Michael Watkins leaves JET after 38 years

picture if Michael WatkinsOn 27th September, EFDA cordially farewelled Michael Watkins. Michael came to Culham 38 years ago, the year the JET design started, and has worked with all of the JET Directors, from Hans-Otto Wüster to the current EFDA Leader and JET Leader Francesco Romanelli. He was involved in the scientific growth of JET, first as a researcher and then as scientific assistant to JET Directors Paul-Henri Rebut, Martin Keilhacker and Jean Jacquinot. In 1999, under EFDA Associate Leader for JET Jérôme Paméla, Michael played a key role in managing the transition from the JET Joint Undertaking to JET under EFDA. He was Head of the Programme Department and Head of International Relations until becoming Senior Advisor to the EFDA Leader when EFDA was re-organised earlier this year.

Michael, what do you recall as your most exciting times at JET?

There were so many, and of different kinds. Technically, the first highlight was JET’s construction being completed on time and on budget. Then, JET operated well above its design parameters, and also with a divertor to exhaust fuel and power. Scientifically, the observation of the H-mode was a highlight: JET was still under construction when the H-mode was discovered on ASDEX and it was difficult to say whether it would be found on JET. The beryllium in-vessel components, introduced 25 years ago after controversial discussions, paved the way for the present ITER-Like-Wall of beryllium and tungsten. A major event was the use of the deuterium-tritium, or D-T, fusion reactor fuel. JET demonstrated the world’s first controlled release of D-T fusion power in 1991 and, in 1997, set two world records, producing 16 megawatts of fusion power and 22 megajoules of fusion energy. Organisationally, JET underwent a complete change from the JET Joint Undertaking to JET under EFDA. The way in which we did research had to be altered totally. Instead of having all staff on site, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, today CCFE, now operates the JET Facilities and researchers from throughout Europe come to JET to carry out experiments. Organising that was very demanding. We started developing the programme with the EFDA Associates towards the end of 1999. It was a great relief when the first JET Restart under EFDA was completed and researchers arrived for the first experiments on 31 May 2000.

You played a key role in that transition – what was your biggest challenge?

My main area was the JET experimental programme. The fact that researchers would come to JET just when they were needed for the experiments meant that we had to plan the programme in detail a long time in advance. Proposals for experiments were submitted by the EFDA Associates, rationalised against the agreed objectives and set in a logical sequence. The experimental programme had then to be staffed. Fusion researchers cover more than 60 skills and a different blend of these is needed for each experiment. We interacted closely with the Associates to identify the researchers who would come and when they could come, and match these to the experimental programme. Three years ago, we introduced general planning meetings, which made the process more collaborative and efficient. There, representatives of the Associates present their ideas for experiments and researchers, who work along similar lines, then cluster together to develop proposals.

If you look at the organisational change in hindsight, what are your conclusions?

First, I must stress the similarities between the JET Joint Undertaking and JET under EFDA. Among these are JET’s international character, its focus on the issues for the next tokamak, ITER, and its constant obligation to demonstrate its unique relevance in order to secure a programme extension. But there are differences. For example, researchers who participate in the experimental programme are on-site for only about two months per year, on average. To manage this and to retain researchers’ focus on JET when they return to their home laboratories can be a challenge. However, this is compensated by the two-fold increase in the number of researchers working on the programme and the profound knowledge which they bring from their home laboratories.

So could one say that JET comprises the best of Europe?

Yes, you could very much say that.

You said that there were also cultural highlights. Which are these?

It is the very nature of JET that people from different backgrounds work together as a single team with the same aim. It’s this approach that leads to success and this must be the case also if the world-wide fusion programme is to realise the potential of fusion. A specific cultural highlight in working together internationally was instigated by EFDA-JET 10 years ago: the International Tokamak Physics Activity (ITPA) identified the high priority research needs for ITER but there was no mechanism for consolidating wishes into commitments. As IEA Large Tokamak Implementing Agreement Chair, EFDA-JET established annual meetings in which the ITPA Chairs made clear which experiments were needed and the tokamak Programme Leaders committed to certain experiments and agreed on which would be done collaboratively. Another cultural highlight is EFDA-JET’s involvement with EIROforum, a partnership of the European International Research Organisations CERN, EFDA-JET, EMBL, ESA, ESO, ESRF, EU.XFEL and ILL. Experiences and good practices are shared, policy papers prepared, and actions undertaken to improve the research environment. Open access to facilities and results is one such practice of major importance for publicly-funded research and one that is at the very heart of EFDA.

How long do you think JET could or should contribute to fusion research?

With the recent upgrades, JET will be even closer to ITER conditions and ready to address issues that have yet to be resolved completely. We’ve seen the H-mode and improved H-mode translate to JET, but other effects do not and are unlikely to translate to ITER. In my view, JET must operate again with D-T and with ELM-control coils to capitalise on the understanding that will be gained from the ITER-Like-Wall and increased heating power. The demonstration of a fully integrated scenario at high performance and in D-T would be a major step forward, strengthening the scientific foundations of ITER. This opportunity must not be missed.

Could JET serve as a blueprint for ITER with respect to international collaboration?

Yes, I believe so. JET has always been a truly international project. At present, the 300 European researchers involved in JET experiments are complemented by more than 100 from the US, Japan, the Russian Federation, China, Korea, Brazil, India and Kazakhstan. Going forward by integrating fully the world-wide fusion community into the JET programme would bring scientific, technical, organisational and cultural benefits to the ITER Members as they prepare for ITER operation.

Michael, thank you very much for sharing with us your highly interesting insights into JET history and its possible future. We wish you all the very best for your future.