Sunday, November 4, 2007

Holding Back Fusion

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just released a report on the state of nuclear fusion in America. It is not good. Here is an excerpt from the executive summary.
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.
Inertial fusion is all about using laser pulses to create enough pressure to cause a pellet of fuel frozen to near absolute zero to implode with enough pressure to fuse the frozen elements. So far there is no plan to turn this into a power producer. Brilliant management. Just brilliant.

In addition they have no plan to meet their manpower requirements by training scientists and engineers. They should try reading The Mythical Man Monthby Brooks. They are setting themselves up for a regenerative failure.

Another inertial approach is the beam or IEC approach. Standing for Inertial Electrostatic Confinement. This uses electrostatic fields to focus and accelerate the beams with various methods used to reduce beam collisions with the accelerator electrodes. The Bussard Fusion Reactor is one example of such a device which uses magnetic fields to reduce losses. There are others.

Then we have the problem of ITER sucking up funds like a runaway Hoover. Choking off other promising approaches. Like alternative magnetic fusion approaches such as the Spheromak. Between all the magnetic approaches such as ITER, other tokamaks, other magnetic confinement approaches, and laser implosion, the budget for various IEC approaches is tiny indeed.

Here is an excerpt from the full report.
The ITER Organization faces several management challenges that may limit its ability to build ITER on time and on budget and may affect U.S. costs. Many of these challenges stem from the difficulty of coordinating the efforts of six countries and the European Union that are designing and building components for ITER and, as members of the ITER Organization, must reach consensus before making critical management decisions. The key management challenges include (1) developing quality assurance standards to test the reliability and integrity of the components made in different countries; (2) assembling, with a high level of precision, components and parts built in different countries; (3) finding a new vendor if a country fails to build a component on time or does not meet quality assurance standards; (4) developing a contingency fund that adequately addresses cost overruns and schedule delays; and (5) developing procedures that describe which countries will be responsible for paying for cost overruns.
I smell a boondoggle. The Euros had this problem with the Airbus A380 Fiasco. So you can't say they don't have enough experience to screw things up. They have had practice.

Here is more about the laser inertial confinement program.
DOE has three separately funded inertial fusion research programs: NNSA’s inertial fusion research activities related to the nuclear weapons program, a High Average Power Laser Program (HAPL) to develop technology needed for energy for which funding is directed by a congressional conference committee, and OFES’s inertial fusion research activities aimed at exploring the basic science for energy applications. Experiments in each of these programs help advance inertial fusion energy, but these experiments are not coordinated and each program has a separate mission and different scientific and technological objectives.
Evidently the European management model is popular in the USA too. Who knew?

I'm not sure exactly what program is being referred to here. It looks like IEC which is distributed among a number of labs and university locations.
As another alternative to both the laser systems and the Z-machine, OFES is funding experiments using heavy ion beams to produce fusion energy at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Heavy ion beams are made by a particle accelerator—a device that uses electrical fields to propel electrically charged particles at high speeds. The heavy ions, which are heavier than carbon atoms, collide with the targets and cause the compression and heat needed to release fusion energy.

However, in fiscal year 2006, OFES spent about $21 million to fund 25 small-scale experiments at 11 universities, 4 national laboratories, and 2 private companies to test 7 types of magnetic fusion devices with different shapes and magnetic currents. This level of funding represents a decline over the past 6 fiscal years—from $26 million in fiscal year 2002 to $20 million in fiscal year 2007. University scientists involved in innovative fusion research told us that this decrease in funding was not consistent with a 1999 DOE fusion energy science advisory committee study that recommended OFES increase funding for innovative magnetic research activities. OFES relies on this advisory committee to establish priorities for the fusion program and to provide a basis for the allocation of funding.

However, since that report, the share of funding for innovative research activities has decreased even as funding for fusion research has increased. The share of funding has dropped from 19 percent of the fusion research budget in fiscal year 2002 to 13 percent in fiscal year 2007. In addition, while OFES’s 5-year budget plan shows an increase in funding for fusion research activities in fiscal years 2008 through 2011, most of this funding will be used for ITER- and tokamak-related research activities at the major facilities. DOE officials also told us there are planned increases in funding for innovative devices, but only to maintain the same level of research. According to university scientists, a number of innovative approaches are ready to advance to the next stage of development that would test the feasibility of producing fusion energy or conduct more sophisticated experiments, but DOE has no plans to advance any of these approaches because it may require an increase in funding to conduct more sophisticated experiments. DOE’s fusion energy advisory committee has not assessed the appropriate level of funding between ITER- and tokamak-related activities and innovative concepts since 1999, before the U.S. joined ITER and it became a priority.
So they are choking small money fusion research to pay for ITER. This is nuts when any one of the small approaches migh deliver a breakthrough that could reduce the time and money to develop actual fusion power.

So you get the idea. Typical big governmentitis. The ideas with the most political clout win. Ideas with small experiments, few researchers and low cost results get squeezed out because they lack a constituency.

Pretty much what Dr. Bussard said in the audio found here and the video found here.

If you think it is time for a change, contact your government.

House of Representatives
The Senate
The President

Give them an earful. The future will soon be upon us and we need to be ready.

1 comment:

Tom Cuddihy said...

This is one of the reasons I'm suspicious of continuous government efforts to "reinent" or "reorganize" government. All it usually does is increase central direction, which means you might have more resources to spend in any one area--but you also have a higher liklihood of spending the dollars in the worng place. If IEC works, ITER will be proven to be the WRONG PLACE entirely.