Fusion Energy:

Actions Needed to Finalize Cost and Schedule Estimates for U.S. Contributions to an International Experimental Reactor

GAO-14-499: Published: Jun 5, 2014. Publicly Released: Jun 5, 2014.

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What GAO Found

Since the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) Agreement was signed in 2006, the Department of Energy's (DOE) estimated cost for the U.S. portion of ITER has grown by almost $3 billion, and its estimated completion date has slipped by 20 years (see fig.). DOE has identified several reasons for the changes, such as increases in hardware cost estimates as designs and requirements have been more fully developed over time.

DOE's current cost and schedule estimates for the U.S. ITER Project reflect most characteristics of reliable estimates, but the estimates cannot be used to set a performance baseline because they are linked to factors that DOE can only partially influence. A performance baseline would commit DOE to delivering the U.S. ITER Project at a specific cost and date and provide a way to measure the project's progress. According to DOE documents and officials, the agency has been unable to finalize its cost and schedule estimates in part because the international project schedule the estimates are linked to is not reliable. DOE has taken some steps to help push for a more reliable international project schedule, such as providing position papers and suggested actions to the ITER Organization. However, DOE has not taken additional actions such as preparing formal proposals that could help resolve these issues. Unless such formal actions are taken to resolve the reliability concerns of the international project schedule, DOE will remain hampered in its efforts to create and set a performance baseline for the U.S. ITER Project.

DOE has taken several actions that have reduced U.S. ITER Project costs by about $388 million as of February 2014, but DOE has not adequately planned for the potential impact of those costs on the overall U.S. fusion program. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees have directed DOE to complete a strategic plan for the U.S. fusion program. GAO has previously reported that strategic planning is a leading practice that can help clarify priorities, and DOE has begun work on such a plan but has not committed to a specific completion date. Without a strategic plan for the U.S. fusion program, DOE does not have information to create an understanding among stakeholders about its plans for balancing the competing demands the program faces with the limited available resources or to help improve Congress' ability to weigh the trade-offs of different funding decisions for the U.S. ITER Project and overall U.S. fusion program.

Total Estimated Cost and Completion Date for the U.S. ITER Project

Total Estimated Cost and Completion Date for the U.S. ITER Project

Why GAO Did This Study

ITER is an international research facility being built in France to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion energy. Fusion occurs when the nuclei of two light atoms collide and fuse together at high temperatures, which results in the release of large amounts of energy. The United States has committed to providing about 9 percent of ITER's construction costs through contributions of hardware, personnel, and cash, and DOE is responsible for managing those contributions, as well as the overall U.S. fusion program. In fiscal year 2014, the U.S. ITER Project received $199.5 million, or about 40 percent of the overall U.S. fusion program budget.

GAO was asked to review DOE's cost and schedule estimates for the U.S. ITER Project. This report examines (1) how and why the estimated costs and schedule of the U.S. ITER Project have changed since 2006, (2) the reliability of DOE's current cost and schedule estimates, and (3) actions DOE has taken to reduce U.S. ITER Project costs and plan for their impact on the overall U.S. fusion program. GAO reviewed documents; assessed DOE's current estimates against best practices; and obtained the perspectives of 10 experts in fusion energy and project management.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends, among other things, that DOE formally propose the actions needed to set a reliable international project schedule and set a date to complete the U.S. fusion program's strategic plan. DOE agreed with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Frank Rusco at (202) 512-3841 or ruscof@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2014, we reported that the Department of Energy (DOE) had been unable to finalize its cost and schedule estimates for the U.S. ITER Project in part because the international project schedule the estimates were linked to was not reliable. We found that DOE had taken some steps to push for a reliable international project schedule and improvements to ITER Organization project management, but that the agency could do more by making formal proposals to the ITER Council that addressed these issues and remaining vigilant about the timely implementation of the proposed improvements. We further reported that, unless such formal actions were taken to resolve the reliability concerns of the international project schedule, DOE would remain hampered in its efforts to create and set a performance baseline for the U.S. ITER Project. We recommended that the Secretary of Energy direct the Associate Director of the Office of Fusion Energy Sciences to develop and present at the next ITER Council meeting a formal proposal describing the actions DOE believed needed to be taken to set a reliable international project schedule and improve ITER Organization project management, and to continue to formally advocate for the timely implementation of those actions at each future ITER Council meeting until the ITER Council approved an updated international project schedule. Based in part on our work, the senior U.S. member of the ITER Council management advisory committee led discussions at the committee's October 2014 meeting that resulted in an ITER Council directive for the ITER Organization to prepare a reliable international project schedule. DOE representatives continued to provide input on managerial improvements and the development of an updated international project schedule at subsequent meetings. In May 2016, DOE identified additional measures that it would advocate to improve ITER project management, including the implementation of performance and risk management reviews of the project by the ITER Council every six months during the construction phase. The ITER Council approved an updated international project schedule in June 2016.

