Aug 30, 2021
In this conversation, Dr. Stephen Dean talks about how he created the 1976 US fusion program plan, how it played out and the history of fusion power in the US, technology program planning and management more broadly, and more.
Stephen has been working on making fusion energy a reality for more than five decades. He did research on controlled fusion reactions in the 60s and in the 70s became a director at the Atomic energy commission which then became the Energy Research and Development Administration which *then* became the department of energy. In 1979 he left government to form the consultancy Fusion Power associates, where he still works.
In 1976, he led the preparation of a report called “Fusion power by magnetic confinement” that laid out a roadmap of the work that would need to be done to turn fusion from a science experiment into a functional energy source.
(Machine generated, so please excuse errors)
In this conversation, Dr. Steven Dean, and I talk about how he created the 1976 S fusion program plan, how it played out in the history of fusion power in the U S technology program, planning and management more broadly, and even more things. Steven has been working on making fusion energy a reality for more than five decades.
He did research on control, fusion reactions in the 1960s and seventies, he became a director [00:01:00] at the atomic energy commission, which then became the energy research and development of administration, which then became the department of energy in 1979. He left government to form the consultancy fusion, power associates, where you still want.
In 1976, he led the preparation of a report called fusion power by magnetic confinement that laid out a roadmap of the work that needed would need to be done to turn fusion from a science experiment, into a functional energy source. And if I can sort of riff about this for a minute, the thing is. Unlike what I sort of see as modern roadmaps, it lays out not just the sort of like plan of record to getting fusion, to be a real energy source, but lays out all the different possible scenarios in terms of funding, in terms of new technology that we can't even think of being created and lays everything.
Yeah. In a way that you can actually sort of make decisions off of it. [00:02:00] And I think one of the most impressive things is that it has several different what it calls logics of funding, which is like different, different funding levels and different funding curves. And it actually, unfortunately, accurately predicts that if you fund fusion below a certain level, even if you're funding it continually you'll never get to.
An actual useful fusion source because you'll never have enough money to build these, these demonstrator missions. And so in a way it's sort of predicts the future. This, this document is super impressive. If you haven't seen it you should absolutely check it out there. There are links in the show notes and it's sort of, one of the reasons I wanted to talk to Dr.
Dean is because this, this document. Is one of the pieces of evidence behind my hypothesis. That to some extent, program design and program management for advanced technologies is a bit of a lost art. And so I wanted to learn more about how he thought about it and built [00:03:00] it. So without further ado, here's my conversation with Steven Dean.
To start off, what was the context of creating the fusion plan? Well, I guess I would have to say that it started a few years earlier in a sense that in 1972 the I was in the fusion office and in the atomic energy commission and the office of men and mission management and budget at the white house put out instructions to, I guess, all the agencies that they should prepare an analysis of their programs under a system, they called management by objectives.
And this was some, this was a formalism that was, had a certain amount of popularity at that time. And I was asked to prepare something on the fusion program as a part of the agency, doing this for all of its programs. And [00:04:00] in doing that I looked at our program and I Laid out a map basically that showed the different parts of the program on a map like a roadmap and what the timelines might be and what the functions of those of facilities would be.
And when the decisions might be and what decisions would work into into, into what, and that was never published in, in a report, but it w except internally, but the map itself was published and widely distributed. And I have it on my wall and it's in my book. So that was the first, my first venture into.
Into doing something that resembled plan, it was not a detailed plan, but it was an outline of decision points and flow this sort of a flow diagram, but it did connect all the different parts of the [00:05:00] program and the identified sub elements, you know, not in great detail and, and budgets were not asked for at that time.
So that's how I got into this idea and a little experience in, in the planning area. And then a few years later, we had the gasoline crisis in the U S where there were long lines and we couldn't get gas and people were sitting in their cars over overnight. And the, the white house at that time said that you know, we had to become energy, independent oil you know, the OPEC.
And, and so Bob Hirsch, who was at that time about to transition from the director of the fusion program to an assistant minister traitor of Urdu in, I think it was 74, late 74, 75. The, the government decided to Congress decided, or the [00:06:00] administration decided to abolish the atomic energy commission and transition it into something called the energy research and development administration or arena.
And the reason for that was to. It create an agency whose function was clearly for all of energy and not just for atomic energy in order to respond to the energy crisis and to get us off of the dependence on foreign oil imports for, for vehicles and things. And so when, when, when that happened, my boss, who was Bob Hirsch at the time he became, he was actually appointed in assistant administrator of errata for basically all the long range energy programs, which included fusion.
And as he was at transition, he, he came up with the idea that we should create a detailed long range plan for the, [00:07:00] for the program. And he, he was obviously becoming sort of a senior manager for the many things and he wasn't certainly going to try and do this himself. And so he and I were very close.
I was at that point he had three divisions in the fusion program and I was the director of the largest division, which had all of the main experimental programs. And so he asked me to prepare this plan. And if you look at the plan at the very beginning, there's this there's a chart that shows Bob's basically guidance, which was to note that that there needed to be a multiplicity of pathways because no one organization or, or group or division or program was in response could be in full control.
And that in order to have a plan that might have some hope of [00:08:00] Last thing that you had to take into account a number of policy variables he said, and technical variables, which meant that he said, because need for the, for the, for fusion and the intent of the government and the funding is all in control by other people in the government.
