The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a report describing significant management challenges to the Department of Energy’s support of the ITER program. The report responds to a request from five senators asking GAO to review ITER’s changing construction cost and schedule, the reliability of current projections, and actions taken by the Department of Energy to reduce the program’s expense.
The five senators requesting the report are instrumental in shaping DOE’s program and budget. They include the chairs (Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA)) and ranking members (Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)) of a Senate appropriations subcommittee and authorizing committee. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) also requested the study. Feinstein is a long-time critic of the management of the ITER program and has sought to terminate ITER involvement in the FY 2015 DOE funding bill.
A chart on page 16 of GAO’s report -“Total Estimated Cost and Completion Date for the U.S. ITER Project” - illustrates the challenges DOE has encountered in its support of ITER. In 2005 it was estimated that the US contribution to ITER would be $1.122 billion with a completion date of 2013. That figure has grown to $3.915 billion with a US completion date of 2032. The US has contributed $692 million for ITER as of March 2014. ITER received about 40 percent of this year’s overall fusion appropriation; see page 13 of the report for earlier figures. First plasma is expected to be achieved in 2023.
The report’s title, “Fusion Energy: Actions Needed to Finalize Cost and Schedule Estimates for U.S. Contributions to an International Experimental Reactor” aptly describes GAO’s findings. Committed through an international agreement signed in 2006 to provide 9.09 percent of ITER’s total construction cost through hardware, personnel and cash, DOE has been unable to determine a performance baseline as it would with other projects because of “factors DOE can only partially influence.” This baseline would finalize cost and schedule estimates. The report explains, “A performance baseline captures a project’s key performance, scope, cost, and schedule parameters, and it represents a commitment from DOE to Congress to deliver a project within those parameters.” GAO found DOE was unable to produce a performance baseline “because the international project schedule the estimates are linked to is not reliable.” The report explains “Unless such formal actions are taken to resolve the reliability concerns of the international project schedule, DOE will remain hampered in its efforts to create and set a performance baseline for the U.S. ITER Project.” The US is one of five countries that joined with the European Union in building ITER. Representatives from these entities sit on the ITER Council that governs the ITER Organization which manages the project.
In addition to ITER, DOE supports a domestic fusion program. Highlighting the importance of setting priorities for the fusion program GAO concluded: “Without a strategic plan for the U.S. fusion program, DOE does not have information to create an understanding among stakeholders about its plans for balancing the competing demands the program faces with the limited available resources or to help improve Congress’ ability to weigh the trade-offs of different funding decisions for the U.S. ITER Project and overall U.S. fusion program.” The report notes “DOE officials could not provide a specific date when they expect to complete the strategic plan.”
The report provides four major recommendations for executive action on page 38. “DOE agreed with each of the report’s recommendations and said it has taken steps or plans to take additional steps to fully implement them” the report states. A letter from Patricia Dehmer, Acting Director of the DOE Office of Science, responding to the report is on page 51 and 52.
The GAO contact for this report is Frank Rusco, Director, Natural Resources and Environment. Rusco was one of four witnesses testifying at a July 11 House Subcommittee on Energy hearing that will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of FYI.