The new director general of ITER brings with him strengthened authority to unify the assembly of the massive fusion experiment in France and the building of its components by ITER’s seven member states. Bernard Bigot (pronounced BEEGoh), who assumed his post on 5 March, says the decision-making process has been streamlined to help prevent further schedule slippages and cost overruns on the project, whose price tag and timetable officially remain unknown.
Bigot, however, has delayed completing a new baseline cost and schedule; he will release them in November of this year rather than in June because, he says, he is unwilling to stand behind an estimate so soon after taking office. Prior to his appointment, Bigot was CEO of the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, a government-funded technological research organization. Since 2008 he has been France’s representative to the ITER organization.
The most recent ITER baseline, released in 2010, estimated completion in 2020, and it set a cost in “ITER units of account” that aren’t convertible to any currency (see Physics Today, July 2013, page 24). Extrapolated from the European Union’s valuation for its 45% share of the project, ITER’s total cost at that time was estimated at €13 billion ($14.3 billion). Bigot acknowledges the obvious: The 2020 schedule won’t be met.
A new phase
“Clearly, we are now in a new phase, and a very large number of components have been manufactured,” Bigot says. “Because it is a nuclear facility, we need to have very high quality control and very high integration” of the procurement and assembly operations. Bigot says he has been given authority by the governing ITER council “to make any technical decision I believe is in the interest of the project.”
At an early March meeting in Paris, the council agreed to create an executive project board, whose members are Bigot and the heads of the seven organizations, known as domestic agencies (DAs), that design and procure each member state’s in-kind contributions. The member states are China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the US.
Robert Iotti, who chairs the council, notes, for example, that some components might need to be altered because of the advances made in physics since ITER was designed. In such cases, the DAs assigned to those components may be entitled to receive compensation for the additional expense from the ITER Organization (IO)—and by extension, all members. A suggested change by one party, however, may not be deemed necessary by others. In the past, disagreements could lead to “interminable discussions” that might drag on for months, says Iotti. But with participation from all the DAs, the executive project board should be able to resolve most of the issues right away, he says.
In the rare event that a DA head doesn’t agree with the director general about a change, the dispute will be resolved by the ITER Council, within “a very limited time frame,” says Bigot. Iotti says he expects there will be little need for council intervention.
A second major shift agreed to by the council is the creation of an overall reserve fund that can be drawn on at Bigot’s discretion to implement changes. Previously, the director general had a very small amount of such discretionary monies, and the council had to approve tapping any other reserves. Iotti calls the overall reserve fund “a very important step forward for the project” that will allow the project manager to “make a decision and make it stick.”
Bigot and Iotti declined to specify the amount of the reserve, but Bigot says it will be “several percent” of the cost of ITER’s components.
Addressing one of the major criticisms levied against the central IO, Bigot says he will be appointing officials to top posts who are the best qualified, regardless of nationality. “I was very clear to the council that I want to keep this project international, but the first priority is hiring people with experience and skill. You can’t ask me to manage this project properly and not do that,” he says. Only the selection of the two deputy directors general will require the council’s approval.
Lack of coordination
The management revamp was set in motion by a scathing 2013 external assessment of the ITER project management (see Physics Today, June 2014, page 26). Among the many faults it identified, the report said that the IO and DAs were working largely independently and failed to see that the success of the project hinged on their working together.
The US Department of Energy declined to make US ITER office director Ned Sauthoff available for comment for this story. In written responses to questions, Edmund Synakowski, director of DOE’s Office of Fusion Energy Sciences, says the agency was “impressed with Dr. Bigot’s proposed structure, and we believe that the Executive Project Board is in principle a good idea.” He cautions, however, that “it’s still very early in the process, and we’ll have to see how the new structure works out in practice.”
Although the restructuring is “a good first step,” Synakowski says, “there’s going to be a long road ahead to address the many issues raised in the Management Assessment report.” DOE “will carefully monitor and assess the roles of the various entities, particularly the relationships of the DAs to the IO and to their ITER member organizations.”
Bigot says he believes the current reactor design will achieve the target of producing “a large amount of fusion energy.” He’s confident that ITER can meet the technical challenges, such as building the world’s largest cryostat and coping with the extreme temperature differences between the device’s liquid-helium-cooled superconducting coils and the adjacent 150-million-degree plasma.
“Making seven members with different cultures and with different ways of approaching things work together is the larger challenge for me,” Bigot says. “Do you know of any project where you have people from 35 different nations on the payroll?” He notes that at CERN, the members are all European, are culturally similar, and follow the same standards. “We are trying to make standards with clearance from all the suppliers from Korea, from India, and from China. It’s much more challenging,” he says.
In February, before formally assuming his post, Bigot met in Washington, DC, with members of Congress who have been critical of US participation in ITER. He says he presented them with a summary of the progress made in implementing the recommendations of the 2013 assessment. He told lawmakers that he needed some time but that he was “absolutely committed” to making the project run within a new baseline cost and on schedule.
Last summer in its version of the bill funding DOE, a Senate appropriations subcommittee ordered US withdrawal from ITER (see the 25 June 2014 piece in the Politics and Policy department on Physics Today’s website). Backers of the provision included Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the chair and the ranking minority member, respectively, of the subcommittee. But the measure was deleted from the Omnibus Appropriations Act. With their roles now reversed, Alexander and Feinstein will be the principal authors of the FY 2016 funding bill.
At a 25 March subcommittee hearing, Feinstein indicated that she hadn’t backed off. She told DOE undersecretary Franklin Orr that she and Alexander are “seeing little benefit from our participation in ITER.” Fusion energy is unlikely to become a reality within lawmakers’ lifetimes, Feinstein said, and she lamented the $1.2 billion the US has already spent for a project “in another country that we may never see benefits from.” She pointed to more recent cost estimates that put the US contribution for its 9% share of ITER anywhere from $4.1 billion to $6.5 billion (see Physics Today, February 2014, page 20). That compares to the $2.4 billion DOE estimated in 2013.
Orr did not dispute Feinstein’s numbers. “It’s fair to say that the design at the early stages was not as far along as it needed to be for realistic cost estimates,” he said. The changes made by the council to increase the director general’s authority, “if accepted fully by all the members, would correct the management issues.”
Departure from the project by the US, says Bigot, would be “a dramatic event” and “a pity.”