Fusion Energy:

Definitive Cost Estimates for U.S. Contributions to an International Experimental Reactor and Better Coordinated DOE Research Are Needed

GAO-08-30: Published: Oct 26, 2007. Publicly Released: Oct 26, 2007.

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The United States is pursuing two paths to fusion energy--magnetic and inertial. On November 21, 2006, the United States signed an agreement with five countries and the European Union to build and operate the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in Cadarache, France, to demonstrate the feasibility of magnetic fusion energy. The United States also built and operates facilities to pursue inertial fusion energy research. This report discusses (1) U.S. contributions to ITER and the challenges, if any, in managing this international fusion program and (2) the Department of Energy's (DOE) management of alternative fusion research activities, including National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) initiatives. In performing this work, GAO analyzed budget documents, briefings, and reports that focused on research and funding priorities for the fusion program. GAO also met with officials from DOE, NNSA, and the ITER Organization in France.

Over 9 years, DOE estimates it will spend $1.12 billion to help build ITER, but this is only a preliminary estimate and may not fully reflect the costs of U.S. participation. This preliminary estimate has not been independently validated, as DOE guidance directs, because the reactor design is not complete. Moreover, the $1.12 billion for ITER construction does not include an additional $1.2 billion the United States is expected to contribute to operate and decommission the facility. In addition, the ITER Organization, which manages the construction and operation of ITER, faces a number of management challenges to build ITER on time and on budget that also may affect U.S. costs. For example, the ITER Organization must develop quality assurance standards, test the reliability and integrity of components built in different countries, and assemble them with a high level of precision. Many of these challenges stem from the difficulty of coordinating international efforts and the need for consensus before making critical management decisions. GAO has identified several challenges DOE faces in managing alternative fusion research activities. First, NNSA and the Office of Fusion Energy Sciences (OFES), which manage the inertial fusion program within DOE, have not effectively coordinated their research activities to develop inertial fusion as an energy source. For example, they do not have a coordinated research plan that identifies key scientific and technological issues that must be addressed to advance inertial fusion energy and how their research activities would meet those goals. Second, DOE may find it difficult to manage competing funding priorities to advance both ITER-related research and alternative magnetic fusion approaches. DOE officials told GAO they are focusing limited resources on ITER-related research activities. As a result, as funding for ITER-related research has increased, the share of funding for the most innovative alternative magnetic fusion research activities decreased from 19 percent of the fusion research budget in fiscal year 2002 to 13 percent in fiscal year 2007. According to DOE officials, this level of funding is sufficient to meet research objectives. However, university scientists involved in fusion research told us that this decrease in funding has led to a decline in research opportunities for innovative concepts, which could lead to a simpler, less costly, or faster path to fusion energy, and reduced opportunities to attract students to the fusion sciences and train them to fulfill future workforce needs. Finally, while the demand for scientists and engineers to run experiments at ITER and inertial fusion facilities is growing, OFES does not have a human capital strategy to address expected future workforce shortages. These shortages are likely to grow as a large part of the fusion workforce retires over the next 10 years.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OFES chartered the DOE fusion energy advisory committee to assess the funding levels between various fusion research to help it strike the right balance. The advisory committee reported back in December 2008 and made a number of recommendations which OFES has integrated into its program.

    Recommendation: To advance U.S. efforts to develop alternative fusion energy sources, the Secretary of Energy should direct OFES to charge DOE's fusion energy advisory committee with independently assessing whether current funding levels between ITER- and tokamak-related research and innovative magnetic fusion research strike the right balance to meet research objectives and advance both areas of research, and, if the current share of funding is not adequate, to recommend appropriate changes.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Achieving ignition at the NIF has been delayed several years. NNSA does not expect ignition to be achieved before the end of CY 2012. However, according to NNSA documents, once the NIF achieves ignition and becomes operational, NNSA will guarantee access to NIF to scientists conducting inertial fusion energy experiments, and work with DOE to determine how to share the costs, operational time, and results of NIF to explore inertial fusion as a viable energy source.

    Recommendation: To advance U.S. efforts to develop alternative fusion energy sources, the Secretary of Energy should direct NNSA to guarantee access to the National Ignition Facility (NIF), once it becomes operational, to scientists conducting inertial fusion energy experiments, and work with DOE to determine how to share the costs, operational time, and results of NIF to explore inertial fusion as a viable energy source.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE agrees that, with the National Ignition Facility (NIF) nearing completion, it is time to develop a coordinated research program on IFE science research. Thus, OFES has recently developed a joint program with NNSA to explore energy-related high energy density laboratory plasmas (HEDLP). This joint program will address underlying scientific issues relevant to future considerations of inertial fusion energy. We believe that the joint program in HEDLP and the very large NNSA program in inertial confinement fusion will address most of the science issues related to inertial fusion energy target physics. OFES will work in close coordination with NNSA to maximize their effectiveness.

    Recommendation: To advance U.S. efforts to develop alternative fusion energy sources, the Secretary of Energy should direct OFES and NNSA to develop a coordinated research plan to coordinate U.S. inertial fusion research activities and identify roles and responsibilities for each program as well as detailed research and development tasks, budget needs, and time frames for advancing inertial fusion research.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE has maintained a strategy of monitoring its current workforce and the availability of Phd graduates with appropriate skills to meet future workforce needs. DOE has not had the level of retirements expected in 2008, and it has more qualified applicants for key positions than it has positions to fill.

    Recommendation: To address OFES's human capital challenges, the Secretary of Energy should direct OFES to develop a strategy to hire, train, and retain personnel with specialized skills to meet future workforce needs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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