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Highlights

The United States is pursuing two paths to fusion energy--magnetic and inertial. On November 21, 2006, the United States signed an agreement with five countries and the European Union to build and operate the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in Cadarache, France, to demonstrate the feasibility of magnetic fusion energy. The United States also built and operates facilities to pursue inertial fusion energy research. This report discusses (1) U.S. contributions to ITER and the challenges, if any, in managing this international fusion program and (2) the Department of Energy's (DOE) management of alternative fusion research activities, including National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) initiatives. In performing this work, GAO analyzed budget documents, briefings, and reports that focused on research and funding priorities for the fusion program. GAO also met with officials from DOE, NNSA, and the ITER Organization in France.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Energy To advance U.S. efforts to develop alternative fusion energy sources, the Secretary of Energy should direct OFES and NNSA to develop a coordinated research plan to coordinate U.S. inertial fusion research activities and identify roles and responsibilities for each program as well as detailed research and development tasks, budget needs, and time frames for advancing inertial fusion research.
Closed - Implemented
DOE agrees that, with the National Ignition Facility (NIF) nearing completion, it is time to develop a coordinated research program on IFE science research. Thus, OFES has recently developed a joint program with NNSA to explore energy-related high energy density laboratory plasmas (HEDLP). This joint program will address underlying scientific issues relevant to future considerations of inertial fusion energy. We believe that the joint program in HEDLP and the very large NNSA program in inertial confinement fusion will address most of the science issues related to inertial fusion energy target physics. OFES will work in close coordination with NNSA to maximize their effectiveness.
Department of Energy To advance U.S. efforts to develop alternative fusion energy sources, the Secretary of Energy should direct NNSA to guarantee access to the National Ignition Facility (NIF), once it becomes operational, to scientists conducting inertial fusion energy experiments, and work with DOE to determine how to share the costs, operational time, and results of NIF to explore inertial fusion as a viable energy source.
Closed - Implemented
Achieving ignition at the NIF has been delayed several years. NNSA does not expect ignition to be achieved before the end of CY 2012. However, according to NNSA documents, once the NIF achieves ignition and becomes operational, NNSA will guarantee access to NIF to scientists conducting inertial fusion energy experiments, and work with DOE to determine how to share the costs, operational time, and results of NIF to explore inertial fusion as a viable energy source.
Department of Energy To advance U.S. efforts to develop alternative fusion energy sources, the Secretary of Energy should direct OFES to charge DOE's fusion energy advisory committee with independently assessing whether current funding levels between ITER- and tokamak-related research and innovative magnetic fusion research strike the right balance to meet research objectives and advance both areas of research, and, if the current share of funding is not adequate, to recommend appropriate changes.
Closed - Implemented
OFES chartered the DOE fusion energy advisory committee to assess the funding levels between various fusion research to help it strike the right balance. The advisory committee reported back in December 2008 and made a number of recommendations which OFES has integrated into its program.
Department of Energy To address OFES's human capital challenges, the Secretary of Energy should direct OFES to develop a strategy to hire, train, and retain personnel with specialized skills to meet future workforce needs.
Closed - Implemented
DOE has maintained a strategy of monitoring its current workforce and the availability of Phd graduates with appropriate skills to meet future workforce needs. DOE has not had the level of retirements expected in 2008, and it has more qualified applicants for key positions than it has positions to fill.

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