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FYI Number 102: September 13, 2002

Fusion Panel Sets Strategy; Orbach Responds

"I don't have much time," DOE Office of Science Director Ray 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 program.

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 equipment.

The report was produced by a 47-member panel chaired by Stewart Prager. The report's full findings and conclusions can be read at 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 does 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% contingency.

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 plant.

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 about 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.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3095

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