We had to have a number of plans by which the program could be conducted. So he came up with the idea that, well, let's have five plans, which he called logic. So he basically created that framework and turned it over to me at the beginning, I guess, of 1975, I think it was. And to, to create this. This plant.
So that's how it all got started. And I had been doing a number of things with the program in terms of the major [00:09:00] experiments that were under my control as a director of the confinement systems, division magnetic confinement systems. I was forcing all, all the people that were that whose budget I had to control over to, to tell me what they were doing and what they needed to do.
And so on. It's all right though, I had already been and working on a lot of these things in, within my area, but at that point I took over the responsibility of creating the, in the entire plant. And so I, I, I took it over and I started I created a, a small working group within our office. And we added people that we thought were responsible that could do this for us, or give us the details out in the various parts of the program, all elements of the program.
And we created a team and we, we launched this and and this was the result. We were determined to look to these five [00:10:00] logics. They ranged from both, you know, basically a steady level of effort to a maximum level of effort. And and we just started creating these things. During that six months, first six months of 1976, And this was the result.
Nice. And did you, so, so each of the logics is kind of a, a wiggly curve. Did, did you go in knowing what the shape of the funding curve for each logic would be, or did you just go in with the framework that there would be five logics and over the course of designing the program, you figured out what the actual shape of those curves would be?
Well, we created a definition, a rough definition of what each of the logics was supposed to look like, not in detail, but for example, a [00:11:00] logic to what says moderately. Expanding. But the tech progress would be limited by the availability of funds. But new projects were not started unless we knew that funds would be available.
And so we knew that we could not address a lot of problems in parallel. And so we had a general idea that this was a program that was not running at a maximum maximum feasible. Pace. And then the logic three, we said, well, let's look at one, that's a little more aggressive. And we would lay out in that one that as soon as these projects were scientifically justified, they would be in the plan.
We would not wait till we knew that there were probably people that wanted them were when he was available. But, and we also said in this scenario, we would address a number of things concurrently rather than in [00:12:00] series. So we assume that the funding was ample. We didn't have a number in mind. At that point, we started laying these things out and asking people.
If you had all the money you needed, what could you do if you didn't have quite enough money, what would you do? And people started responding to us that we're working on all of these subtopics. We were mostly working at the beginning laying out what the topics were and what had to be worked on eventually to get to the end point and that these topics could proceed at different rates and with different amounts of risks, depending upon the budget.
So this was a sort of an iterative thing that went back and forth with the community and the areas, and our team kept putting these together until they made some sense. Got it. And just to, to sort of step back a second so before [00:13:00] you created this plan sort of all the activities were happening already.
Is that, is that right? There were activities in all these areas that were going ongoing. Yes, that's right. They were at, at relatively low level at that stage at the early seventies, the total fusion budget was $30 million. And by the mid seventies, because of the energy crisis, we were told, you know, tell us what you want.
And we had raised that budget from 30 million to 300 million. So the program had been undergoing the first five years between 72 and 75, a very rapid expansion. And we had started a lot of new programs. And so the program had been built up quite a bit, although with all of these programs, of course, because they were new.
They were at a, still a fairly early stage of their. Their development. The other thing that drove the, the the curves was the [00:14:00] ignition that getting to a fusion power plant required a couple of identifiable major facility steps. And these actually came from that map. I mentioned from 72, which said that from the experiments that we want to do in the near term, which were to build like a physics proof of principle experiment that had to be followed by an engineering step, that was an engineering test reactor.
And that had to be then followed by a demonstration power plant. And that those steps were big facilities. Each one, much more expensive than the previous one and making a much more definitive demonstration of fusion that was on a. And, and the wiggly curves that you see, not the, the, the the smooth ones have these bumps on them.[00:15:00]
And those bumps reflect the fact that these major experiments were going to cost a lot of money. And depending on how fast you build them would, would also reflect a different path pace to an end point you know, the faster you build them, the faster you get there, because these major steps really drove the progress and drove the budget.
And do you think that sort of, I guess it's hard to think about, but like do you think that the plan helped anything in the sense of. If, if instead you just sort of had continued with the, the program as it started, where I imagined it was like much more sort of bottom up. Do you, do you think that the, the outcome, how do you think the outcome would have been different?
I think without the [00:16:00] plan, I don't know what would have happened. I don't think we would've gotten the support that we got in the next few years during the seventies that we got, because the outcome of this cut was that. The plan, the plan was published with all of its detail and all of its budget. It was published publicly.
The office of management and budget tried to stop us from publishing this plan because they didn't want budgets out there that said, well, if the Congress would give you so much money, then, then you'd get the job done because that would tie their hands because, you know, they like to be in control of how much money they're going to give to every program.
And so they don't want the agencies to put out plans with budgets. And so we had to fight that. And luckily for us, the energy research and development administration, which was fairly new and I [00:17:00] actually only lasted a couple of years before it transitioned to the department of energy, had a a head of it.
Bob Siemens, who came from NASA. He overruled the office of management and budget. He said, I'm in charge of this and I'm putting whole plan out. So we probably pushed it. And it got picked up over in the Congress by Congressman Mike McCormick and his staff. And they became champions for this plan and they came.