    Recommendation: To reduce uncertainty about the expected cost and schedule of the U.S. ITER Project and its potential impact on the U.S. fusion program, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Associate Director of the Office of Fusion Energy Sciences to develop and present at the next ITER Council meeting a formal proposal describing the actions DOE believes need to be taken to set a reliable international project schedule and improve ITER Organization project management. Continue to formally advocate for the timely implementation of those actions at each future ITER Council meeting until the ITER Council approves an updated international project schedule.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2014, we reported that the Department of Energy (DOE) had not completed a strategic plan for the U.S. fusion program to clarify the program's goals and priorities and its proposed approach for meeting them in light of the potential impact of U.S. ITER Project costs. At the time, DOE had begun the initial work on such a plan, but a similar effort that was started in 2012 did not result in a completed strategic plan for the U.S. fusion program, and DOE officials could not provide a specific date when they expected to complete the current latest effort. We reported that, without committing to a specific date, DOE might not complete a strategic plan for the U.S. fusion program in a timely manner and, without a completed strategic plan, DOE might face challenges ensuring that it had effectively aligned U.S. fusion program activities to achieve program goals. Further, Congress and the U.S. fusion community were likely to remain uncertain about DOE's plans for balancing the competing funding demands of the U.S. ITER Project and the rest of the U.S. fusion program. We recommended that the Secretary of Energy direct the Associate Director of the Office of Fusion Energy Sciences to set a specific date for completing, in a timely manner, a strategic plan for the U.S. fusion program that addressed DOE's priorities for the overall U.S. fusion program in light of U.S. ITER Project costs, and to involve the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee in the development of the plan. Based in part on our work, DOE completed a strategic plan for the U.S. fusion program in December 2015. The plan incorporated input from the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee as well as the broader U.S. fusion community.

    Recommendation: To reduce uncertainty about the expected cost and schedule of the U.S. ITER Project and its potential impact on the U.S. fusion program, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Associate Director of the Office of Fusion Energy Sciences to set a specific date for completing, in a timely manner, a strategic plan for the U.S. fusion program that addresses DOE's priorities for the overall U.S. fusion program in light of U.S. ITER Project costs, and involve the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee in the development of the plan.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: The ITER Council approved a revised international project schedule for ITER in June 2016. At that time, DOE reported that it had begun the initial planning for establishing a performance baseline and funding profile for the U.S. ITER Project and expected to complete the process in fiscal year 2017.

    Recommendation: To reduce uncertainty about the expected cost and schedule of the U.S. ITER Project and its potential impact on the U.S. fusion program, once the ITER Organization completes its reassessment of the international project schedule, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Associate Director of the Office of Fusion Energy Sciences to use that schedule, if reliable, to propose a final, stable funding plan for the U.S. ITER Project, approve a performance baseline with finalized cost and schedule estimates, and communicate this information to Congress.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: As of June 30, 2016, DOE reported that the cost estimate for the U.S. ITER Project would be revised to include a comprehensive sensitivity analysis and an independent cost estimate as part of the process for establishing the project's performance baseline. DOE stated it had begun the initial planning for establishing that performance baseline and expected to complete the process in fiscal year 2017.

    Recommendation: To reduce uncertainty about the expected cost and schedule of the U.S. ITER Project and its potential impact on the U.S. fusion program, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Associate Director of the Office of Fusion Energy Sciences to direct the U.S. ITER Project Office to revise and update the project's cost estimate to meet all characteristics of high-quality, reliable cost estimates. Specifically, the U.S. ITER Project Office should revise the project's cost estimate to ensure it is credible by including a comprehensive sensitivity analysis that includes all significant cost elements and conducting an independent cost estimate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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