Advisers to the Nation on Science, Engineering, and Medicine

December 20, 2002

Dr. Raymond Orbach


Office of Science

SC-1/Forrestal Building

U.S. Department of Energy

1000 Independence Ave., SW Washington, DC 20585

Dear Dr. Orbach:

At its meeting on September 17, 2002, you asked the National Research Council’s Burning Plasma Assessment Committee (BPAC) to report in December on two aspects of its charge and to comment on whether the United States should reenter the negotiations on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), an international burning plasma experiment.1 This interim report, submitted in response to that urgent request, addresses only two aspects—the importance of a burning plasma experiment for fusion energy and the scientific and technical readiness to undertake a burning plasma experiment—and offers advice on entering ITER negotiations. The issues discussed here will be amplified in the course of the study, and the final report will address the wider aspects of the burning plasma issue and their relation to the fusion energy science program. In particular, considerations of the broader scientific value of burning plasma science and of the Fusion Energy Science Advisory Committee’s (FESAC’s) proposed dual-track strategy for developing a burning plasma experimental program are deferred to the committee’s final report. With these caveats, the committee offers the following recommendations:

Subject to the conditions listed below, the committee recommends that the United States enter ITER negotiations while the strategy for an expanded U.S. fusion program is further defined and evaluated.

A strategically balanced fusion program, including meaningful U.S. participation in ITER and a strong domestic fusion science program, must be maintained, recognizing that this will eventually require a substantial augmentation in fusion program funding in addition to the direct financial commitment to ITER construction.

The fusion program strategy should include cost estimates and scenarios for involvement in ITER, integration with the existing fusion science program, contingency planning, and additional issues as raised in this letter. The United States should pursue an appropriate level of involvement in ITER, which at a minimum would guarantee access to all data from ITER, the right to propose and carry out experiments, and a role in producing the high-technology components of the facility, consistent with the size of the U.S. contribution to the program.


The United States was a member of the ITER team prior to its withdrawal in 1998. Following consecutive budget cuts in the fusion program (from $365 million in FY1995 to $225 million in FY1997) and its restructuring from a schedule-driven development strategy into a science-driven program in 1996, the U.S. Congress mandated withdrawal from ITER following the completion of the ITER Design Activity. Since 1998, the remaining ITER partners have continued with the development of a redesigned and improved ITER machine, and negotiations on the choice of a site and other important decision milestones are well under way.

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