What's the a legislative agenda and they got the Senator from Massachusetts and the Senate to get on board. And and by 1980, I think it was in October, 1980. Congress had passed the magnetic fusion engineering act of 1980, which basically adopted our plan for getting to the end point by the year 2000.
[00:18:00] And so the result of our plan was that Congress picked it up. It passed a legislation, making it national policy. And it was signed by president Carter in October 7th, 1980. And we thought at that point we were in that we had a commitment of the United States government at the presidential level to implement this the, the plan for getting there by the year 2000.
And so the, the problem, the only problem was that he president Carter signed it in October and lost the election for reelection in November. And as you probably know, whenever there's a change of administration to, especially if it's a change of party in here, Almost everything that the previous administration has decided to do.
The other, the new people want to either not do, or they [00:19:00] want to completely reevaluate and start over. And so that's what, that's what happened to this plan in 1981. Got it. And so, because as far as I can tell we've, we've sort of like the, the, the way that it's panned out is that we've, we've sort of followed below logic one, right?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah. It was less and less than a, less than ever Guinea. It's the never get their logic.
There's one, but there's one caveat to that is that in the 1980s Ronald Reagan was a post to all of this energy stuff until 1985. When he met with Gorbachev. And they decided to work together on fusion and build our first major step that was in our plan. We were going to build this engineering device in the 1980s and he and Grover Jeff decided let's get together and build it together with Europe.[00:20:00]
And this became the eater project, which is under construction in France. So what the program really did to work around this problem of the budget being so low was to say, okay, we're not on our own track, but we're on a wall track and we're all working together. And so they're building this multi tens of billions of dollars engineering test reactor and it's taken them a long time to get it going, but it's hopefully going to be finished in a few years.
It's going to turn on by hopefully 20, 25 is plasma, so we're way behind, but, but that was a response to being on this. Their thing was to say, we're all in this together. And we don't have our own plan to get there, but the world has a plan and we'll get there together that that's how this all evolved.
Got it. And so I guess the, if, if I'm understanding this correctly, the, the sort of the, [00:21:00] the purpose and the value of this plan was less as a coordination mechanism for the people doing the work and more as a sort of communication mechanism with people sort of outside the organization in terms of.
What the work would entail is that, is that accurate? I, I can tell you that when I was doing this plan and I was in a senior management position there, I had responsibility for the bulk of the program. I didn't have the basic pilot, the physics program and universities, and I didn't have the technology part, but I had all the major experiments in my ballywick.
And when Bob Hirsch was, I was still reporting to Bob Hirsch and he had all the energy programs in Herta, it was our intent to manage his program, to implement this plan internally. It did turn out that part of the plan, part of our implementation required us getting the money and that all went through this energy building in [00:22:00] Congress.
We thought we had the whole thing put together that not only we did, we eventually have the Congress on board, but we also had a management and we had 80 staff in the office then. And And we were prepared to manage the program to, to implement this if we got, get the money in detail. So it was both the management plan for implementation within the within an arena.
But of course the other thing that happened in all of this was that Erna was abolished and became the department of energy. So I think Jane and I left, I left in 1979 because I thought we were about to implement this plan. And I formed fusion power associates, and I got a dozen electric utilities. I mean, a dozen major industries like Westinghouse and companies like that to, to form this organization, to bring industry in, to actually bring industry into the, into the implementation phase of this program plan, we were all set to [00:23:00] go.
And even in the early eighties, before the whole thing sort of fell apart, I had a dozen electric utilities in fusion, power associates. And so we had both industry that wanted to do this and the electric utilities that were on board and all we needed really was for the new department of energy to to follow through with the management of this thing and try to get, get the money, but.
The money never, never came through. And the industries and fusion power associates in the early eighties realized that there wasn't going to be any money for industry because there wasn't any money coming through. And the electric utilities were deregulated by Ronald Reagan and they abandon all their R and D departments, which were the ones that were in, you know, in our organization that were interested in developing fusion.
And they became taken over by [00:24:00] business people in the utilities whose main purpose was to make money. And they were not interested in getting involved in brand new technologies. They are only comfortable with the technologies that they had. Yeah. But that makes a lot of sense. And I guess to sort of go, go back to you.
You mentioned earlier that this plan was sort of part of a bigger trend of management by objectives. Do you think that that was effective management by objectives? And just because I feel like sort of the, the modern idea, very much like projects, plans like this that like, you know, multi-decade technical plans are at, at best foolish and at worst detrimental.
And so, so what do you, what do you think about sort of like big plans for technology projects? More generally, [00:25:00] just sort of say that management objectives was an OMB guidance in the early seventies. And it's soon disappeared from the the roof work, if you will, as the the OMB. One of the things that happens in Washington every two years is that people change in administrations changed.
Whatever one group is wanting to do it just a lot, go by the wayside. So by the mid seventies, when the came about there was there was no management by objectives, formalism still going on in the government. Basically they start all over again with how they're going to try. Do these things.
And as this thing all evolved, you know, up to the present at the OMB I don't know, probably more than 10 years ago, 10 or 15 years ago, the OMB said to fusion, you are guys are not an energy [00:26:00] program anymore. You are a science program and we are going to evaluate you and have you managed like a science program.
