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Energy Secretary Rick Perry cheers on fusion energy, science education at PPPL

The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s (PPPL) mission of doing research to develop fusion as a viable source of energy is vital to the future of the planet, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry said during an Aug. 9 visit.  

“It’s important not just to PPPL, not just to the DOE (Department of Energy) but to the world,” Perry told staff members during an all-hands meeting. “If we’re able to deliver fusion energy to the world, we’re able to change the world forever.”

Perry received a standing ovation from the audience in the Melvin B. Gottleib Auditorium following the brief speech and question-and-answer session.

Perry, the 14th U.S. Secretary of Energy, was governor of Texas from 2000 to 2015. He was twice a candidate for president. Before becoming governor, he was elected lieutenant governor in 1998 and served two terms as Texas Commissioner of Agriculture and three terms in the Texas House of Representatives. A graduate of Texas A&M University, he served in the Air Force from 1972 to 1977.

A tour of NSTX-U and Science Education Laboratory

Before the all-hands meeting, Secretary Perry toured PPPL accompanied by Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber, Princeton University Vice President for PPPL Dave McComas, and PPPL Director Steven Cowley, and Princeton Site Office Head Pete Johnson. The group first visited the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U) test cell, where they learned about PPPL’s flagship experiment. Stefan Gerhardt, head of Experimental Research Operations, told Perry that numerous scientists at other national laboratories and universities and institutions around the world collaborate on the experiment when it is operating.

The group then visited the Science Education Laboratory where they met with Science Education staff, graduate students and summer research interns. Program leader Shannon Greco told Perry about PPPL’s Young Women’s Conference for 7th -to-10th-grade girls, as well as PPPL’s high school internships, college internships through the DOE’s Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) and Community College Internship and other programs. Arturo Dominguez, Science Education Program Leader, showed Perry the Remote Glow Discharge Experiment (RGDX), which allows anyone in the world to learn about plasma through a remote access plasma experiment.

“The coolest job”

In introducing Perry to a packed crowd in the Auditorium and cafeteria, Cowley noted that Perry has called the job of being Energy Secretary “the coolest job” he’s ever had.

In his remarks, Eisgruber said PPPL’s mission intersects with the University’s mission. “Princeton University has always been a place of innovation, a place where we tackle problems in novel and innovative ways,” he said. “Cracking the code on fusion could crack the code on the energy future of the world. Princeton University is proud to be part of that endeavor.”

Perry teased Cowley about the director’s recent knighthood. Perry said that he often visits England but prefers the hot climate of Texas. He was stationed near Cambridge while in the Air Force and his father served in England as well.

Perry gave a bit of his own history. He grew up on a tenant farm 16 miles from the nearest post office and 200 miles from Fort Worth. He rarely left home until he went to Texas A&M University. After serving in the Air Force, he went on to become the governor of Texas, which he said has the 12th largest economy in the world, for 14 years. Perry said being governor was “the best job he ever had.” But being Secretary of Energy is “the coolest,” he said, because “I get to work with some of the coolest people in the world.”

A shout out to Science Education staff

Perry was particularly impressed by PPPL’s science education programs. He gave a shout out to Shannon Greco, a program leader in Science Education, and Deedee Ortiz, the program manager. “When I go back to Texas, I’m going to know there are people here that are passionate, that are potentially changing the world with what you do with that program,” Perry said.

Science education programs should not only be funded adequately but should also be better publicized so that Americans “understand how important it is for us to have this pipeline of engineers and scientists and technicians coming in.” We’re at a juncture in this world, particularly when it comes to nuclear and energy and fusion energy, when we have to make sure that we have the brain power,” he added. “That’s one of our great challenges.”  

Discussing ITER views

At the end of his remarks, Perry answered questions from PPPL staff. The first question was how he views the international ITER experiment in the south of France, which is funded by the United States and other countries. Perry said that the project was “poorly managed” and “was not well run” in the past. However, Bernard Bigot, the current director-general of the ITER Organization, “has done a very good job managing the construction of it and now they’re on track,” Perry said. He said he recently visited the site and feels “more comfortable” with the progress of the experiment. However, “That’s not to say all is well and here’s the check and fill out whatever amount you need.”

Perry was also asked his thoughts about the private efforts such as TAE Technologies (formerly Tri Alpha Energy) to develop fusion energy, and whether the DOE would expand funding for such private enterprises. Perry said that he couldn’t comment on TAE specifically but he is generally “a big believer, a big supporter of public/private partnerships.” “There are people who don’t think the government needs to do anything,” he said. “I’m not one of those. We need to be smart about it, we need to be thoughtful about it, we need to bring Steve Cowley in and have him say, “this one looks pretty good.”

Perry said that fusion energy is just one example of scientific research supported by the DOE that could change the future. “We think about fusion and clean energy and harnessing the power of the sun and the stars but all of these things come along when America really focuses on science and technology and we fund it and celebrate it,” he said. “That’s the beauty and greatness of what this is all about.”

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

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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