliver a report to President Bush with
the views of the scientific community on how to proceed. Orbach
explained the ITER partners will be selecting the site for the
facility in early 2003, and he wants the United States to be at
the negotiating table. Earlier, rather than later, participation
in the process is desirable, he stated.
Finally, for perspective, note that the $100 million in
additional funding the FESAC report recommends, when added to the
current budget, totals about $349 million. The budget for the
fusion program in 1995 was $373 million.