And so they stopped even asking us for both aimed towards an energy program. They said that we should go to the scientific community, take unsolicited proposals from the community to do good science, evaluate them under peer review by other scientists. And if it was good science, we should fund.
And we should not be trying to make them into seeing we should not evaluate these proposals as to whether or not they are getting us to an energy source. So for over a decade now, the fusion program has not had an energy source as it's, as its goal, and it hasn't been funded or evaluated within the government as an energy program.
Now, this has all changed in the [00:27:00] last year, but up until just very recently they're trying to put now the energy mission back into the, into the mission, but it hasn't actually formally happened at OMB yet. Got it. And just, just to sort of pull us back to well mentioned by objectives and just more broadly having very concrete plans W w w do you think it was useful or do you think it was just sort of like a a fad almost.
Well, it's been disappointing from him personally. I think that it's been disappointing that like, we haven't actually done the plan. Right? Well, it's just a point. You spent so much effort laying out how you, how you would do it and how you would make decisions and you get everybody that's under your purview out in the in the community of people that you're funding, you get them all set up to try to achieve these things and you try to get them the [00:28:00] money and then it all falls apart.
And then somebody tells you that, well, we don't care because we don't really think we really don't care if you ever get there. It's been the attitude until very recently. So it's very demoralizing, you know, to everybody, except the scientific community itself is kind of immune from this to some degree, as long as they get funded for research.
As long as the universities getting money for basic research in this area, and they're training students in these trainings and these students can get jobs either in the private sector or they start their own companies, or they go to work at government laboratories, as long as that is moving along at some reasonable degree of success for people getting trained and getting in doing work and publishing papers.
There's a certain degree of apathy if you will, or there even a certain degree [00:29:00] of satisfaction in the scientific community since nobody seems to care, if you should never goes on the grid. Yeah. Yeah. And so I guess like counterfactually, if the money had been there, so actually one thing that I, I still do find really impressive about the plan, although it is disappointing is that you basically predicted that.
Right. Like you, you said, you said here's logic one. If you're below this line fusion won't happen and indeed you were right. So that's, let's just say like, that is one of the reasons why I'm I'm so impressed by it. Because it, it really did, it made a very precise prediction and that prediction came true, although it is disappointing.
If you, if you could imagine that, like the say the money came through, do you think that this plan would have been useful in the sense of like, like how much confidence do you have that you sort of [00:30:00] accounted for all the things that you would need to do over the course of several decades? In order to, to get to fusion as an energy.
Well, as it says in sort of early part of the plan, these plans are not bent to be followed blindly in their detail. They are guidance to management and management has to keep updating them and looking to see how they're doing and keeping an eye out for new discoveries and revising the plans in detail to see if new things are emerging or some things are failing.
Or the money is coming in in such a way that that the plan schedule has to be changed. That's why you need management structure that's in place and following it, but not blindly following it. Yeah. So I personally believe if the management structure that we had in the [00:31:00] mid seventies had been maintained and, you know, right now I think we had 80 people in the office and they were all management oriented.
And right now I think they probably have about, I don't know, maybe, maybe 15 people in the office because they're running it like a research program. So they just taking proposals and getting them evaluating and sending out money. So they're not managing in the way that we would have managed if we had had 80 people and we'd had the divisions that we had divided up and we revise the management structure from time to time.
Along the way. And I know if I hadn't been there and what we had in mind, we were going to transition the money starting out into industry to get these things built and to bring engineering oriented people in more into the program, because even in the mid seventies, the pro was dominated by plasma physicists.
And we were only in the process at that point of starting to bring in engineering [00:32:00] people, but still the money. The government's laboratories in their technology. People like Oak Ridge has a big technology laboratory. And so there was technology programs being developed in these laboratories. And other a little bit of it was going out into industries as on a job basis for the labs, but we didn't have a big industry program.
And you know, one of the things I did just before I left was I brought in McDonald Douglas, which a big aerospace company to build an engineering center at Oak Ridge for fusion. That was sort of the last. Done and you know, and when this whole thing folded in the eight earlier eighties McDonald Douglas basically was told to shut down and they went away.
They were, they were eventually bought out by Boeing. So we had started a transition where part of the implementation of this plan was to implement it by bringing industry in to bring [00:33:00] that talent from, we had a bunch of people, for example, in fusion power associates at the beginning, who were the architect engineers that were building nuclear power plants.
So, you know, those were the people that we needed to implement the plan, but they were not quite in the program by now, 1980. And when the money didn't come through them, they just all disappeared from any plan that the government had because the government in the eighties and was only interested in trying to make their scientists survive.
Yeah. And I guess you don't really see plans like this today. It feels like. And so I get the sense that creating plans like this, and more generally like technology management, like competence, technology management is a bit of a lost art. Do you, do you think that's true or, or am I, or is it like, am I missing something?[00:34:00]
Well, I don't know if it's true or not across the board that they must be out there somewhere. I think when you look at big construction projects and the people that do those projects know how to manage and they know how to cost things out and they know how to, they know the importance of, of keeping things on the schedule and they know how important it is to have pieces of the schedule coming in on the right time timing so that the whole project comes together.
