DOE's view of the future of Princeton's fusion-energy lab
Q&A with federal fusion-energy official Raymond J. Fonck *74
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
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
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
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
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