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ITER Milestones, Big Science and Audit Triple Play

Rezwan Razani - May 06, 2013

Three articles, one on ITER milestones, one in praise of “Big Science” and one about Government audits illustrate the challenges of a mega fusion project.

ITER Milestones

The first article congratulates mankind on ITER’s progress.

One giant leap for mankind: £13bn Iter project makes breakthrough in the quest for nuclear fusion, a solution to climate change and an age of clean, cheap energy

Notably, Steve Connor reports that:

This week the project gained final approval for the design of the most technically challenging component – the fusion reactor’s “blanket” that will handle the super-heated nuclear fuel.

The building site in Cadarache has also passed the crucial stage where some 493 seismic bearings – giant concrete and rubber plinths – have been set into the reactor’s deep foundations to protect against possible earthquakes.

Peering over the edge of the huge seismic isolation pit, it is still possible to see some of these bearings before they are covered with a raft of reinforced concrete that will support the massive fusion machine at the heart of the £13bn Iter project.

In Praise of Big Science

The second article is from the Economist.

Titans of innovation - What can business learn from Big Science?

“Big Science” projects differ from companies in important ways. They are publicly financed and do not seek profits. They are also one-off affairs, with no need to maintain supply chains or manage long-term relationships with customers. Yet, like companies, they must innovate furiously, make the most of limited resources and beat rivals to breakthroughs.

Although no two big experiments are exactly alike, all share important traits, says Philipp Türtscher of the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration. Their aims are often clear-cut—find the Higgs, sequence the genome, potter around Mars—but the means of attaining them are anything but. To shorten the odds of success, individual design decisions are put off for as long as possible. This, says Markus Nordberg, who co-ordinates ATLAS’s finances, lets the project “absorb uncertainty”. Companies, by contrast, typically try to reduce it by picking one solution that is known to work and sticking with it.

In a Big Science project, teams with rival proposals spar publicly, forcing all the boffins to articulate their assumptions, justify their choices and learn enough about their rivals’ ideas to criticise them at length.

Does this experience describe the fusion endeavor?  We may know soon enough, as some members of Congress seek to have the “boffins” (?) at ITER articulate their assumptions.  This, from the third article.

Government Requests Fusion Audit

The third post is from the Senate Energy Committee website.

Senators Request GAO Investigation of Costs at Experimental Fusion Reactor

Washington, D.C. – A bipartisan group of energy policy leaders in the U.S. Senate today sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office requesting an investigation of the cost and feasibility of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor and its effect on U.S. fusion programs.

Senators Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the leaders of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, issued the request.

“At a time when federal budgets for research are likely to be constrained for the foreseeable future, concerns have been raised that funding for other U.S. fusion energy science programs and user facilities have, and may continue to be, cut to pay for increasing ITER costs,” the senators wrote.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is a fusion research demonstration reactor currently under construction in southern France, jointly financed and managed by the European Union, India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea and the United States. The United States has committed to fund 9.1 percent of the project’s cost, as well as contribute hardware and personnel. That cost has ballooned in recent years, and is a threat to other research efforts in a constrained budget environment.

The members requested that GAO investigate:

  The current cost and schedule to complete ITER and whether those estimates can be met, given the technical challenges the project faces;
  Whether the U.S. can delay or adjust its contribution to ITER without impacting the project; and
  Strategies for reducing the cost to the U.S.

In the 2014 fiscal year, the administration requested $225 million for ITER, more than double the FY 2012 funding level of $105 million, and nearly half of the Department of Energy’s budget for fusion energy.

DOE recently pledged to cap U.S. funding of ITER at $2.4 billion, more than double the estimated U.S. contribution to the project in 2008, the most recent DOE estimate provided to Congress. Although ITER was originally slated to be complete in 2017, the project now estimates it will be operational in late 2020.


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