And, and we tried to do lay that out so that, that could be done for fusion, but I don't see it being done in the department of energy. And I don't know about any other agencies. I I can I have the feeling that maybe the defense department does it a little better on weapons systems and aircraft systems and fighter systems with some of the big aerospace companies?
I mean, I think my observation from a fire department of defense is that [00:35:00] they, they do it the right way, but they're not on top of the cost and schedule and they do get taken to the cleaners by these companies, but somehow or another, they do get the job done, even if it's costing more than it should and taking longer.
Yeah. That's, that's the thing that there's sort of been this like wider observation that since the 1970s things just take like sort of complex projects like this take longer and cost, like have, have dramatic like cost and time overruns. And it's sort of like this, there's like this trend of that happening more and more.
And so, so I wonder if it's like w what it is about the world. That's changed. Do you have any hypotheses there? Well, you know, I'm not sure if it was ever that good first place ever, because when we, when I was there [00:36:00] in the seventies and we were laying out our plans, we thought we knew how, how to do it and do it right.
But at the same time, within the atomic energy commission, there was a a nuclear fission program called the breeder reactor program. And it was a mess. And, and yet the industries out there like Westinghouse and general electric, they were actually building nuclear power plants in those days. And they were building nuclear reactors for submarines in those days.
And so those programs were actually working, but at the department, they were working on advanced reactors and they weren't getting them done. And they eventually had to shut down the breeder reactor program because it just wasn't just wasn't seemed to be working. So I'm not sure the government, at least the part that I knew ever did that.
Well, you know, when Admiral Rick over wanted to put a. I nuclear reactor in the submarine. The Navy wanted to fire [00:37:00] him as a department of energy, wanted him to put this program into the Lac, their national laboratories. And he had a fight them tooth and nail through his friends in Congress to get put in charge of the program and be allowed to put this out to general electric and Westinghouse.
He had to fight them, and this was back in the sixties. So I'm not, I'm not sure that the government itself ever was very efficient at any of these things. Now, I have to say that NASA seems to have a good reputation and I, if it's true, it's I attributed to the fact that Kennedy went public and made it a national priority to get there by the end of the decade.
And he demanded that they do it in a way to make it. And he, he had the backing of the Congress and he completely set up a whole new agency focused on [00:38:00] just that. And they got there. So I have to say that that was a success story and it remains a success story today with the evolution of a commercial industry.
That's coming out of all of that. All this is quite a few decades later, but nevertheless they seem to have done a good job. I've never, I've, I've never been in NASA. So I only can see it from a farm. I'm sure there's some problems within it, but you know, somehow or another, it proved that we could get it done.
And going back further to the Manhattan project for the atomic bomb was clear that when there was a commitment from president Truman, I guess it was, or or maybe it was, maybe it was Roosevelt. To do it and the army set up to take charge of it. They put a general in charge of it and they went to Los Alamos and they forced to deploy the part, the atomic energy commission laboratories to, to work on the problem that was at hand to get it done in a short amount of time.
And when you had that kind [00:39:00] of leadership and management, it seems like it can be done, but it all depends on management and it's rare in government. And I would say it's rare even outside of government as well. And, and so, so I guess the upshot of this for me is that and correct me if this is wrong, but that you feel like it's much more about sort of the, the individuals in charge.
And then it is about sort of like the, the process of, of planning and roadmapping out the techniques. Yeah, absolutely. I can't tell you how many plans have made since the one that you were looking at that I, that I've gathered dust on shelves. They almost every other year, the program launches a new plan.
It finishes the plan. Everybody says whether they like it or they don't, and it's not implemented in a couple weeks [00:40:00] later, they'll turn it over to the national academies to evaluate or proposal new a plan. And I can't tell you, it's countless number of plans in fusion that are gathering dust on shelves over the past 40 years.
You mean, it's the managers and the people that are want to implement the plans that, that supervise the plan. And as long as they're there we'll implement the plan, but as soon as they're gone, they, somebody else comes in, maybe makes a new plan or makes no plans at all. You know, just try to keep things alive.
And w what do you, what would you think about so I feel like the sort of modern ethos is that planning plenty. Is it that useful? That you should just go and just start doing stuff? So I guess if we, if we think of like a counterfactual world where you just [00:41:00] have a very, like, you, you have consistent management, but they don't have a plan.
How do you think that would be. I'm not quite sure what you said, but let me, let me give you an example of this big international project. Either in France, it was, it was, it was started by Ronald Reagan in 1985, but it didn't really get launched as a serious construction project for 2006. And it very rapidly became something that was getting behind schedule and over budget.
And it was completely out of control until about 10 years ago. They, they had a management review and they said, we've got to get control of this project. They brought in this guy, that's now the director, Bernard big go. And he, and he took charge of this. And now he's got the thing organized, reorganized.
Countries [00:42:00] from all over the world on a schedule to deliver this piece of equipment or that piece of equipment on a certain time schedule, he's got them all being delivered in a sequence and he's having them put together in a sequence. And he's got a great management plan and he's been keeping the thing on schedule now for the last five years.
And I have great confidence. He's going to get the job done, but it all started with putting somebody like him in charge that knew he had. Have a plan that was in detail for everybody working together because, and totally took charge every country that had part of the job wasn't controlled with the wrong piece.
