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DOE to Abolish SEAB

March 29, 2006

The U. S. Department of Energy (DOE) will abolish its Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) when its current charter expires May 20. The Board has been a source of independent studies and advice since the inception of the Department in the late 1970s. The DOE's predecessor agencies (The Energy Research and Development Agency and the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission) both had similar advisory bodies. Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman is quoted as saying he tends "to operate with fewer advisers."

SEAB last provided the DOE with an outstanding report on fusion in August 1999. In that report the SEAB said;

"It is the Task Forceās view that the threshold scientific question -- namely, whether a fusion reaction producing sufficient net energy gain to be attractive as a commercial power source can be sustained and controlled -- can and will be solved. The time when this achievement will be accomplished is dependent, among other factors, on the creativity of scientists and engineers, skill in management, the adequacy of funding, and the effectiveness of international cooperation."

The SEAB said, "Nonetheless, there remain significant barriers to the realization of fusion as a significant contributor to the worldās energy supply. Progress requires advancing fundamental scientific knowledge (from controlling turbulence, to optimizing the magnetic-field configuration, to enhancing the fusion power gain), resolving very difficult materials issues (e.g., developing a vessel that can withstand high temperatures and intense neutron flux), finding answers to difficult engineering challenges (e.g., constructing a reliable and repairable system), and proving economic feasibility (solving these problems in a manner that does not make fusion prohibitively expensive). Many years of persistent effort will be required to overcome these challenges. In spite of the extended effort and expense that will be required, the fusion program deserves continued support because of its unique energy potential. Constraints on supply and limits on the atmospheric loading of combustion products will eventually require that we diminish our reliance on fossil fuels. Because of this reality, the Department is wisely advancing a portfolio of energy technologies to meet future energy needs. Indeed, in light of the promise of fusion and the risks arising from increasing worldwide energy demand and from eventually declining fossil energy supply, we simply cannot afford to fail to pursue fusion energy aggressively."

With respect to the Magnetic Fusion Energy (MFE) program, the Task Force said that they endorse the "revised focus of the program" away from a "nearly exclusive focus on the achievement of fusion energy in tokamaks to a broader program that would also explore scientific foundations and other confinement approaches." They said "OFES (DOE Office of Fusion Energy Sciences) has begun to expand the fusion portfolio and it should be encouraged to continue this effort." They said, "It is our view that the Department must participate in international activities that enhance our fusion effort. Communication with the Congress on these points is essential."

With respect to Inertial Fusion (IFE), the Task Force said, "As is the case for MFE, progress in inertial fusion has been remarkable. The scientific basis of inertial fusion has progressed to the point where the driver and pellet requirements to achieve ignition are known to high confidence and are within reach." The Task Force noted that "Some considerations favor heavy ion beams as the driver technology for IFE." But, they said, "Given the immature state of the technology, it is not appropriate at this time to select only one driver technology for continued exploration." They also said that reactor studies "should continue to be used as guides in establishing the direction and balance of research efforts, as well as to establish goals that constitute thresholds for further investment."

With respect to "balance and funding," the Task Force said, "OFES alone can not dictate the overall direction of the (world fusion) effort and, as a result, it should not be expected that the overall fusion program will be balanced solely in terms of the energy objective. Rather, OFES should be expected to use its program to leverage activities undertaken elsewhere (in the world and in DOE Defense Programs) to assure effective collaboration and coordination and to establish world leadership in selected niche areas." They said, "In light of the promise of fusion, the Task Force concludes that the funding for fusion energy is now subcritical." They said, "Given the large DP (DOE Defense Programs) program in inertial fusion research, only a relatively modest increase in the OFES budget is needed to support the IFE activities that should be funded by the OFES program -- endeavors which address issues of significance to the energy objective and which are not supported by DP." They said, "Since the present funding is barely adequate to sustain the restructured MFE program, and since OFES is the sole steward of MFE, any significant increases in IFE funding within OFES should come from an increment to the present budget. Moreover, DP should dedicate funds to dual-purpose activities, consistent with DP's mission statement, that exploit the synergy between the defense work and IFE science. For example, DP might appropriately take the lead in the development of high-average-power lasers because of DP's very significant involvement and accomplishments in the laser field."

With respect to strategy, management, and structure, the SEAB stated, "While very significant progress in scientific understanding of plasma and fusion device behavior has been achieved, the DOE fusion program finds itself at a crossroads. The program is perceived to lack a strategy and programmatic focus. In fact, the restructuring may have created an impression of ambivalence about whether energy or science should dominate the agenda. The frequent guidance by Congress to the Department should be seen as signs that Congress does not have confidence in the program management." The Task Force notes that "As a result of the many thoughtful reviews of the program, augmented (by) the community's efforts, progress on developing a programmatic strategy is underway." They say, "Efforts to define a sensible path leading to a substantial energy contribution from fusion should be given continuing emphasis." They say, "It is crucial that this planning encompass the identification and timely resolution of the important engineering and economic problems that must be overcome if fusion energy is to be a practical energy source."

The SEAB said, "To achieve its goal, the program must be directed by strong management -- a management that leads the effort toward the fusion energy goal at reasonable pace, with sufficient budget, with solid accountability, and high-quality science and technology." They say, "Management should seek to restore credibility by articulating clear and sensible milestones and goals and to deliver on them." They state, "Given constrained budgets, the wide variety of options, and the linkages of one issue to another, increasingly sophisticated management of the program will be required."

The SEAB called for "the application of new management tools and techniques." They said, "Given the complex nature of the fusion effort, an integrated program planning process is an absolute necessity." They say, "Proper management of the fusion program requires a comprehensive planning system that: provides visibility of program activities; provides the means to manage by performance; encourages fundamental, innovative scientific research; drives resource planning; provides linkage of accomplishments to goals; establishes accountability; encourages the development of trained personnel; describes activity interrelationships, and aids in integration among the base programs in OFES and DP and the fusion energy goal of practical fusion energy."

The SEAB stated, "Management of the fusion energy effort is complicated by the fact that there is a separation of the magnetic (fusion program) and main locus of the inertial confinement effort in different parts of the Department. This structure serves as an impediment to the establishment of a coherent and integrated program to pursue fusion energy. Although practical constraints no doubt inhibit major shifts in structure, some strengthened means for overall coordination should be established. One possible approach, for example, is to give both the responsibility and authority for integration of the "virtual" combined program to a Deputy Undersecretary (who might also have responsibility for integrating other energy technology programs as well)."

Although the DOE has largely ignored the SEAB recommendations, the fusion community and other DOE programs will be ill-served by its demise.