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July 16, 2008

Vol. 108, No. 16

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The DOE’s view of the future of Princeton’s fusion-energy lab

A Q&A with federal fusion-energy official Raymond J. Fonck *74

Posted on July 16, 2008


Raymond J. Fonck *74 is associate director of the Fusion Energy Sciences Program of the Office of Science in the federal Department of Energy. Before coming to the DOE he was a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; he had previously worked at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab from 1978 through 1989. Fonck addressed the PPPL staff May 23 to explain DOE's decision to shut down the National Compact Stellerator Experiment (NCSX), a major fusion-energy project still under construction. Fonck answered questions about the project, plans to upgrade the lab's National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX), and PPPL's future from PAW managing editor Ray Ollwerther '71:

What was the message you delivered to the PPPL staff about the termination of NCSX, and how would you characterize the response?

We delivered essentially the same message that was given in Dr. [DOE Office of Science Director Raymond L.] Orbach's announcement. We spoke of the termination of NCSX and the increasing demands on the program resources. We also spoke of the promise for the spherical tokamak experiments on NSTX. The PPPL staff … certainly listened intently, asked good questions, and appeared to understand our reasoning, even though they were obviously disappointed.

Dean for Research A.J. Stewart Smith *66 has said that looking back at the NCSX project, more R&D was needed before the final design was approved. Because there were not enough resources or time to finalize the design, he said, design work had to proceed in parallel with construction. Do you agree that this was a major flaw in the project?

Many factors contributed to the difficulties encountered in this project, and their relative impacts are under examination.

Dean Smith also said that a project like the stellarator is "inherently risky." Do you agree, and does DOE feel that Princeton prudently managed the risks involved in the project?

All research projects have risk, and indeed should have risk if you are doing state-of-the-art science and technology. The mechanical and magnetic complexity of a stellarator does naturally lead to more risk in designing and fabricating such a facility.

Since the project is being terminated before the stellarator begins operation, have any benefits have been derived from the money that has been invested in the project? How much will that investment total?

The NCSX project has produced significant material and research benefits. The project has developed fabrication techniques for complex three-dimensional magnetic-field coils and associated vacuum-vessel and support structures. It will also produce the full set of modular coils. The need to construct these complex shapes led to developments in metrology and welding techniques. These are essentially the result of significant engineering R&D, and will lead to several important publications to guide future fusion engineering efforts. The NCSX physics team developed a wide range of theory and computational tools that allow us to model complex nonsymmetrical magnetic-field structures, which are relevant to other stellarator designs and relevant to designing corrective magnetic fields in tokamaks. All of these results are obviously useful in exploring future directions in stellarator research. The total funds expended on the NCSX project have been approximately $100 million.

Will the lab's funding for the stellarator – which we're told is about $14 million on an annual basis – be cut back before the end of the current fiscal year?

There are no plans to reduce funding in this fiscal year, but the funding will now directly support activities that bring the project to a smooth closure and maximize the engineering knowledge output of the project.

The May 22 statement by Dr. Orbach says that "proposed upgrades for the Spherical Torus experiment at PPPL can keep this facility at the forefront of fusion science research in the world well into the future." Princeton says that its most recent plans projected that NSTX would cease operating after 2010 (without upgrades). It also says that upgrades to NSTX to double the current and magnetic field would cost many millions of dollars and require at least two to three years. Is DOE committed to moving forward with the proposed upgrades to the spherical torus? Will funding be requested in the budget for the coming fiscal year to begin the upgrades?

The Office [of Science] is very interested in and supportive of funding these exciting upgrades to NSTX. The funding of the upgrades will depend on the level of funds appropriated by Congress and agreed to by the president.

The spherical torus has been running at 10 to 15 weeks per year. Does the DOE plan to seek funding in the coming fiscal year to allow more use of this facility?

The number of run weeks funded for NSTX and all of the major fusion facilities in the U.S. is too low. Increased run time for these facilities for scientific research is a goal of the program.

Have NSTX experiments provided results useful in the planning for ITER [an international fusion-energy project to be built in France], or is the research more likely to be beneficial for next-generation facilities after ITER?

The NSTX experiments, like those from our other major tokamak facilities, have clearly contributed to present and future planning for ITER. NSTX provides unique access to plasma regimes that allow us to address ITER-specific issues. For example, the relatively low magnetic field and high-energy ions injected via the neutral beams on NSTX allow us to study the interactions between energetic particles and plasma instabilities excited by those particles under conditions much closer to those expected in ITER than one can achieve in standard high-field tokamaks. These instabilities are expected to be important under burning-plasma conditions, where the fusion-produced alpha particles can excite similar instabilities and thereby modify the overall fusion performance. As importantly, however, NSTX is based on the "spherical torus" concept, and this concept may provide the basis of a major next step in the domestic fusion program in the time of ITER experiments. Hence, NSTX serves both an immediate purpose of supporting ITER planning and could play a central role in planning for other major parts of the fusion science program in the ITER era.

How does DOE view the University's response to problems with the NCSX project and other issues raised in the lab's most recent "report card"?

DOE looks forward to working with Princeton University on any issues identified therein.

Princeton says it hopes to be a "very strong" competitor in the projected competition by DOE for the Fusion Simulation Project. What is the latest schedule for that project, and would the DOE encourage interest in the project?

The proposed solicitation for the Fusion Simulation Project depends on FY 2009 funding. DOE encourages interest in all proposed new projects.

The timetable for soliciting bids for the management and operations contract for PPPL has been delayed. What is the latest target for seeking bids for this contract?

The proposed solicitation is currently being reviewed at headquarters prior to release.

With the backdrop of escalating oil prices, what is the DOE's current thinking about the likelihood that fusion energy will become a practical energy source?

The promise of fusion energy in the long run is great, and cannot be ignored. At the present level of funding, the Office of Science is working to establish a knowledge base in many of the critical issues to support a commitment to developing fusion as an energy source.

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CURRENT ISSUE: July 16, 2008