PPPL Director Stewart Prager to continue to lead the plasma physics laboratory

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Stewart Prager, who has completed his first five-year term as director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), has agreed to continue in that position. “I was originally drawn to the prospect of leading a large laboratory and a terrific staff,” Prager said, “and to helping shape the national program in fusion and plasma physics. All those reasons still stand.”

A. J. Stewart Smith, Princeton University vice-president for PPPL, hailed the expansion of Laboratory programs and collaborations under Prager and welcomed the director’s agreement to stay on. “Stewart Prager has broadened the activities of the Laboratory while guiding PPPL through extremely trying budget times,” Smith said. “With a steady hand on the tiller, he has also contributed outstanding leadership and vision to U.S. and international plasma physics.”

Prager has worked closely within the research community to help develop strategies for the U.S. fusion program. “He’s been a guiding light,” Smith said.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has recognized PPPL’s strong performance under Prager by extending the University’s current contract to manage the Laboratory to 2018, with a further extension to 2019 likely. The contract had originally been set to run from 2009 to 2014. Princeton has managed PPPL for the DOE since the Laboratory was founded in 1951.

Prager credited PPPL’s science and engineering advances over the past five years to all departments throughout the Laboratory. “The staff has produced many accomplishments,” he said, “many of which helped pave the way for the future of the Laboratory.” He cited as examples the “very significant results for the National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX),” which is currently undergoing a $94-million upgrade, “and the ultra-important authorization of the upgrade and the superb progress on its construction.”

Prager noted further advances ranging from a new partnership between the Theory Department and the NSTX research group to new programs in astrophysics and low-temperature plasmas, new collaborations with superconducting fusion facilities around the world and new links to other parts of the University in fields that include plasma astrophysics and material sciences. “Every sector of the Laboratory has contributed,” Prager said, “with key accomplishments from every department.”

Prager’s productive leadership is admired both inside and outside PPPL. “Stewart Prager has done a splendid job of guiding the Laboratory into innovative new areas of research and enhancing collaborations with the main campus,” said Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber. “Under his guidance, PPPL has made and will continue to make vital contributions to fusion energy and plasma physics research that will generate tremendous benefits to society,” Eisgruber noted.

“What comes to mind when one thinks of Stewart is his wisdom,” said Steven Cowley, chief executive officer of the UK Atomic Energy Authority and a member of the PPPL Advisory Board that meets twice a year to help guide and support the mission of the Laboratory. “He’s wise about the process of managing people, wise about the science of fusion and wise about the political implications. That’s what you need in a leader.”

Prager joined PPPL in 2009 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he had led the Madison Symmetric Torus fusion experiment and a center that studied laboratory and astrophysical plasmas. He arrived at PPPL as the head of a new management team that included Adam Cohen and Michael Zarnstorff, deputy directors for operations and research, respectively.

The team took office shortly after DOE had cancelled PPPL’s unfinished National Compact Stellarator Experiment (NCSX) — now known as QUASAR— when construction costs exceeded the initial projections for the innovative fusion facility. But DOE showed confidence in Princeton’s ability to manage PPPL by awarding the University a new five-year contract that began in April, 2009.

To replace the cancelled NCSX facility, Prager shepherded a three-year application process that won DOE-approval for the NSTX upgrade, which the Laboratory had proposed before he arrived. The upgrade began in late 2011 and will make the NSTX the most powerful fusion facility of its kind in the world when the work is completed around the end of this year.

Other projects launched during Prager’s tenure include a new facility to investigate magnetic reconnection, an explosive process that is found throughout the universe; a plasma nanotechnology laboratory, and fledgling activities in mass separation using ideas from plasma physics.

PPPL is also a key contributor to ITER, the huge international experiment that is under construction in France to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion power. The Laboratory participates in design and fabrication for ITER under contract to US ITER, a DOE Office of Science project managed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In addition, ITER-related research is a key focus of experimental and theoretical activities throughout the Laboratory.

“The past five years have been exciting and fulfilling ones for me,” Prager said. “The future looks bright, thanks to all that our staff has accomplished, and I very much look forward to the next five years.”