GAO outlines progress issues with international fusion project

Since the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) Agreement was signed in 2006, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) estimated cost for the U.S. portion of the ITER has grown by almost $3bn, and its estimated completion date has slipped by 20 years.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) on June 5 released a report on that program. It said that DOE has identified several reasons for the changes, such as increases in hardware cost estimates as designs and requirements have evolved over time.

DOE’s current cost and schedule estimates for the U.S. ITER Project reflect most characteristics of reliable estimates, but the estimates cannot be used to set a performance baseline because they are linked to factors that DOE can only partially influence, the report noted. A performance baseline would commit DOE to delivering the U.S. ITER Project at a specific cost and date and provide a way to measure the project’s progress.

According to DOE documents and officials, the agency has been unable to finalize its cost and schedule estimates in part because the international project schedule the estimates are linked to is not reliable. DOE said it has taken some steps to help push for a more reliable international project schedule, such as providing position papers and suggested actions to the ITER Organization.

“However, DOE has not taken additional actions such as preparing formal proposals that could help resolve these issues,” GAO wrote. “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.”

DOE has taken several actions that have reduced U.S. ITER Project costs by about $388m as of February of this year, but DOE has not adequately planned for the potential impact of those costs on the overall U.S. fusion program, GAO said.

The House and Senate Appropriations committees have directed DOE to complete a strategic plan for the U.S. fusion program. GAO has previously reported that strategic planning is a leading practice that can help clarify priorities, and DOE has begun work on such a plan but has not committed to a specific completion date.

“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,” GAO wrote.

The report was sent to several members of Congress, including Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who are the chair and ranking minority member, respectively, on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

ITER is being funded by a multi-nation consortium

ITER is an international research facility being built in France to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion energy. The U.S. has committed to providing about 9% of ITER’s construction costs through contributions of hardware, personnel, and cash, and DOE is responsible for managing those contributions, as well as the overall U.S. fusion program. In fiscal year 2014, the U.S. ITER Project received $199.5m, or about 40% of the overall U.S. fusion program budget.

Of the seven ITER members, the U.S. and five other countries—the People’s Republic of China, Japan, India, the Republic of Korea, and the Russian Federation—are each providing 9% of the total construction cost. The European Union is the largest contributor—45%—because ITER is being built on European soil, and the European Union has agreed to pay for infrastructure costs.

ITER is considered to be the next step in magnetic fusion. It is an experiment to study fusion reactions in conditions similar to those expected in a future power plant. The goal is to be the first fusion device in the world to produce a substantial amount of net power, above the power used to stimulate the fusion process itself. Specifically, the objective is to produce 10 times more power than is needed to start the fusion reaction in pulses of 5 or more minutes. ITER also will test a number of key technologies, including the heating, control, and remote maintenance systems that will be needed for a fusion power station.

ITER has been planned to consist of four phases: construction; operation; deactivation; and decommissioning. The construction phase, which is the sole focus of the U.S. ITER Project, began in 2007. The international project schedule, as of April 2014, anticipates that the ITER fusion device will be built by 2019 and achieve its “first plasma” in 2020. “First plasma” refers to the first time the ITER device is able to successfully produce a plasma. Construction will continue after this to prepare ITER to use deuterium-tritium fuel.

The introduction of deuterium-tritium fuel marks the start of full ITER operations. After ITER has achieved its first plasma, the next several years would be devoted to a preliminary period of operation in pure hydrogen during which physics testing will be done, followed by operation in deuterium with a small amount of tritium to test ITER’s wall shielding. This will be followed by the start of full ITER operations in an equal mixture of deuterium and tritium, at which point ITER will be used to try to produce 10 times more power than it consumes. As of April 2014, the international project schedule anticipates the start of deuterium-tritium operations in 2027.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.