A Collaborative National Center for Fusion & Plasma Research

Adam Cohen

Deputy Director for Operations

From Hot Cells to Hot Plasmas

Cohen approaches science challenges with practicality

By John Greenwald

Adam Cohen grew up as the family handyman. “I was the kid who tacked down the carpet, repaired the roof, fixed the toilet and worked on the car,” he said of his youth in northern New Jersey. “I would pull apart batteries and tear apart things and try to make them work again.”

That Mr. Fixit attitude has taken Cohen from nuclear submarine service in the U.S. Navy to chief operations officer at Argonne National Laboratory to senior science adviser at the U.S. Department of Energy. Now as deputy director for operations at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) since 2009, he oversees functions ranging from engineering and project management to finance and communications.

Cohen arrived as part of a new top management team at a critical time for the Laboratory. The new leaders included director Stewart Prager, who came from the University of Wisconsin, and PPPL physicist Michael Zarnstorff, who was named deputy director for research. The threesome took office shortly after the DOE had halted construction of an innovative fusion device called the National Compact Stellarator Experiment after costs exceeded estimates. The shutdown dealt a blow to the Laboratory, which is managed by Princeton University.

The incoming leaders responded by focusing on PPPL’s traditional strengths in designing and operating complex experiments. Results of their initiatives have ranged from DOE approval for a $94 million upgrade of the National Spherical Torus Experiment, the Laboratory’s largest venture, to a step-by-step path for developing projects from proposal to completion. “You can talk about policies and procedures all you want,” said Cohen, “but unless you can deliver a project safely, under cost and on schedule, such talk is meaningless.”

Cohen’s own career path began with a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Columbia University, followed by four years as a junior U.S. Navy officer. The Cold War was near its end, though neither side knew it, and the U.S. and Soviet nuclear-powered submarines routinely played cat-and-mouse trying to detect each other. Cohen’s sea-going duties included electrical engineer and radiation-control manager before his tour ended in 1988. “What attracted me to the Navy was a tinge of patriotism and a desire to see the world and learn about nuclear power,” Cohen said. “It was wonderful because I learned a lot and that experience in the nuclear-power field has given me every job since.”

Those jobs have seen Cohen juggle work, parenthood and graduate study. After two years of assembling fuel rods for nuclear power plants for Babcock & Wilcox in Virginia, Cohen followed his future wife, Debra, to Chicago, where she took a job in marketing and he began a 20-year career at Argonne National Laboratory. While there he earned a doctorate in materials science from Northwestern University, plus an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago, and helped raise son Josh and daughter Allie; both are now in high school. “I literally was rocking a baby in one arm and holding a textbook in the other hand studying for exams,” he said.

At Argonne, Cohen rose from regulatory compliance officer and materials researcher to head of the environment, safety and health division and then to chief operating officer. Along the way he conducted research on nuclear materials and managed a hot cell—a concrete and leaded-glass enclosed facility for handling highly radioactive material by remote control—and even crawled inside to make repairs swathed in protective gear.

A turning point for Cohen came in 2006 when Argonne sent him on assignment to Washington, D.C. There he served as senior adviser for nuclear energy to Raymond Orbach, who was then Undersecretary for Science and Director of the DOE’s Office of Science, which funds basic research for energy and the physical sciences. “I learned a lot about interacting with DOE programs and helping to get things done,” Cohen recalled.

The job was also rich in contacts. In Washington, Cohen met the directors of DOE’s national laboratories, the department’s 17 research and engineering facilities around the country that include PPPL. He helped to organize the National Laboratory Directors’ Council, which facilitates communication among the laboratories and between the DOE and Congress and other federal agencies. “The idea all started on a whiteboard in the hallways of the DOE,” Cohen said of the council. “Now it’s growing and flourishing.”

Cohen next moved to PPPL to take up his current post. Working with other managers, he implemented a system of monthly project reviews and color-coded charts to track schedules, costs and technical issues, among other matters. The system ensured that when problems arose, “We identified and worked the problems whether the projects were big or small.”

Cohen’s vision for PPPL includes increased participation of its experts in collaborations and outside project reviews for other laboratories.  Cohen serves on the ITER Management Advisory Committee, which advises the council that oversees ITER, a major international fusion experiment that is under construction in Cadarache, France. He sits on the Operations Committee for Brookhaven Science Associates, which runs the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, and has also helped review plans for a project called the Deep Underground Science and Environmental Laboratory that the DOE is sponsoring in a former South Dakota gold mine. Last November he joined a panel that monitors safety and other conditions at the aging Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in Lacey, New Jersey. Exelon Corporation, which owns Oyster Creek, has agreed to shutter the plant by 2019, 10 years before its license expires.

Cohen sees new opportunities arising from the Laboratory’s mission of developing fusion and other applications for plasma. He has helped push for projects such as using plasma to produce nanomaterials, and for teaming with Princeton in high-energy physics experiments. Cohen advocated for PPPL’s involvement in the Energy Innovation Hub, a consortium that is creating technologies to make buildings more efficient, and he perceives prospects for improved fluorescent lighting, which uses plasma gas. The development of new plasma technologies, in tandem with progress toward fusion, “is where I really want to see the Lab going,” Cohen said.


  • Department of Energy Operations
  • Nuclear energy
  • Nuclear facility operations
  • Nuclear safety

U.S. Department of Energy
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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