And there was no, there was no control if they got behind. Sometimes the director in, in France didn't even know until it was too late to get it back on schedule and, and he didn't control the money anyway, each country controlled its own money. So, you know, I think it all comes down to management and then the management [00:43:00] makes the plan.
Yeah. And w we'll see, so that's that I do think is worth noting in the sense that there's, there's also sort of a philosophy of management that says management shouldn't actually be imposing a plan on people. They should just like. Let it be very bottom up. Right. And just like, instead of planning, like, you don't know what's going to happen, so you should just sort of like let ideas bubble up from, from the bottom and let people work on what they think is the best thing to work on.
Right? Well, you know, managers are managers of people and they oversee people. And so in a company, there's somebody at the top when there's somebody under him, but underneath them, It companies, there are thousands of people they're doing their bit. So a managers is not just say, Hey, we're going to get this done by tomorrow or next week he, he supervises all these people and these [00:44:00] people feed him up the information and help create this plan.
And they all have to be on board and supervised properly all the way down the line through it, through a management chain. So it's not like one person does the whole plan by himself or with a couple of people in his office. He supervised the preparation of a plan with the community. So I had, you know, dozens of people around the country who helped prepare this plan.
I helped them piece it together. And, you know, I helped organize the structure of the whole thing, but it was, it was an ongoing interaction that went from. And then guidance from top down, it was back and forth through the whole process. Got it. So you could almost think of the plant as a coordination mechanism in a way.
Absolutely. Because the managers can actually do the work. Yeah. [00:45:00] Yeah. And they probably like don't, the managers can't know enough to be able to say accurate. They don't know the level of detail. If there's a problem. For example, if there is a problem they can say, okay, let's fix that problem. And they go back to the people that know about it and they tell them, okay, you guys go out and find out how you're going to fix this problem and come back and tell me how you're going to do it.
But then the manager has to approve it. You know, if he doesn't, if he thinks it doesn't been done, right. He will go back to them and until they get her. Right. So, and I guess another interesting thing about Th the, the plan is that at some point someone was willing to make a prediction but a decade or more out.
And that's sort of an attitude. I, I see people as being very hesitant to make that predictions on that timescale now do you feel like there's, or at least with that amount of w with like that [00:46:00] amount of precision, right? Like people make very, like hand-waving predictions now. Do you think, like there's been some kind of attitude shift around making predictions like that?
Well, it's changing in the last year or so. There's been a lot of planning activities going on here and you'll see some time schedules and all of these, like right now there's a whole bunch of the companies that are all saying. But by 2030 or 2040 or 2050 and so on and so forth. And there's sort of a goal that's been proposed to have fusion on the grid by 2050 and in order to participate in the climate change solutions.
So there's a lot of thinking about this and there's a lot of people putting out what they think is a reasonable timeframe that is achievable. And it's interesting that these, these timetables are all. One two or three decades out, which is sort of like almost the timescale [00:47:00] with the timescale that we had.
So it's not uncommon to think that almost anything that's technically thought to be feasible can be done in 10, 20 or 30 years, depending on how difficult it is. So it's pretty easy for people to think that something can be done in those kinds of timescales and then start backfilling the details to see how it can be done and what it costs.
Yeah. I think, I think the thing that strikes me is different between the predictions that I see now. And what you worked on is that. I, I feel like the, the fusion plan was a, the producers were very precise. Like it wasn't like, oh, we'll get this thing working by this time. It was like, okay, we need to show this experiment, this experiment and this experiment.
And then there are also like very clear sort of intermediate results and, and like different pathways. All of which I, I don't [00:48:00] see in, in modern modern predictions where there, who are, who it feels like it's like, step one, start project. Step two, question mark. Question mark. Question mark. Step three 30 years later, have this amazing result.
And I feel like that well, and you see our times scale to look to around the year 2000. Come out of whole cloth, it was set by the fact that we were in a physics phase and we had just authorized the construction of a physics demonstration called Tokamak fusion test reactor at Princeton. In 1975, we had already launched construction of that, and we knew that to get to a power plant.
We had to make two major steps. One was an engineering facility and next was a demonstration power plant. And the time to construct those things is, is kind of known that it takes [00:49:00] five years to build them and five years to run them. So that kind of for each step was a 10 year step. And that gets you to a 20 year timetable.
And so that really the time to build those two facilities and operate them, set the timescale. Of 20 years, more or less, depending upon how, you know, give or take a few years how fast the money came in and so on. So you know, we had a, we had a reason that that 20 year time frame was sort of set that we couldn't get there any faster because we couldn't go direct to a power plant.
Right. And, and I guess like, so, so two questions one is, how do you think about the difference between a engineering project and a physics project and then two, like how did you know that you couldn't go direct to a. Well, if you [00:50:00] look at all the pieces of a power plant, you'll know that there's an awful lot of stuff in there that is not needed for a physics experiment, you know, a physics experiment, you know, what makes up a fusion plasma, and it has a whole bunch of diagnostics on it, and you're not sure what it's going to do.
And so you're, you have to allow for surprises and then you'll have to do theory and computation to see if you understand what's going on. And all of that requires people who, who understand the physics for a power plant. You have to actually have confidence that the plasma that you're making is actually going to sustain fusion for a long period of time and produce heat.
