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New Director Shakes Up Management of Fusion Project


Just 2 days after becoming director-general of ITER, the international project aiming to prove the viability of fusion as an energy source, Osamu Motojima has a message he wants to get out. The 61-year-old Japanese scientist contends that few appreciate how rapidly fusion research has advanced over the past half-century. He goes so far as to argue that fusion science has progressed faster than computers. "Some say fusion is always a dream. This is not true. … Fusion is not a dream but a real target," says Motojima.

Now that the European funding woes that recently cast doubt on ITER's future have been resolved, Motojima has the challenge of getting the machine built on time and on budget. It won't be easy, as ITER's construction costs have soared to €16 billion in some estimates, and its start date has been pushed back to late 2019. ITER's governing council this week finally approved the project's Baseline, a document outlining its cost, schedule, and design. But it also placed a cap on the overall budget of the reactor to be built in Cadarache, France. "This is a very tough job," admits Motojima.

Yet the former director-general of Japan's National Institute for Fusion Science isn't taking long to make his mark. At a staff meeting yesterday, he announced plans to overhaul ITER's operations. A management review requested by ITER had criticized the project's governance earlier this year, and several senior managers have recently been replaced. Motojima apparently intends more changes. "Simplify everything—that is the only possible way to respond to the capping of the project," he says. One casualty of this streamlining will be Nobert Holtkamp, ITER's Principal Deputy Director-General (PDDG) and leader of the project's construction since 2006. An ITER spokesperson confirmed that Holtkamp would soon step down and the PDDG position would be eliminated. "We need to simplify the decision-making process," says Motojima.

Even though the approval of ITER's Baseline is supposed to signify an end to major changes, Motojima will also request that the project's scientists and engineers seek new ways to simplify the fusion reactor's design and the integration of its many components, which are being built by the projects seven international partners—China, the European Union, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation, and the United States. Motojima says ITER council wants him to present cost-saving plans at a meeting in November. Any such changes won't mean that ITER will produce significantly less science, Motojima emphasizes: "I'm keeping the scope of ITER."

If anyone can pull that off, it may be Motojima, who is widely praised for his oversight of the construction of another fusion experiment, Japan's Large Helical Device. "He's a real machine-builder" and "also has a real directorial presence," says Steven Cowley, director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Abingdon, United Kingdom. Indeed, fusion scientists say that Motojima's appointment and the departure of former ITER Director-General Kaname Ikeda, a career diplomat with an engineering background, represents an acknowledgement that the project has moved on from securing funding to a phase dominated by construction.

Cowley, for one, is optimistic that the worst is over for ITER. "I was beginning to wonder if we were ever going to nail down cost and schedule. Europe had been dragging its feet." But ITER's key components are now being built, he notes, and industrial bids for other components are in line with cost predictions. "We're over this nasty hump. Yes, ITER is going to cost a lot of money, but we're going to do it."