That can then be converted into electricity. And that means that these power plant has to be doesn't have room for a lot of diagnostics to be doing experiments, to try to figure out [00:51:00] what's happening. You have to have high confidence that when it turns on it's going to run and not have to be shut down every day or every week to be fixed.
Right? So all those things require technology and engineering development, where components, you know, there may be a thousand major components or hundreds if you combine them in the right way into a power plant that has certain functions. And each of these has to be developed by engineers as a company.
It has to be run and tested for long periods of time to see you with your breaks, to see how to fix it. How long does it take all of these things have to be demonstrated before you put it all together. Otherwise when you put it all together in Nepal plant it's too late because you can't just hate the far plan a party again, and start over.
So the engineering and technology has a whole separate track of development that requires [00:52:00] testing and and development of codes of, of of a manufacture materials have to have codes. How long they'll last in this environment? Yeah. When will they fail? There's a whole skill set called Time to failure and time to repair the engineers, work with that physicists don't work with, if it breaks, it breaks, they just, you know, you know, they, they, they fix it because it's a small piece and they put pieces in, it takes them maybe a few weeks, but it a major piece of a power plant.
It might take you a year to take that piece out and repair it and put a new piece in. Yeah. So, so like, meanwhile, you're not making any money selling electricity, electric utility will not buy a power plant like that until someone's shown that every piece works and worked all, all together can be sex if it breaks, you know, in a week.
[00:53:00] Yeah. Interesting. So, so in a sense engineering work has a lot more to do with robustness than, than physics. Once, you know, the physics, it's an engineering problem to power commercial aviation. Okay. Yeah. I think that, I guess in my mind that that's still, like, there's still a lot of like research work to be done in engineering problems, even if it is just an engineering problem.
There's a, there's a melding of physics in it. That's what they call applied physics and there's basic physics. And so, and there's technology and then there's engineering and all of things. I have slightly different slants and slightly different communities, but they all have, and that's one of the functions of management is to work on a timeframe and with money to meld these things in the proper sequence to get to where you need to.
Yeah. That's why a program has to, that's why a program like fusion has to evolve from [00:54:00] totally physicists to mix of physicists and technology, people to a mixtures of engineers, to commercial companies that do costs and schedules and all of this stuff. This all has to be supervised by management. Got it.
And so sort of a nitty gritty that I'm interested in is like, how did you think about budgets and like how much things would cost? Cause I feel like there's, there's no good canonical resources about like, how to think about how much research programs cost. Well, the way we did it was we divided it into systems and subsystems.
And we went to the people that were working in each area and we asked them to go into more depth and that's, what's in our other volumes. So we had teams of people in all these areas, and [00:55:00] then we use you know, people that from industry and from utilities. Had done similar things. He found, we looked at the cost of nuclear power plants.
That was a big part of our, our thinking as to what we knew that the fusion plant had to compete. So, you know, the, the, the skillset was all out there. Technologic technology wise for the power plants because of fusion plant is almost like a nuclear power plant, except a fuel is different in the center.
I mean, it doesn't look the same, but it has all the same pieces to get the power. So there, there was a lot of skills out there that we, we were able to draw from. And, and we did the best we could. We know we can't claim that. And we put some contingencies in there, you know, we didn't let them low ball or high ball us, you know, because we had, they had to fit into the different logics as to how much money might be available and stuff like that.
So, and we didn't say that this number is where we're, you know, in [00:56:00] stone that they were, they were absolutely. Yes. Yeah. And how did you think about like, places where there's just like, sort of deep uncertainty like where you would need to actually, in terms of a physics problem where you would actually need like some kind of discovery in order to get the thing work?
Because it seems like there, there could be a situation where like, you know, it's like you can make that discovery next year, or you could, it could take you 10 years to figure it out. Well, if you look at the say the logic three reference option to page 12 of the blue colored volume you will see.
That there are a variety of paths the Tokamak with the lead path and freed, laid out a reference a lot for that to get there by a certain date. But underneath that, there's a path for authentic concepts. And there were decision points, which said that well, if these [00:57:00] things come along and there's even one.at the bottom that says other things that were in very early stages of proof of principle, but we weren't knew that these things might come to fruition.
We laid out a timeframe for hoping that we would fund those so that they could be evaluated. And so if those things came to fruition, then they would transition to a next step. And so that would all, that was all sort of taken into account as to the decision point as to when some of these things might, might happen.
And, and of course, if, if something really radical were to come along a long, one of these other paths it's listed, I'll say can see one if you'll, I don't know if you have it in front. But under other, you'll see a decision point in 1985 that we're going to try to bring some of those things to a decision.[00:58:00]
If it looked like a positive one, we would proceed to what we call a prototype engineering, power reactor. And so it would take the place of that one up above that was called the Tokamak EPR that would have already been under construction if we kept following the back path. But, but it might still be.
But if this other one came along, we would start its own track to compete. 1985 and then it would pick up at its own track and then it would come in later and we'd have to, at that point, if that became the favorite path, or maybe even there'd be three paths, you know, we didn't say that there could only be one winner.
So you had a, you could eventually wind up with several of the earliest ones might come on around the year two thousands, but some of these other ones like abandoned 2005 or 2006, if they were better and they'd be a options for the [00:59:00] utilities, if they were better. Got it. Yeah, this is so cool. One of the really big takeaways that like, just like keeps coming through is almost just like consistency of, of management and not so much like the plan, but like of, of a plan.
And, and I think like that's what you see. Not happening. And I guess sort of pulling us to today. Do you have a sense of which things that are happening in fusion now that you think are most.
Well, you know, I don't want to get out on a limb to pick winners and losers because fusion power associates really is a home for all of these people. And I encourage the ball and there are people that we will not let into fusion, power associates as they're out there because they're so re almost crazy.
And their claims are almost crazy that I wouldn't want to be associated with them. There are few and far between [01:00:00] fortunately, most of the alternates that are out there and these little companies they've been formed by good fusion. People who have, who have fallen on bad times because the government started funding all their money into tokamaks and stopped funding their off and net ideas.
And so these people branched out and got support on their own. And I know some of these people and they're good people and their ideas need deserve to be pursued. But the truth is that most all of these are at what we used to call the proof of principle stage on their physics. They are not fully thought through power plants and their physics is not fully developed or at least not even far enough along to develop to know how probable their success is.
They should be pursued. What was the room in the program for these, because improvements all those come along, any tech technology. So the first thing that comes out is it not going to be the best [01:01:00] thing 20 years after it? So I encourage all these things if they're credible people and you know, right now there are a couple of.
Things in the Tokamak area, you know, the Tokamak mainline is the conventional Tokamak that is represented by either, but there are variations. There's one Commonwealth fuse and the systems at spying out of MIT. That's almost the exact same concept as the mainline Tokamak, except they're using high field new superconductors, which make the machine smaller.
And which allows them also to be able to disassemble and repair it faster than the conventional tokamaks because the Magnus come apart in a different way. And the exhaust system that they've designed is more efficient. So that may help with some of the materials problems as the conventional talking back.
So it does look like a much improved Tokamak and they're getting money and they're trying. You know, [01:02:00] they've got a facility that they're, that they've committed to in Massachusetts, and they're trying to build one step, a physics demonstration followed by a electricity generator. And so I, I have great hopes for them.
If they can get money, they're privately funded. Now they're not getting hardly any government money at all. I think the government's helping them a little bit with some support work in the labs, but basically it's a private sector venture. And I think that one of the most promising, and there's another variation of the Tokamak called the spherical story.
Or physical Toca Mac the British are going gangbusters on that. They've got one in operation. They've got a company that's also built one and they've got a site for building as a next step one, which they a site where they hope though will the actual power electricity generator. So that variation of the Tokamak is also looking very seeing.
And it's the British are way out in front on that. Although [01:03:00] that idea first came. Ascend Princeton is actually had built one of those. And as another one coming in operation in a couple of years, that would support that line. So there's a couple of variations along the token back line that are looking, looking very good.
All the other things that you hear about there are at a somewhat earlier stage of develop. They're all doing good work. T a E a tri alpha energy. Your TA in California is probably the most radical of the mall. But they are the farthest along of these alternates. And they've all, they've had success along the way.
They built two or three generations. So machine, and they're all trying to get money for a really major step that would really demonstrate most everything they want to demonstrate before going on to a real power producing machine. So, you know, I think I have for them too, there's another company in Canada called general fusion that perhaps is a little bit farther behind, but they're working with the British and a [01:04:00] two.
And so that's a promising area. And you know, I hope I have hope that that will evolve. This actually made me think of a question, which is Was sort of now all as, as you alluded to all the fusion development is being done by these sort of separate private companies which sort of stands in contrast to the, the fusion plan, which sort of implicitly is that everything is being at least managed from a central like a central management team.
Do you think that w w what do you think about those two, two sort of different approaches towards getting to a technology of like, sort of the, the let a thousand flowers bloom in, in private companies versus a much broader program. Well, I think in the last maybe five years or so times have changed in that regard, you know, in the seventies and up until very recently, it was [01:05:00] only the governments that seem to be able to afford to do this.
Those are the timescale and the cost. And so if was to come to pass, the government had to step up or the international governments had to step up and work together. And it was, seemed like the only way to get there was for the government to do it because of the cost. Now it seems that things have come along far enough, especially in the Tokamak area that some private companies are coming up with what they think are.
Ways to fund what they want to do to demonstrate what they need to demonstrate because their ideas are at the moment, at least on relatively inexpensive facilities. Now they, they are going to run up against funding problem. If they're successful in the near term, you know, they're getting hundreds of millions of [01:06:00] dollars, some of them from private investors and they're building some things and hopefully they'll be successful, but these will not be powerful.
And so they will have to be so successful that they will be able to get much, much larger amounts of money. They may have to be, be bought out by a Westinghouse or something in order to, to become real power plant manufacturers. These are not industries yet, even though they have an industry, what they call an industry association, there are small companies, and if there may be big by some companies standards, but they are not really money-making companies and they don't have their own money.
So they have to continue to, to get money from investors and, and even maybe getting a hundred million dollars or $200 million from some billionaire venture capital company is doable. These days, getting a billion for the next step is a much different [01:07:00] problem because there isn't going to be a real fusion demonstration plant built for less than a couple of billion dollars.
And private money doesn't come that easily at that Atlanta, unless the thing that's being built is going to make money back fast.
Steven Dean. Thanks for being part of idea machines.'